A Place to Play: Volunteering At A Summer Camp for Balkan Children >
By Rebecca Kraus
Reprinted with permission from Abroad View Magazine.
As I swayed with little Amila on my shoulders, I could hear her singing Stari, or “The Mostar Song,” about raising the spirit of Bosnia. She was waving our homemade peace flag in victory and joy, her little voice merged with the masses of other kids and volunteers at this last sunset of summer camp.
Everyone was singing, hugging, taking pictures and declaring that love will prevail over hate. My heart was engulfed with emotion; a flood of tears rushed from my chest to my eyes and I smiled at the power of this moment and of the human spirit.
I was a volunteer at a summer camp on Badjia Island in Croatia for kids who have suffered in the war in the Balkans. GCO has held peace-building camps in this region for eight years, and I’ve heard much about them: about Bosnian Muslims sharing rooms with the Orthodox Serbs. Or the Christian Croats befriending the Bosnians.
Since I work with the Global Children’s Organization (GCO), the L.A.-based non-profit that organizes these “Island to Island” summer camps, I had expectations. But my expectations were intellectual; I knew that waging peace instead of war would take patience and understanding.
All I had to compare it to was GCO’s pilot program in Northern Ireland last year, where we brought together Catholics and Protestants; it was truly remarkable. While the kids from “the Troubles” of Northern Ireland are indeed troubled by a chronic condition of hatred and violence, the kids from the war in the Balkans have suffered in their hearts a much more acute, severe blow. They have suffered pain and horrors we can barely imagine.
None of this, of course, is apparent when you first see the boats full of kids arriving at this tiny idyllic island in the Adriatic. The kids are so gorgeous and sweet. They are from many different places: Sarajevo, Mostar, Tuzla, Banja Luka, Dubrovnik and other parts of the Balkans.
They wanted to carry their bags themselves, spend time decorating their nametags, chitchat and play, right away. I was lucky — I got the most precious bunch of girls in my “family group:” 15 of them, mostly nine-year-olds. It took a while for me to memorize their names, from A to Z, literally, but now they slip off my tongue.
There was Aykuna, the tempestuous, melancholy girl who seemed more like a woman than a child; Sanela, the fascinating and tortured gypsy orphan from the Dubrovnik orphanage, whose looks and loneliness made her ostracized at first.
There was Karmela, the precious, funny spirit from war-torn Mostar who said one of the highlights of camp was when I taught her how to “jump with her head,” or dive into the sea. There was Amila, the sweet angel who made me laugh every night at bedtime, and sang along to our “Laku Noc” (goodnight) ritual.
There was Ziyada who appeared to be an old soul full of wisdom, grace and compassion most of the time, but she was just another little girl who could not swim once we hit the beach.
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