Balkan Youth on the Move: From shared History to shared Emotions

About participants of RYCO funded youth exchanges

The big budget friendly and modern hotel in Sarajevo hums like a beehive on this sunny afternoon in early spring 2018. About 30 teenagers run up and down stairs, open room doors and call out names. Some of them travelled in groups, thus knowing each other, but all of them are curious to meet new people. They are ready to begin their youth exchange experience having just arrived from different places in the Western Balkans. For the next few days, they will be a part of a RYCO funded youth exchange programme organised and held in cooperation with three CSOs from the region and focused on dealing with the past. The CSO workers, all young people in their twenties or thirties, are well prepared to work with them during the course of the programme.

At this youth exchange, the young people will attend human rights and peace building workshops. They will have all their meals together and share rooms as well as experiences both within and beyond the official programmes with their peers. They will debate and work on projects and attend workshops but also go out together and have fun, maybe even attempt to be buskers in the streets of Sarajevo.

But why are they all here?

Discovering their Commonalities and Differences

The motives for attending a youth exchange are manifold, as our research shows. Some participants see it as a good opportunity for an adventure, to travel and have fun and to meet new people from the Western Balkans whereas others want to change the world and learn more about the presented topics such as human rights and peace building.

In line with the topics of the researched youth exchanges, we also found motives connected to the history of the region. Participants are interested in the recent and more distant past. “Not repeating mistakes” was one explanation given for their interest in RYCO funded exchange programmes.

The participants from Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo*, Montenegro, North Macedonia, and Serbia find themselves growing up in post-conflict societies dealing with the misdoings committed in a shared and belligerent past and its continued impact on the present. In this sense, ‘shared’ has a twofold meaning in that it refers to the socialist past as well as the war driven and violent past of the region. Namely, to a common heritage that also entails the rivalries and the separated communities within it. The participants are eager to find out both what they have in common and what separates them. Their similar and at the same time very different perspectives on their shared past are loaded with emotions that they cannot yet explain. Amira, an 18-year-old participant from Montenegro, underlined the influence of the past being felt in the present, “We are still under reconstruction from the war that happened in Yugoslavia and we still can feel it, we can still feel it on ourselves what happened.”

Although Amira is not her real name but a pseudonym her story is true, just like the stories of all of the participants mentioned in this text. We changed all the names of the young people whose stories we tell in our research in order to protect their privacy.

Our findings show that other young people from the region also share the same feelings that Amira described, they can sense that something happened in the past that led to the current state in their societies. This gives the term ‘shared’ a third meaning. The shared history as well as the shared feelings serve as a strong motivation to participate in regional youth exchanges like the ones RYCO supports because it gives them a unique opportunity to find out more about their shared commonalities with ‘the other’.

According to Amira, this shared history and heritage should be talked about and dealt with. To communicate about the wars of the 1990s and the breakup of Yugoslavia, the ethnic cleansing and the forced migrations, the fight over territory and cultural supremacy are what the participants want to discuss at the youth exchanges.

“I think that connecting people from our societies and actually talking about it and not just pushing it in the back, and not ignoring that it happened is preventing it from happening again.” (Amira, after a workshop about identity and narratives in Sarajevo.)

Youth exchanges allow young people to participate actively in this discourse and to form their own opinions, but they also extend beyond this topic by branching out into related experiences.

Connecting with ‘the Other’

Linked to the motive of communication is the curiosity among participants in regard to other cultures. What unites them is their eagerness to learn about people from other places, about their cultures and to get to know their customs as well as their thoughts and opinions. The young people reported that they mainly want to meet new people and gain new experiences, which underlines their pronounced curiosity about the near but at the same time distant ‘neighbouring other’. As previously suggested, the participants sense a barrier between themselves and other (adversary) communities, which they perceive to be a consequence of their shared history. As our research shows, it comes as no surprise that curiosity on the one hand and anxiety on the other accompanies this interaction of peers from within the region.

