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Day Five: Loss, Remembrance, and Healing – Skopje Holocaust Memorial

Perhaps the most emotionally charged day of “Bridging Backgrounds” was the fifth day when the participants had a guided tour of the Holocaust Memorial Center for the Jews of Macedonia. The building’s gray concrete and glass architecture resembled the only three other such centers in the world in Berlin, Jerusalem, and Washington D.C. The exterior and interior of this building are beyond unique: the emotions they cause are many and demand to be felt.

The first exhibit that the participants were faced with was the permanent one. It is an elaborate structure of thousands of hands holding up displayed framed images of the Macedonian Jews lost to the Third Reich. But some frames don’t hold photographs for there weren’t any available for those victims. Instead, the hands hold framed mirrors, reflecting the past back to the visitors of this museum. “What if they came after me?”, “Would I have tried to save them?” and “Is there a chance for this to happen again?” are just some of the questions these mirrors elicit.

The tour guide explained that the 7144 Jews that were taken from Macedonia to the Treblinka extermination camp constituted 98% of the Macedonian Jewish population. Only 2% managed to escape to Albania or to join the Partisans in the resistance. On March 11, 1943, officers from the Bulgarian Occupation of Macedonia arrested 7144 Jews and took them to the Tobacco factory “Monopol” in Skopje where they were kept in horrific conditions with little food and water. After only three weeks, they were all sent to the Treblinka extermination camp.

Bridging Backgrounds participants tour the Holocaust Memorial Center for the Jews of Macedonia and see a cattle car used to transport Macedonian Jews to Treblinka extermination camp.

None of the 7144 came back from Treblinka.

Next, the tour guide showed us a room with an authentic cattle cart that was used to deport Jews. Sixty to eighty people of all ages were carried in these types of vehicles. Some even died on the carts. The reality of this item was extremely haunting.

“None of them survived,” the tour guide kept repeating.

Before playing a documentary for the “Bridging Backgrounds” participants, the tour guide mentioned that Macedonian students of different ages come to the Memorial Center to watch films, do research, write essays, make documentaries and the youngest even do drawings. In fact, there was a temporary exhibition of these drawings. It turns out that middle schoolers could create skilled art, such as paintings of the concentration camps, Jewish symbols, and depictions of emotion through human figures that captured a certain reality of the Holocaust.

The documentary that was shown was well-directed and allowed the participants to better visualize the timeline of the events that occurred. Probably the most fascinating and daunting information revealed in the film was that the Bulgarian occupiers required the names, photographs, and addresses of all of the Jews that they arrested. This is the reason why the Memorial Center was able to build their main exhibit, using the photographs gathered from the oppressors of the Macedonian Jews.

After learning about Jewish cultural traditions, the tour ended with yet another short documentary called “The Years Make their Own”, a film about two Macedonian Jews – Beno and Roza – who had different experiences during the war. They both joined the Partisan forces and were active in military actions. The two also ended up marrying and having children. It was certainly a great way to end the tour. The documentary was utterly humanizing, showing two Jewish individuals as more than a statistic, but rather complex human beings with loved ones, careers, and battle experiences.

Perhaps the tour really ended with the participants having to once again look in the chandelier at the middle of the building that transcended all three floors. It was made out of 7144 glass beads, one for each Macedonian Jew lost in the Holocaust. The word “Remember” is written over the beads in Macedonian, Albanian and English. Certainly, this wouldn’t be an experience that the “Bridging Backgrounds” participants would forget anytime soon.

“None of them survived,” the beads urged anyone who saw them to not forget this painful truth.

Participants engage in “Memory Tags,” a human rights education activity about loss and remembrance.

Back at FON University, the participants were asked to reflect on the field trip through an exercise called “Memory Tags”. Facilitated by Brendan, the participants were asked to make individual tags about their feelings that they would stick on a joint poster where the negative feelings would be placed on the right and the positive feelings on the left. The participants were also encouraged to use different letter sizes for the intensity of their feelings as well as to on varying degrees of left and right. After making the “cloud” of feelings where emotions such as “empathy” found themselves on the positive side, while “defeat” and “uncomfortable” found themselves on the negative side, the participants were asked to think about how they felt in relation to how they believed they should feel and later discuss this in five smaller groups.

