Friday, July 12, 2019

Back in Amsterdam

By Nada Elbohi
We have now been back in Amsterdam for more than a week. It’s funny to think about how long we’ve been back, which is about as long as our trip in Kosovo. It’s weird how time works like that. Since we’ve come back, we have all been working on our projects and preparing presentations for the class. I did my project in a group along with Carolina, Jet, and Ioana. Our project was inspired by Brandon Stanton’s ‘Humans of New York’. Unlike the original ‘Humans of New York’, our version uses Instagram as a platform, and we’re happy to see that the account has been receiving some popularity (only some, but still something). For our project, we met and talked to people both from our scheduled meetings and during our own free time. Our aim was to simply talk to them and get to know their story. We, then, took pictures of the individual and posted it on our Instagram account along with a quote from what they said, embodying their story. We didn’t have any specific demographics in mind throughout the process, but we did have a goal of meeting at least 30 people. Our goal was successfully met and even surpassed; however, not everyone was open to being photographed. Therefore, we weren’t able to post about everyone we met.
Before we began our project, we had initially prepared a list of questions to ask people from, but that went out the window the moment we arrived in Pristina! I found that pre-mediated questions interrupted the flow of conversation, making it more formal. It was much better, and people reacted more comfortably, if we organically started a conversation and adapted the discussion according to the context. To be completely honest, I am truly proud of our project and happy that I had the opportunity to engage in it and be able to meet so many people on the trip. If it weren’t for this project, I don’t think I would have met as many people as I did. Thus, for me, the actual process of the project and the act of getting to know such interesting and kind individuals was one of the best parts of the trip.
What really resonated with me during our trip, and specifically our project, was that it consistently reminded me how connected everyone in the world is. Perhaps this sounds cliché, but it best describes what I found throughout the trip and the process of ‘Humans of Kosovo’: it’s a big world, but at the end of the day, we’re all just people with our own story. In all the people I met, I kept distinguishing similarities between Kosovar and Middle Eastern culture -or Egyptian in particular. It felt a little bit like home to me, and I loved that. Now, as Anne has asked me, why did this specific aspect resonate with me so? The answer took me a while to pinpoint, but as everyone was emphasizing the privilege we have as AUC students, I realized that yes, I am privileged in a unique way. I, now, have lived in three different countries, which may not be much, but it is something. Being raised in California and then living in Egypt has given me insight into, what you could almost call, two different worlds. A Western and a Middle Eastern way of living. Therefore, this has enabled me to see things differently, better understand and discern smaller things.
All in all, Peace Lab has been an irreplaceable experience that has left me more optimistic. After meeting all the inspirational individuals that we did on the trip, it showed me how attainable my future is and has fueled my drive.

Thursday, July 11, 2019

The Kosovo Experience

By Maaike van der Kolk

Coming back to Amsterdam after our 10-day-trip in Kosovo felt pretty strange. You’ve
learned so much while being in Kosovo, but you get sucked into the Science Park bubble
right when you come back. The next day most of us went to Dormfest and when people
asked me how Kosovo was, I didn’t really know what to answer. It is impossible to give them an impression of Kosovo by merely mentioning a few things. Also, it was so easy to forget everything and to get used to your normal life again - although you might have come to appreciate it more when you were away. It was very nice to have a boat trip on Sunday with the group again, to get back into the ‘peacelab vibe’ and as a way to kind of end the trip.

Also, working on our projects was in fact very enjoyable, as it allowed us to get back into
everything and put everything we have heard into place and as a way to process things.
The project that I worked on with my group was ‘Kosovo dreams’, a book/magazine
composed of interviews we had conducted with Kosovo’s people with regards to their
dreams and their picture of the future. Before arriving in Kosovo, we had only been able to
hear about the ‘bigger stories’ of Kosovo and this would allow us to get to know better what the individuals within Kosovo actually want. Your background does shape your dreams, and this project would allow us to compare the dreams of the people of Kosovo with our own, coming from a completely different background. 