Filip, a 16-year-old participant from North Macedonia, had gained some experience abroad with his peers from other places in the world and yet he was still curious about ‘the others’ who live close to his home. Highlighting his interest in the specific regional perspective and experiences, Filip told us “I heard that there were Bosnians here and I know Bosnians but I don’t know about their religion, their culture and I wanted to learn a little bit more about them.” During the youth exchange, the participants realised that ‘the other’ does not necessarily meet their preconceived expectations. The youth exchange enabled the participants not only to cross borders, in the literal sense, but also to break down borders in their minds.

People from post-conflict societies tend to think in an in-group and an out-group or ‘us’ versus ‘them’ framework. Yet contact between the in-group and the out-group is believed to play an important role in the reduction of prejudice and the development of positive social attitudes toward ‘the other’ and thus contributes to the process of reconciliation. Yet the first contact can bring with it distrust and even sometimes hostility toward ‘the other’ and therefore the effects of intergroup contact are not always straightforward or necessarily positive. Important findings by the renowned American psychologist Gordon Allport show that intergroup contact reduces prejudice if certain criteria are ensured, namely institutional support is provided and both groups have equal status and equal goals and the members of the different groups cooperate with each other. Accordingly, youth exchanges where young people come together within the context of a guided framework provide an excellent opportunity and allow the benefits of intergroup contact to happen. During this exchange, young people find similarities with their peers and begin to share emotions and to build trust.

“We can cooperate with each other. We can understand each other well, because we are all the same. It’s not like we are so much different. We were part of one country, once upon a time.” (20-year-old Besime from Kosovo took part in a programme focused on intercultural exchange, where the participants learned about each other’s languages, food and cultural traditions.)

Youth exchanges where young people from different places come together and collaborate with each other, especially in the context of postconflict societies, which are characterised by distrust toward ‘the other’, represent a powerful tool for steering and fostering greater connections and commonality among the younger generation. Our results suggest that young people view their experience of youth exchanges as a good opportunity for building bridges and for leaving stereotypes and barriers behind. They experience themselves belonging to the same group as other peers from the region, not only sharing experiences and life circumstances, but possibly their opinions, attitudes, and emotions. This fosters a sense of community, and creates a common frame of identification, which is believed to reduce bias towards ‘the other’, thus stimulating the process of reconciliation. In the best case, a youth exchange programme can become the first step towards a long-lasting friendship.

Hoping for a better Future

In addition to the previously described social effects and intercultural benefits that youth exchanges offer, they also spark curiosity in political and societal topics and could inspire further participation in exchanges at the local or international level. Some of the interviewed participants saw youth exchange programmes as their first step toward civic engagement, while others stated that their motivation was to be able to contribute to the improvement of the Western Balkans.

According to representative studies from Southeast Europe, political matters are of little to no interest to young people. This might be a repercussion of their not being represented in the political systems in their societies. Their level of dissatisfaction ranged from 46-65 per cent amongst 14 to 29 year olds (Friedrich-Ebert- Stiftung, 2019). Our data confirms that the majority of young people are not interested in politics, which is reflected in their scepticism and lack of trust in politics and politicians. Yet labelling the younger generation as apolitical might however be short sighted. They are disappointed with their political systems and political representatives and this is reflected in the negative connotations that they attach to any form of political engagement. However, our evidence suggests that young people do perceive political and societal issues such as corruption, social injustice and poverty as concerning and they see a need for action. This leads to the question of how young people can become active in their societies.

Our results as well as those of other surveys conducted in Southeast Europe show that youth exchanges increase civic and political engagement but that only a minority of young people from the Western Balkans have experienced an international exchange. Providing young people with the opportunity to participate in such an exchange can be the first important step toward fostering a more engaged younger generation and can be a powerful tool for shaping their political awareness, promoting civic engagement and for fostering democratic processes in the region. Youth exchanges allow young people to share their experiences and their shared history, as well as to build bridges based on their shared aspirations to improve the Western Balkans, which in turn intensifies their hope for the future.