Following these discussions, all twenty-six participants had a joint discussion, coming to various conclusions. For example, one group talked about the importance of monuments of remembrance, while another was more interested in discussing what an “average” person would feel at such monuments. A third group talked about how they felt terrified at what humanity is capable of, while also feeling proud of the Macedonians that put their lives on the line to help some of the Jews avoid the Treblinka death camp. The same group also felt that the Memorial Center let them truly picture the Holocaust as a collection of individual stories, such as the one of Beno, and Roza.

Ultimately, what was discussed was how to prevent this from ever happening again. One participant noted that she wasn’t taught enough in her school curriculum about the Holocaust, let alone other genocides. She emphasized that, sadly, the Holocaust was not the last genocide to happen on Earth. She mentioned Rwanda and Srebrenica as examples that she had to learn about on her own – indeed few of the participants were informed about these historic catastrophes.

“None of them survived,” the tour guide’s words echoed as Brendan and the participants tried to grapple with one of humanity’s most shameful legacies.

Many of the participants called for better education on subjects of history, interethnic understanding, and human rights to prevent further atrocities. In a sense, they were calling for more programs like “Bridging Backgrounds” and organizing team gave them exactly what they were looking for. Brendan offered historical background on the Holocaust. He also asked the participants to think about the first steps governments and oppressive regimes take to arrive at ethnic cleansing and genocide, such as the creation of in and out groups.

“Think about how we value human lives. Think about why terrorist attacks in Western Europe receive significant media coverage, while humanitarian catastrophe in Yemen receives almost no media attention,” Brendan asked the participants to critically evaluate which groups are given more humanity. “Atrocities do not start with concentration camps; they start with discrimination, human rights violations, and apathy.”

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Day Four: Activist Talks

The fourth day of Bridging Backgrounds was filled with human rights education activities, community activism training, and the activist talks session. During the activist talks, the participants had the pleasure of listening to talks of and posing questions to three activists who spoke about their different experiences in their respective fields. The first activist who spoke was Teodora Stolevska, a debate coordinator of the Youth Educational Forum. Teodora took a relaxed and informal approach to her talk, which began with her sitting on the floor with her legs crossed. Teodora admitted that, in the past, she did not believe that activism could make a difference and instead focused on activities such as competitive debating which would benefit herself. However, with her involvement in the Student Plenum, her opinion changed when in June of 2016, the student elections turned violent.

Teodora Stolevska, a Debate Coordinator at the Youth Educational Forum, delivers a talk on community activism.

It was this injustice that carried a political connotation that made Teodora passionate about fighting for student rights and against institutional oppression. “There are two types of community activism that you can engage in. The first type is that you can volunteer for an organization and see the fruits of your labor quite soon, such as a concert being organized or a house being built. The second type is the harder one and it involves committing to creating long term effects. In other words, it involves institutionalization,” Teodora proclaimed to the participants. This categorization prompted the participants to discuss their Bridging Backgrounds community-based project ideas with Teodora on the spot and get advice from someone who has had very concrete organizational experience. Teodora offered her help to the participants who were interested in forming student parliament organizations. To the students who did not have fully formed ideas about their projects yet, Teodora said: “If you can’t find a passion, help other people’s passions.” Finally, Teodora shared experiences about building a house for a Roma family, the way she had used Facebook advertisements, and said encouraging words to the people who had interests outside of the community activism mainstream: “If people aren’t interested in your projects right away, use comedy. It’s likely that you’ll get their attention.”

The next activist, Deb Wakefield, a United States Peace Corps volunteer, explained her experience with activism. After briefly mentioning the history of the Peace Corps as an organization, she explained that most often Peace Corps volunteers work as English teachers or NGO workers. Peace Corps volunteers only come to countries they are asked to come to; thus, they do not show up uninvited. Peace Corps classifies their work is “apolitical” since they are not proponents of any one political party, but rather they only serve as agents that promote democracy, human rights, and education. Deb said that the goals of Peace Corp are helping people with training and skills and the betterment of understanding of US values and the values of the country that they work in. In accordance with her organization’s values, Deb currently lives with a host family in Sv. Nikole where she conducts community work with a local NGO that focuses on women’s issues.

Deb Wakefield, a U.S. Peace Corps volunteer in Macedonia, mentors participants through simulated community activism challenges during her talk.

