Can you build a country without it?
Hope and optimism are two things that I had never paid much thought to in my life. I mean I would consider myself a pretty hopeful or optimistic person. I'm always optimistic about what my future will hold, I shoot for the moon with the hopes that I can achieve bigger and bigger goals, and I have hope for all the people in my life that they found rewarding and happy lives doing what they love. But despite that, it's not something that I ever consciously really thought about. I just (naively) assumed most people were hopeful and optimistic about their futures, in both big and small ways.
However, in Bosnia hope has been something that Addie and I have talked about a lot and it has led me to do some thinking. Like everything else in Bosnia, hope is a complicated thing. There's no clear answer (which is cool with me otherwise there would be nothing to reflect on and it would be boring, plus I'd have nothing to blog about). Everyone's different, everyone has a different experience and they're all at different places. But some trends kind of seem to emerge when you talk with people about it.
One kind of theme that has emerged from my talks with people is that there is a lack of hope or optimism in Bosnia. Which I guess should not be that surprising. If you had watched your entire country descend into chaos and bloodshed only 20 years ago, it's probably hard to be too hopeful for your future or optimistic about where your country is headed. But it’s not necessarily the lack of hope that makes it resonate with me, it's how it's personified and who expresses it.
It first kind of came up on my radar our third weekend in Bosnia. We (Addie, Laura, and I) had gone to Mostar for the weekend. There we met some of Hannah, Yao, and Chendan's local friends. Over the weekend, Addie asked one of them what he wanted to do (background: he is 19, graduated from the local high school, works at a local bakery as part time job, and volunteers at the Eco Center where Yao and Chendan intern) with his life. He looked at her like she was insane for asking such a thing (and no it was not due to language difficulties, he spoke excellent English). It was simply a question that youth rarely get asked. Unlike in the US where we grow up hearing the question ˝what do you want to be when you grow up˝ from kindergarten onward, Bosnian youth that I've talked with (disclaimer: ˝youth˝ in Bosnia is not what we would think of, it's young people usually like 18 to mid to late 20's) didn't grow up in the same environment. Many were born just before or during the war and grew up in an environment that I can only begin to imagine. Life revolved around simply staying alive, not asking little kids about their dreams of being dancers or firefighters.
This mentality did not seem to fade with time. A vast number of youth here never seem to have been encouraged to dream big or create vast hopes for their futures. It's not a question or idea that was rasied. And if never asked, how can one expect to come up with an answer?
This lack of hope and optimism also struck me during a conversation with one of my co-workers. During the height of the JMBG protests (talked about in earlier blog post) and the media frenzy surrounding it, I asked her if she thought the protest would lead to any lasting change in Bosnia (side note: I had gone to the protests twice with her, she was very involved with it, she is also extremely well educated and has spent time abroad). I expected her response to be optimistic and excited about the potential. Instead, she bluntly told me ˝No, I don't think it will change anything.˝ She proceeded to tell me that things in Bosnia will not change until the country again descends into war and the city ˝turns to hell˝ as people simply try to survive. Needless to say, not the most uplifting of conversations about Bosnia's future. When I pressed her as to why though, she had valid arguments. She argued that nothing can change within the current political structure because no one with true power or aspirations can join the protests. Under the current system, one of the only ways to get a job is to have someone you know with power (aka those for whom the current political situation is working). As such people are still too scared to truly challenge their government and push for lasting changes because the risks to their futures remains too high. Mind you , this is all coming from a young women who is working for an NGO focused on bringing a better future to Bosnia and she herself does hold out hope that things will improve. But despite that, pessimism still remains in her outlook.
Those two snapshots of conversations give you just a slight glimpse into the lack of hope and optimism that many youth within Bosnia grow up with and prescribe to. Yet it's not the only side. After all, I came to Bosnia to work for an NGO focused on giving this country, youth specifically, a brighter future. It doesn't really add up that an NGO like that would exist in a country where there was no hope.
And from what I have seen, there is an incredible amount of hope in this country. It's not naive hope, the individuals I've talked with understand that Bosnia has a whole lot of issues that they're going to need to work through, everything from the education system and the economy to how the constitution is written and structure of the country itself (I mean nothing too monumental, give the interns like four days and we can get it all sorted out, ha). But despite these challenges, they see potential.
During my time here I've gotten to meet a variety of youth that come to KULT for training programs as part of the project I am working on called Youth Decide on Democracy!. The youth I’ve met are amazingly passionate and inspiring individuals. They believe in the future of their country, are working to improve their local communities, and strive to give the youth of Bosnia a voice. People don’t work that hard for something if they have no hope for achieving it.
I’ve also gotten to work on midterm reports and final assessments at KULT that evaluated past projects youth have completed through the Institute’s support. Projects that include things like improving sexual education students receive, bringing together youth from various ethnic backgrounds, cleaning up local public spaces, and teaching younger peers about the importance of political engagement. These are truly impressive feats that youth are able to accomplish despite all of the obstacles standing in their way and I applaud them.
So the future of Bosnia and Herzegovina is murky at best. But despite the struggles it faces, and the lack of optimism amongst many, there are bright spots. People that believe in the country, believe that it can be made better, and believe that despite how awful the past has been that there is hope for moving forward. Through their efforts, things will change and for the better.
And maybe I’m betting on the long shot, but I have hope for this place too