What we didn’t expect though, is that it would also be so apparent that your background not only shapes your dreams, but also your ability to dream. It was rewarding to talk to people who had a sense of hope and still dared to dream. Yet, talking to people who felt like they weren’t able to dream at all and had nothing that still gives them hope was extremely confronting.

This already shows how diverse people’s dreams and perception of their ability to dream is.
And we only interviewed 15 people. This is why having conversations is so important to
understanding the situation at least in some sense. After the first interviews you conduct, you think ‘this is the solution’. But after each interview, you hear a new problem that needs to be solved in order for people to have a feeling that they can live in peace. Although there are of course problems that form an obstacle to many people, the only thing that you can
eventually really conclude is that everything is just extremely complex. Peace means so
many different things to different people, and there just isn’t one single solution.

Those who do dare to dream often had dreams that were very ‘practical’ or ‘factual’. They
would answer in terms of the job they wanted to have or the wider problems in Kosovo that
should be fixed. In a post-conflict environment such as Kosovo where the conflict is still so
recent and fresh in people’s minds, it’s almost impossible to have dreams that are unrelated
to the future of Kosovo. I guess the more adversity you face, the more factual your dreams
are because these are just things that should be fulfilled for everyone but are not fulfilled for
you. For us, dreaming is more of a privilege, as it goes beyond those basic things, and for
the people of Kosovo, dreaming is more of a necessity. Or in other words, as one interviewee made us realize, wanting these basic things shouldn’t be called ‘dreams’; they
should fall under normal human rights.

All of this also made us reflect on what our own dreams are. Still, I wouldn’t be able to give a clear answer to this, again also because it’s not necessary to think about it. Everything is
pretty secured for me, and dreams are rather something ‘fun’ to think about; not something
that needs to be achieved on the short run. Although I still don’t have a clear answer to the
question that I, ironically, asked so many people, talking about it so much has made me
realize how privileged I am to be able to dream, and to have pretty big dreams, and knowing that I might achieve them. This is confronting but also a gift; being aware of that makes everything a lot more valuable.

Despite these confronting conversations and the conflict still being visible everywhere,
Kosovo has made me pleasantly surprised - the vibe can be extremely good as well and I’ve never been to a country where the people are so extremely welcoming and warm. For some reason, I really have the feeling that I will come back to Kosovo, something that I would have never expected before going there. Kosovo is just a place that you will not forget easily and although I don’t know for what exact reason I’ll come back, I’m pretty sure the Kosovo experience, for me, is not over yet.

Leaving it all behind

By Lou van Roozendaal

The title, as my fellow third-year Peace Lab students will understand, is twofold, as we are leaving AUC for good, just as we did Pristina (at least for now). Just a week ago we arrived back in Amsterdam. I think we all needed some time after having lived through those intense nine days, both in terms of impressions, but also in terms of social exhaustion. The Sunday on the boat in Amsterdam, a few days after arriving back home, gave us a little time to reflect, however. During the week that followed my mind was preoccupied with finishing the project. 

For our project Ruth and I made a magazine focusing on the Women of Kosovo. The aim of the magazine was to reach a big audience and thus make it both understandable, fun, interesting, informative, entertaining, and thought-provoking. We were trying for a middle ground between "Vogue" and the "New Yorker". Our main focus was solely on women because we wanted to highlight their voices. All the articles focused on something do with Kosovo’s history, present situation, and societal structure. The magazine consists of a variety of articles ranging from opinion pieces to an event page, or a book recommendation. We decided to not pay special attention to any ethnic differences between the women in Kosovo but rather to unify them under one common theme, womanhood.

This meant that when we were in Kosovo, we had to pay extra close attention at meetings with e.g. the Women’s Network and the Gender Studies Center. Throughout the meetings, we often had the chance to slip in a question about the status of women’s rights or just about their own internal gender quota. Not surprisingly, the gender quota was still far from equal and although women’s rights were of course seen as important, there was still too little done about actually delivering them. 