Deb facilitated an interactive exercise with the participants which called for group work. Deb separated the twenty-six high school students into groups and gave them scenarios of hypothetical and real community problems that need solving. The participants were instructed to name the obstacles that they would come across, as well as come up with solutions to their given problems. Considering the fact that the participants had been taking part in similar interactive, problem-solving activities in the days prior to Deb’s talk, they had no issues with this exercise and were quite successful at it. At the end of her talk, Deb left them with this final note: “Your greatest resource, not to sound really cheesy, is other people.”

Lastly, Sunai Sabrioski, a reporter for News Twenty-Four, delivered a provocative talk that critically engaged the participants. He proclaimed that the media is the biggest stakeholder for human rights in the sense that it is the role of the media to keep governments accountable. Unlike the other two activists, Sunai did not spend much time talking about his experience. Rather, he asked the participants what ethnicity they thought he belonged to. It took participants a long time to guess his ethnicity, finally concluding that he is a part of the Roma community. This instance could indicate a number of things, including the participants’ preconceived notions about how a Roma person should look like and the participants’ lack of exposure to the Roma people. Sunai seemed to ask the question in order to make the participants uncomfortable. Sunai then asked the participants what discrimination meant to them. Participants answered in various ways, including defining it as “limiting a person’s ability to achieve their full potential”, and naming segregation, legally or as a result of history and economics, as a part of discrimination.

Sunai Sabrioski, a journalist for News Twenty-Four, questions a Bridging Backgrounds Participant on their views.

The participants reached a consensus that minorities experience discrimination in Macedonia. However, Sunai challenged this notion by saying that he experienced positive discrimination because he is often the only Roma person in the room. Playing the devil’s advocate, he asked whether them being treated better by certain institutions is fair. Nevertheless, participants felt that this type of positive discrimination, as well as affirmative action policies, were justified because of historic discrimination against minorities. Eventually, this talk of discrimination felt all too real for an Albanian participant. While discrimination is generally not a part of the ethnic-Macedonian participants’ lives, ethnicity-based discrimination is a reality for the ethnic minority participants, as opposed to an intellectual exercise. A few participants shared personal experiences when they had been called slurs and when people knew had told them not to go to an ethnic-Macedonian high school. Their emotional reaction, in a sense, captured what none of the activities could fully express: the jarring reality and effects of ethnic discrimination on real people.

Sunai’s talk culminated with participants sharing their experiences attending one of the few inter-ethnic schools in the country. They spoke about how they have friends of different ethnicities and how they all joke about the ridiculousness of stereotypes. Participants also felt that the older generations’ prejudices are hard, if not impossible, to change. However, one participant asserted that “Education is key” in the building of inter-ethnic understanding and coexistence in Macedonia, which came back to the importance of Bridging Backgrounds as a conference. It seemed that Sunai’s provocative style made the participants more aware of why they were at Bridging Backgrounds: to learn about ways in which they can build more tolerant communities through education and activism.

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Days Two and Three: Theory before Practice – Human Rights Education Activities and Community Activism Training

On the morning of Thursday, June 29, Building Bridges participants started engaging in discussions of identity, human needs, and corresponding rights. Activities and workshops were successfully facilitated by Bridging Backgrounds Program Director Brendan Schultz, Coordinator Hristijan Zafirovski, and volunteer Elena Gagovska. The first activity “Who are I”, led by Brendan, asked participants to write down characteristics that define them such as class and temperament. The activity drew attention to the distinctions between external factors which individuals have no control over that influence their perception of themselves and their presentation to the world, such as ethnicity, and factors that individuals have a degree of control over, such as their work ethic and personal interests.

Bridging Backgrounds participants participate in a hands-on human rights education activity.

Other activities, however, took on a different, in a sense, more collective approach. Led by Elena, “Needs and Rights” was an activity that tied universal human needs to human rights, specifically social rights. Participants were asked to think about which needs — including basic, safety and family needs — were most important and the relevance of each human need has with various human rights. Almost unanimously, the participants felt that basic needs, such as food, water, and shelter were most important, and, thus, the rights to life, healthcare and social security held priority. At the end of the exercise, Elena explained American humanist psychologist Abraham Maslow’s Pyramid of Needs in which basic needs find themselves on the bottom, followed by safety, social relations, and esteem, ending with self-actualization. “You came to these conclusions on your own, which proves the intuitiveness of Maslow’s theory and its applicability to our understanding of social rights,” Elena said to the participants, pleased that the activity proved to be successful.