Milan, an 18-year-old from Serbia who took part in a RYCO funded exchange programme, reported this urge to take action.

“We felt hope and the motivation to go outside in the world and to build peace, to promote peace.” (Milan)

Hope, as mentioned by Milan, is not only a driving force for future engagement but also plays a crucial role in the process of reconciliation. According to researchers from the universities of Sarajevo, Stanford and Herzliya, negative emotions such as anger, fear and mistrust must be transformed and processed so that more hopeful and empathic perspectives toward ‘the other’ can be adopted. Youth exchange can foster selfempowerment and hope and can initiate youth engagement and the promotion of reconciliation in the societies of the Western Balkans. Milan told us that, “It was for me also a first step into the peace world and volunteering and everything.”

According to our results, participants of youth exchanges see themselves as capable of promoting change and want to contribute to the betterment of societies in the region. In fact, our results reveal that the participants of youth exchanges discover that they have common challenges and aspirations as well as similar hopes for the future.

Sharing a sense of gaining ‘more than expected’

It was Milan’s first time participating in a youth exchange. He was a bit worried about meeting new people and if they would accept him, but other than that, his expectations were to learn something new and have fun. Šejla, on the other hand, came without any concrete expectations and was not sure about her own motivation. It was also her first youth exchange. After a few days, she was surprised at how meaningful this experience was for her.

“I didn’t know at the beginning when I came here why I came, but I know now. I came here to make some experience, to meet new people. Everything I will say you know, but now from this perspective it’s just a life-changing experience.” (Said 19-year old Šejla from Sarajevo after an acting lesson held in Central Serbia. She attended a programme in which the participants from Bosnia and Herzegovina, North Macedonia and Serbia discussed and acted out scenes on human rights issues, focusing on women’s and LGBT+ rights.)

Both Šejla and Milan immersed themselves into the programme, attending workshops, participating in discussions and connecting with their peers. What they experienced exceeded their expectations, because not only did they learn something new and have fun but they also built connections and reflected on meaningful topics. The participants stated that they had acquired new skills like how to express your opinion in public and conflict management during their youth exchange. They described themselves as becoming more extroverted, open-minded and self-confident after participating in these exercises. The manifold activities in youth exchanges can hence mark important events in a young person’s personal development and boost developmental processes that convert them into truly life changing experiences.

Milan described how participants not only learned about the content of the workshops held as part of the youth exchange but also used every opportunity outside of the official programme to connect with others, to enjoy themselves and to share their experiences. This direct interaction gave them an extensive thirst for and experiences with young people from different cultures and religions. Milan concluded, “The group came together, we could feel each other’s emotions and we can be emphatic to each other about what happened in the past and we came together as a group.”

Milan highlighted another important factor of intergroup contact, which is the expression of empathy toward ‘the others’ through the sharing of emotions. Linked by a shared history, the participants returned home with shared emotions such as trust and empathy that were prompted during Šejla’s and Milan’s youth exchange.

To sum up our investigation, intergroup contact forms positive intra- and intergroup attitudes thereby shaping the notion of ‘the other’ not only as an individual but also at the societal level. This appraisal process was accompanied by emotions which were experienced at the group level, and that resulted in a change of attitudes. This acceptance, as well as a felt need for action could have an impact on the reconciliation process.


Michaela Griesbeck

is a communication scientist and expert in youth studies and intercultural communication. She researches and teaches at the University of Vienna.

Aisha Futura Tüchler

is a cognitive scientist with a solid background in psychology and linguistics. She is a researcher and lecturer at the Sigmund Freud University of Vienna.


This article is a part of the RYCO publication “A Better Region Starts with YOUth” which can be accessed here. The central part of this publication is a scientific research conducted by the team of researchers from the University of Vienna. The research focuses on young people in the Western Balkans and their participation or non-participation in regional youth exchange programs supported by RYCO.


*This designation is without prejudice to positions on status and is in line with UNSCR 1244 and the ICJ Opinion on the Kosovo Declaration of Independence.

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