Throughout those nine days in Kosovo we were tired, impressed, shocked, entertained, amazed, inspired, confused, sad, and joyful. Having studied some post-conflict situations from books and articles we now finally had the opportunity to actually be in one. The nature of post-conflict situations does truly only become salient after having spent time, although limited, in an environment that still feels the results of war. 

Having said this, Kosovo holds also a lot of promise for a bright future. Pristina, with hidden coffee places all around, and so many young students roaming its streets, could soon be the place to be. Hopefully, this also means that Kosovars soon can see the ‘other places to be' around Europe, as the lack of visa liberalization is something that shocked us. The impressions left behind of Kosovo is something to reflect on in good time when the dust has settled a bit. 

On the last Thursday of June we finally presented our finished product, thus being able to share what we had been doing all this time with the rest of our Peace Lab group. Although Friday still held some presentations, the end already felt near. When the clock then finally hit 5.30 pm on Friday it was over, both AUC and Peace Lab. 

Wednesday, July 10, 2019

Kosovo and Belgium

By Noé Petitjean
Peace Lab has come to an end, it was an amazing journey full of surprises and teachings that have changed me for life. When I look in retrospective; there are several events and discussions that have changed me and made me evolve. 

One of the first big changes is that Peace Lab opened me to a different kind of complexity, or should I say different kinds of complexities. I imagined that when looking at Kosovo I wouldn’t find an environment easy to understand and easy to navigate. More precisely, it is via my various personal verbal exchanges with organizations and members of our host family, that I realized that there were numerous personal narratives of Kosovo which may or may not differ from what I had learned in class but surely provided me with a different insight compared to the one available in a history book and the media outlets. 

So, I would say that the first complexity I discovered was the complexity of personal narratives, how they contradict each other, but nevertheless contribute in establishing an authentic picture of Kosovo. 

The second complexity I faced comes up when I compare Kosovo to one of my countries (Belgium). In many ways Kosovo and Belgium are different and it might not make sense initially to put both within the same perspective. However, I believe that some of the struggles that people face in Kosovo are to a certain extent similar to a series of troubles which Belgians have to face. The most obvious one to me is the language issue. From the meetings and discussions, I participated in, in addition to the interviews I conducted in Kosovo, one theme that kept coming back was that Kosovar-Serbs and Kosovar-Albanians expressed difficulties communicating together because of the language barrier. As you look through the history of Kosovo you might realize that language has often been an issue and a key identity marker (particularly for the Albanian community). 

An example of such is how after the student protests in Pris(h)tina in 1981 the Presidency of Yugoslavia forbade the use of Albanian language at the University and in other educational institutions. Still today the two universities of Pris(h)tina (University of Prishtina and University of Prisitina temporarily settled in Kosova Mitrovica) each teach only in Albanian or only in Serbian. As such, the people I interviewed also mentioned that one way to build bridges between the different “ethnical” communities would be to learn each other’s language. 

In Belgium, it is very common for a Dutch speaker to speak French, however less common for a French speaker to speak Dutch. When in high school I was offered the choice of learning either Dutch or English. I chose English. Nowadays my Dutch is fair, which means that I cannot have a conversation with more than half of the population in their native language. Is that not bizarre? Belgium, I’d see it as a peaceful country, however a percentage of the population can’t even have a dialogue together. Are we better at peace separated, each in our linguistical region? This made me realize that on the language issue, Belgium and particularly Wallonia must learn from Kosovo. So here I find myself after Peace Lab with a personal struggle about my own country; Really not what I expected!

Moving on to petty Belgian politics, I would like to talk to you about peace-building and peace-making in Kosovo. Before going “in the field” as we say, Anne introduced us to peace-building and peace-making via a crash course. We learned and heard about beautiful concepts such as positive and negative peace, sustainable peace, peace-making, peace-building, peace-keeping, … To me it was simple; I naively thought that the parties must get in a room and discuss. That has been in my opinion what 20 years of UN presence did not achieve. 