Moreover, “Where Do You Stand?”, facilitated by Elena and Hristijan, seemed to serve as an extension of “Needs and Rights”, urging participants to assess which human rights were the most important in their view. After being taught the distinction between political and civil rights and social and economic rights, the participants were given different statements that they could agree, disagree or be undecided/neutral about. For example, statements such as “The right to ‘rest and leisure’ is a luxury that only rich people can afford” or “Extreme social inequality is an infringement of basic rights” did not have a clear group majority and prompted heated debates. However, most of the group agreed with the statement “It’s more important to have a home, food and basic necessities than to be able to say what you like”, indicating that they valued the (economic) right to an adequate living standard more than the (political) right of freedom of speech.  

Furthermore, “Fighters for Rights” was a particularly important activity which gave historical context to how some rights were won and how activism looks like outside of the realm of already established documents. Facilitated by Brendan and Elena, the participants compiled the biographies of six activists: Nelson Mandela, Evgenia Ginsberg, Martin Luther King Jr., Mahatma Gandhi, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and Ngawang Sangdrol. Discussion arose of some of the techniques used by these activists, such as protests, peaceful demonstrations, and boycotts, as well as the role of oppressive political regimes and colonialism in the catalyzation of mass movements. All six of the activists that they learned about opposed oppressive policies and spent time in jail. However, their actions led to greater human rights gains. Perhaps the most important lesson that the participants would take away from this activity was that often activism means dissidence and personal sacrifice.

Bridging Backgrounds participants develop a hypothetical group project during a community activism training session.

As opposed to the much more interactive workshops facilitated by Brendan, Hristijan, and Elena, Martin Miloshevski, a staff member of the National Youth Council of Macedonia, led Community Activism Training sessions that focused on concrete strategies for successful project developments. As the participants were expected to come up with community activism project ideas for which they are to receive funding, these types of workshops were essential for the realization of their visions. Martin explained the differences between small groups, forums, and public meetings, as well as the advantages and disadvantages for each. For example, forums are a great way for engaging people from different backgrounds; however, this could also mean that unwelcome and unuseful opinions could also get a platform. Additionally, Martin gave advice on how to conduct questionnaires and social media PR, providing very important tips on how to collect necessary data, as well as how to do outreach.

Community Activism Trainer Martin Miloshevski and Program Coordinator Hristijan Zafirovski present during a community activism training session.

Bridging Backgrounds is a wonderful opportunity for the young people of Macedonia. I had an outstanding opportunity to share my experience and work with a wonderful group of young people highly motivated and determined to become active citizens. I will closely follow the work of these young people and I am looking forward to contributing to the upcoming editions of the program,” Martin enthusiastically stated after the program’s end.

An important lesson that Martin delivered was about finding common ground between different interested parties. For example, if a conference is held about youth leaving Macedonia at a staggering rate, the organizers of that conference should keep the interested parties of that issue in mind. Politicians would want more youth to stay so that the country could prosper, the business owners would not want potential workers to leave, young people would not want to only see their friends once a year when they visit for the holidays. Bridging Backgrounds as a conference, in a sense, follows this model by bringing interested parties to the same place. The Davis foundation’s interests are to support motivated youth, the organizers’ interests are teaching youth and providing the kind of education that was not available to them, the participants’ interest is to learn about human rights and to make connections with people who can help them in their goals to better their communities. Indeed, Bridging Backgrounds is a learning experience and a dynamic event for all involved.

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Day One: Backgrounds Begin to Bridge

Having to deal with unbelievably hot weather, in addition to having to travel to get Skopje’s FON University, high school participants from all over Macedonia found their way to the “Bridging Backgrounds” conference on Wednesday, June 28, 2017. Funded by a grant from Davis Projects for Peace, “Bridging Backgrounds” is youth program exploring topics of inter-ethnic understanding, tolerance, and human rights. With a program compiled by Pitzer College student and Davis Grant recipient Brendan Schultz, the first day of proved to be true to the conference’s goals and worth all the work that the organizing team has put in to make this conference a possibility.

