Monday, June 22, 2015

5 ways of how 'crossing bridges' transforms you. (Part 2 to my earlier post)

(By Michael Vermeer)

Thinking about how Peace Lab transformed us I came up with the following points. It’s not a comprehensive overview, rather a list of points I came up with while pondering this question in the plane back to Amsterdam. (So Peacelabbers, please feel free to add any point I have missed in the comments section). Here we go:

1. The course focuses more on practise than theory of peace building. In a classroom environment one can learn a lot about human rights and peace building but these concepts do not come alive until one experiences them in the field. Academic papers can give good insights into schematic overviews of the peace building process but only this trip enabled us to question practitioners in the field how useful these frameworks were and what limitations they run into when practising peace building.

2. The course was very immersive instead of detached. In a classroom environment presentations and discussions often remain detached or abstract. Emotions rarely come to play in them. This trip allowed us to experience Kosovo’s culture and dilemmas with all our senses. When we visited Serb students at the University of Pristina in Mitrovica the different realities and beliefs separating us and them not only showed us ‘just another perspective’, it affected many of us emotionally and thus made us think about the situation much more engagingly. The tour of ‘The Ideas Partnership’ at the Roma settlement in Vushë Kosova inspired us through the efforts of volunteers trying to improve the situations of children growing up in poverty. This visit affected many of us emotionally and showed the importance of social justice in a way that a classroom lecture would have never been able to achieve. 

3. Although the trip was immersive and at times emotional we still managed to be critical of ourselves and the organisations we met. Through all the different perspectives we encountered we were able to form our own informed views on many topics. When we had interviewed more people we were able to refine our questions. Often these questions would pick up a subject from the last meeting. The many angles that we received thus helped us in developing critical thought in the field.

4. We acquired knowledge both through formal and informal situations. The meetings and schedule provided a great range of formal settings in which we could learn from inspiring actors in the field. But just as in usual AUC classes these meetings were not the only placed where we learn. At AUC students learn a lot from each other by living all together in the dorms. This is a crucial component of our student experience. During the trip to Kosovo the time we had to socialise with students from the university in Pristina and the people working for the LGBT organisation Qesh gave us so many insights. It was really fun to experience the city from their point of view and we shared so many common interests, from music to art. After hanging out and going out with them the life of people like us in Kosovo became so much more real. Only then did I start to understand the enormous impact that for instance visa liberalisation would have on their lives. If the course had just stayed classroom based or if we had only talked to actors in the field of peace building, this would have just stayed abstract.

5. Finally the trip was extremely intensive. We visited so many institutions and organisations that we had an information overload. In ten days we got to experience Kosovo in such a rich and engaging way. What might have otherwise taken people months, we learnt in such a small period of time. Even after half a week of being back in Amsterdam I am still processing all my thoughts and impressions; I am even still dreaming about Kosovo. This last point might be the most important of all, since it ensures that even after one is done with the course content, it still reverberates in the minds and hearts of the students who took the trip.

So to conclude my thoughts, I am convinced that this course offered me and the other AUC students a unique, intensive, practical and critical experience which no other course in AUC’s curriculum could have offered us. It has truly changed us. In the conversations I am having with friends now I am back home I am having difficulties describing to them this trip and what I have learnt. They might ask me how the weather was in Kosovo, and to no-body’s surprise it was of course better than here in Amsterdam. Yet when I talk of Kosovo I also let no opportunity pass to tel everybody of the extremely unjust visa-situation of Kosovo’s citizens. Through hearing students’ personal stories I have become a real fan of EU enlargement for the Balkans. While I always took a bit of a critical distance to Human Rights the incredibly brave work people at Qesh are doing in furthering rights for Lesbians, Gays and Transgender people in Kosovo has made me re-appreciate Human Rights. While their battles have been fought and won in the Netherlands we should not become complacent at defending them since they are not a given for everybody around the world. 

Finally, the trip has also turned me into an ambassador of Kosovo’s people in general, as I try to change my friends’ minds about the country by not only explaining its history (literally nobody here understands Balkan history!) and the war but also about all the positive stories we have heard and projects (especially Community Building Mitrovica!) we have visited. It will take months for me to realise how much I have taken with me from this trip and I think for all others it will be no different. In the end I hope that all the anger, happiness and inspiration we have taken with us from Kosovo and stored in our memories will some day reemerge in which ever position we will work. Whether that may be in academia, in a community project or in a business, in politics or diplomacy all these perspectives from ‘the street’ to right up to the highest echelons of Kosovo’s International Organisation apparatus will hopefully encourage us to keep taking account of as many perspectives as possible.

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