But once there I started to realize that before anything else happens, one needs to listen to many, many different narratives of the situation. And, the more you listen the more you get lost and confused. Indeed, communication is key to moving forward but communication is only what I could see. Behind there is history, perspectives (radical and moderate), daily struggles, misunderstandings, manipulation of information, insecurity (physical, social, economic, …) and trust. 

I understood that individual narratives were sentimentally rooted and that the scars of the conflict were passed on from one generation to another. The healing process seemed far down the road. But don’t let this last observation dampen your mood about Kosovo. It is a lovely place with lovely people. I observed that as with my 4 of my classmates I worked on a project aiming to collect Kosovo’s dreams. We would interview people and ask them about their daily struggles but also about their ideal futures and how (via which specific actions) shall this future happen. Indeed, the narratives and answers we collected were contradictory but nevertheless they all shared a common goal and hope for stability, predictability. 

The new generation whether Albanian-Kosovar or Serb-Kosovar doesn’t live for conflict but for opportunities, traveling and a better future. With this common goal in mind it seemed to me that the Kosovo of today has politics clocked in the past and a youth that wishes to move on and if given the means, is ready to rock the outdated status-quo.

Kindness of strangers

By Jet de Vries

"Finally summer!” All my friends, classmates, and pretty much everyone around me is exhaling all the accumulated stress of the intense university year. Even though I can exhale the course stress, on the first of July another kind of stress took hold of me “AUCSA stress”, my board and I are now officially in office and the responsibilities and emails are flooding in. Even though this board year starts now, I have indeed finished my second academic year and it feels pretty surreal. But, what is even more surreal is the intensive month-long course that has just finished. 

Kosovo and its people have made a lasting impact on me, I learned that it takes very little to be kind to strangers, to show genuine interest, and that people that you meet and their stories are important to hear and tell. What I loved about Peace lab is that we had the opportunity to talk to and meet so many different people, this was very helpful for our project: “Humans of Kosovo”. Inspired by Brandon Stanton’s Humans of New York, we seek to tell the story of the diversity of people in Kosovo and build peace through understanding different perspectives. 

The project was challenging as it is incredibly hard to ask deep and personal questions in a limited amount of time and not to overwhelm the person you are talking to. What was extremely helpful was that we learned to ask questions in a way that was less intimidating or attacking. Starting your question by introducing yourself, and then asking it in a way that you “want to understand how/why...” or you “were wondering if…” It creates the open space and the necessary mutual respect that is needed to ask big questions. 

Looking back on Kosovo it was the perfect experience to start off my capstone year, I saw how theory is applied to reality, what difficulties people are really facing and in what ways research can benefit a post-conflict country. I was inspired by the amount of people putting their hearts into their work, and working towards a better tomorrow, towards peace and towards Europe. I was amazed by the Kosovars who even when they couldn’t travel to our countries, welcomed us with open hearts and open arms. 

I am so grateful to Anne for organizing this trip every year again, to all of the students that came here and asked the right questions, and to Erik, Enver, and Bardha ensuring our safety and comfort during these 10 days. It has been the experience of a lifetime and I will never forget the lessons that I learned here.

Tuesday, July 9, 2019

Different voices

By Libe Baum

As Peace Lab is ending, so is my time at AUC, and I could not have asked for a better ending of my bachelor than taking this course. Peace lab has taught me so much, and in a way it felt as if everything I have learned over the last three years has come full circle, as we put all of our theoretical knowledge into practice in Kosovo. 

For our final project, in which we researched the perception of international presence in Kosovo, we came into contact with different stories, different perspectives and different voices waiting to be heard. Peace Lab showed me that knowledge gained during your years at university goes beyond just the theoretical knowledge, and the things you learn in a classroom. 

It is the things underneath that you might not notice at first, which demonstrate the value of everything I have done for the last three years. Kosovo will be an experience that I will take with me whereever I go, both on a personal and an academic level, and I believe that is where this course finds its strength. The encounters we have had during the trip gave a face to the things we had previously learned about post-conflict areas, but had not experienced yet ourselves. 