As the participants entered FON’s window-covered building, they escaped the heat and began the process of making connections with their peers in a bearable, air-conditioned environment. They had about fifteen minutes to unpack, unwind, and get to know their roommates for the next week before they were off to their first official activity: the ice-breakers. Led by Bard College Berlin student and volunteer Elena Gagovska, they, as all icebreakers, had a quiet start. People were still shy, and, it was not surprising that it took a little while for interactions to start feeling more organic. By the third activity, Two Truths and a Lie, Elena revealed that at the age of twenty, she can embarrassingly not ride a bike, while two participants disclosed their dislike of movies and had this preference jokingly questioned by the rest of the group. Furthermore, due to bus delays, only about a dozen of the participants could attend the larger part of the introductions. This number, however, made it the perfect setting to play the game Mafia – a suggestion which was made by one of the participants, making this a student-centered experience from the get-go. The informality of this game allowed the participants to start forming more natural relationships with each other.

Once everyone arrived, one final icebreaker was led by Brendan in which the participants stood in a circle and stated their name, where they are from, favorite place, hobby and interesting fact about themselves. People’s interests were as diverse as their geographical backgrounds: some were into sports, others into writing, a few into history with their favorite places ranging from Ohrid to Italy to a staggering number of people naming US cities they had never traveled to such as New York and Los Angeles.

After dinner and a small break, Law Student and assistant coordinator Hristijan Zafirovski conducted the first part of the opening ceremony by giving a personalized speech. Hristian spoke about he felt that the presence of ethnic tensions, as well as troubling events in Macedonia, catalyzed his desire to do something about these issues in his country. He was truly struck with the severity of the problem when he witnessed a fight with an ethnic basis for the dispute between Macedonians and Albanians in his hometown of Ohrid. So together with his friend and fellow Model European Parliament (MEP) peer Brendan, Hristijan helped bring “Building Bridges” into reality. After this speech, Brendan took the floor and talked about how his YES abroad exchange-year experience in Macedonia induced him to find a way to come back to the country that changed his life for the better. Only after the 2016 US Presidential Election – an outcome that brought some of America’s problems to the surface – did Brendan began to think about organizing a conference about inter-ethnic relations in a country that he holds dear to his heart. “We were looking for people who were already accepting of human rights,” said Brendan, pointing to the fact that this was not a conference that was to convince young people of the humanity of certain ethnic or religious groups. Rather this is a conference that will teach people concrete skills that will aid them in helping their communities in tangible ways through projects that they will devise themselves. “This project will end up affecting 500 people,” said Brendan, stating that the conference’s true impact will, indeed, be outside of the classroom.

Bridging Backgrounds participant Zerina Nushevich explains her opinion to other participants during a human rights education activity.

However, this first day was wrapped up in a classroom space with a human rights education activity, Electioneering – an exercise that brought forth fruitful discussion. Facilitated by Brendan and Elena, the activity involved two signs being placed on opposite ends of the classroom, one reading “Agree” and the other “Disagree”. The facilitators would give a statement with which the participants had to agree, disagree or be a different level of neutral about. The idea was that the participants had to physically place themselves on either the end of the spectrum defined by the two walls, or somewhere in between, either closer to the “Agree” or “Disagree” sign, while still having the option of a pure center. For example, the first statement “Neo-fascist parties should be banned” prompted the majority of students to choose a neutral degree with only one student firmly agreeing and four students firmly disagreeing. Arguments of the rights of freedom of speech, participation in elections and public assembly, as well as dealing with the root of neo-fascist ideas rather than what they called “Band-Aid solution” were brought forth by the “Disagree” camp, while the “Agree” side focused on the violence that (neo) fascist rhetoric incites and looking at the past of countries such as Germany as a cautionary tale for how destructive this ideology can be.

Bridging Backgrounds participant Nenad Stojcevski explains attempts to persuade other participants to move to his point of view during a human rights education activity.

Great discussion was brought forth with the second statement “Voting should be mandatory”, with most people falling into the agree camp, arguing for the benefits of pushing all citizens towards political participation and the ballot-box even if they are submitting an invalid ballot – something they claimed was a political statement and choice in itself. Moreover, the last statement read “All laws should be obeyed even if they are unfair”, which made the overwhelming majority fall on the “Disagree” side. With the mentioning of civil disobedience, the first day of a conference on Human Rights, which inherently entail having a sense of justice, could not have ended on a better note than on the reflection on a technique that has been relentlessly used in order to win and expand of list of universal rights found on documents such as “The UN Declaration of Human Rights”. The first day concluded with eager anticipation for the week exploration, discovery, and understanding to come.

Bridging Backgrounds Macedonia is organized by United by Love, a US-based non-profit, and is funded by Davis Projects for Peace. The views expressed in this piece are not endorsed by Davis Projects for Peace.