It was inspiring to see the effect this had on every single person in the group, and how we connected with the people we met, but also with each other. The biggest impact on me were the amazing acts of generosity and the kindness of the people living in Kosovo. Never before have I felt more welcomed by strangers. As I aim to pursue a career focusing on peace and conflict, this was inspiring to witness. I am so grateful for the opportunities that we had during our time in Kosovo. Being able to meet some of the biggest international organiaations out there, some of which I hope to work for some day, was truly a privilege. 

All in all, looking back at this past month I have regained motivation for the future. Not trying to sound too cliché, but I am starting a new chapter next year, in which the future is still very uncertain. And although this is something that I am not always comfortable with, the practical experience that I have gained from Peace Lab, and the important values that I was reminded of by the people we met has provided me with a feeling that I am on the right track, even if that track does not have a clear direction just yet. 

The "Beginner's Guide"

By Viktoria Kaffanke

Longer than a week back and I have still not had enough time to reflect and take in all the new experiences made in Kosovo!

Kosovo was a time filled with many interesting encounters which had the effect that even though we gained more information and insights into the situation in Kosovo, paradoxically all of it seemed more complex. 

Together with Anette I worked on a project to understand the situation of the LGBT+ community in Kosovo more. Our project was to create a sort of ‘Beginner’s guide’ to queer Kosovo. It consists of blog posts on various topics: the differences between the constitution and family in regards to marriage, the annual report of 2017 of the Ombudsman institute, pink washing in Kosovar politics, introduction to non-governmental organisations in Kosovo who work on LGBT+ rights, introduction to the nightlife in Pristina, summaries and commentaries on one movie and one documentary that depict some of the issues the LGBT+ community faces in Kosovo, and a selection of quotes from interviews we had with individuals all around the country. 

Even though we spent 10 days learning more about the situation, I cannot say that I am an expert in queer life in Kosovo. The project had the main goal to start understanding what life is like in Kosovo and the articles should not at all be seen as having complete authority. We were there for only 10 days, not more and not less and thus, if you are particularly interested in the topic, I suggest getting in contact with some NGOs in Kosovo that work on LGBT+ rights. That being said Anette and I decided not to publish our blog posts as LGBT+ rights are still a very sensitive topic in Kosovo and thus, we do not know the consequences our articles would have. 

But I can share what my main impression of the situation is: there does not seem a lot of attention paid to the LGBT+ community and its rights. Some people are strongly against the LGBT+s while others say their friends are out of the closet and have no problem. Most NGOs and IOs (international organisations) tend to focus on other human rights, for example right to education and women’s rights. Many, when asked about the situation for the LGBT+ community in Kosovo, point to the Pride Parade, without mentioning the catalyst for action towards more rights it is meant to spark. Even though it did not seem a big discussion point in Kosovar society, we got such a diversity of opinions and statements that any conclusion or main impression is necessarily generalized to cut through the complexity in a way.

In light of the project, I learnt that the laws of a country do not necessarily reflect the situation and that the implementation is equally important to having progressive laws. For example, in the case of Kosovo, the analysis of the Ombudsman on legislation regarding issues that the LGBT+ often faces, e.g. marriage, hate crime etc., is in accordance with the European Court of Human Rights and progressive, but the implementation of these laws is not ideal. For example, the police report might not take into account that a violent attack was due to sexual harassment and thus, it is ‘merely’ classed as a violent attack and not a hate crime on the ground of sexual orientation. This is one of the main things I learned during my time in Kosovo.

This entire trip and particularly this project changed how I look at countries and what I think about when I consider them. During the trip, we talked extensively of the role and position of minorities in Kosovo. And I find this is something super interesting and I would like to learn more about how the situation for minorities is in the Netherlands or Germany. Obviously growing up in Germany, I do know something about minorities in Germany, but it seems very superficial and in need for deepening.

With this in mind, I wish you all the best reading all the other posts and that you have a great summer.

Best wishes,