Jovanović: Youth in the Western Balkans Have the Desire to Make a Difference

RYCO Project Leader Ms Vladica Jovanović speaks about the “YOUth Inspired by Peace” campaign which has been launched recently and the achievements of the “Supporting the Western Balkan’s Collective Leadership on Reconciliation: Building Capacity and Momentum for RYCO” project.

Let us start with a general question. What is the RYCO mission and values you represent?

RYCO promotes reconciliation, trust, cooperation, and dialogue in the Western Balkans through supporting and funding projects which bring youth of the region together.

We stand for the region’s and youth’s interests and believe that young people should be creating a culture of mobility, intercultural exchange and reconciliation. They should also be active contributors to democratic development, social and economic prosperity, and European integration in an increasingly open Western Balkans region, while the governments in the Western Balkans should be providing proactive support to youth exchange and youth engagement across the region.

What RYCO is doing in this regard is providing support to the realisation of such a vision by putting reconciliation as a central value. We believe that building true and enduring reconciliation involves a process that brings together individuals, groups and societies burdened by past or present conflicts and negative representations and perceptions of ‘the other’. We are convinced that only through shared experience, cooperation and ongoing exchange, new pathways can be built to reconcile young people who would otherwise remain trapped in the past created by the generations that preceded them.

What inspired RYCO to initiate the YOUth Inspired by Peace campaign?

We see all the time that young people of the region have more in common and less of what separates them, we wanted to showcase the impact we have made through the project RYCO is implementing together with the three UN agencies – UNDP – United Nations Development Programme, UNFPA – United Nations Population Fund, UNICEF – The United Nations Children’s Fund with the financial support of the United Nations Peacebuilding Fund. In doing so, we hope to inspire others to follow in our footsteps and support initiatives that bring young people together and give them the means and power to influence positive change.

Throughout this project, we witnessed how powerful young people are in their desire to make a difference in the region. They want a peaceful, prosperous and secure future in the Western Balkans. It is the obligation of all of us to support them in such an endeavour. We have no more time to lose. 

Why is regional youth cooperation that goes beyond ethnic, language and cultural barriers important?

As prejudice and stereotyping continue to shape attitudes and behaviour in the Western Balkans and the culture of separation does not serve the interests of youth, the region or European Integration, cooperation that goes beyond ethinc, language and cultural barriers is essential to overcome today’s challenges.

Our region has gone through a turbulent period in the last decades and we are all seeing the consequences of wrong decisions people have made. If we want to change this reality and make the Western Balkans a place where young people choose to stay, live and see their future, we need to leave behind these old nationalistic narratives and build new ones – narratives of cooperation and shared understanding. Only through cooperation we move forward and prosper as a region.

What is the RYCO approach to tackle mistrust amongst youth in the region and promote intercultural dialogue?

RYCO is predicated on the belief that by building understanding between people, especially those who have experienced conflict and in result suffered damaged relationships with their neighbors, those people will become more open to continuing dialogue, to bridging their differences, to reconciliation and to building common cause as active citizens. By helping young people to engage with each other in fields of mutual concern and interest they develop intercultural insights, strengthen their skills, enhance their social and economic prospects and achieve personal fulfilment. 

Through this project, we supported over 40 activities that brought the young people of the region together. Overwhelming majority of young people who participated and organized these activities reported positive experiences of  collaborating with peers from the region, and expressed that they now have desire to continue future involvement in youth cooperation efforts, that these activities are relevant to their future goals and that their knowledge about youth reconciliation, mobility and cooperation after participating in RYCO funded activities has increased.

We believe that this is a clear sign that the approach we are having is giving results and that young people recognize it as important and valuable.

What are the opportunities RYCO offers to youth in the region?

RYCO focuses on creating opportunities for young people to engage in activities that build mutual understanding and reconciliation in the civic, social, educational, cultural and sports domains. This means that we are supporting numerous activities where young people can travel, meet their peers from the region and discuss the past, present and future. We are supporting activities such as study visits, workshops, sports and cultural events, summer schools and so on. We support and offer young people every possible opportunity to meet and find a common ground for changing the region.

The region we are living in is full of prejudices and stereotypes even though the conflicts occurred more than 20 years ago. What is RYCO doing to enhance sustainable regional cooperation, peace-building and reconciliation amongst youth?

No other regional agency, organisation or structure is positioned to provide what RYCO can offer for the region’s youth. No other inter-governmental initiative exists that can exert such a level of social and policy influence in support of RYCO and its objectives. No other regional structure has the programming reach or the essential access to policy-makers that is the unique nature of RYCO. Thus, RYCO is strategically using this extraordinary opportunity that the six governments of the region have created. 

Having said this, we are proving youth mobility for reconciliation, we are working with the governments and young people to build momentum at the policy level for an enabling environment for such mobility but also we are working with funders, operational partners and academe to build value and scale as well as with with the public and the media to foster an environment in which young people can prosper and fulfill their potential.

What are the achievements in this regard?

In less than four years of our existence, we invested more than 2.500.000 euros in youth exchanges through supporting over 350 organizations and high schools in the region. They brought more than 5.000 young people together through their innovative and impactful programs.

Anyhow, the numbers are speaking for themselves but what we are the most proud of in our work are the friendships that young people have created through these programs. These friendships are something that will certainly change the region and how young people envisage their future. That is why we will keep investing and scaling up our support to the civil society, high schools, universities and, most importantly, young people.

You mentioned that RYCO is not working with young people only. How can teachers in schools contribute to  peacebuilding, conflict resolution, and intercultural dialogue in the region?

As young people are spending the majority of their time in educational institutions, teachers have immense influence on young people’s worldviews and skills. They are one of the most important individuals in young people’s lives. 

Knowing this, we know that teachers who are well equipped with knowledge and tools are the ones who are in the best position to work with young people on the topics of peacebuilding, conflict resolution, and intercultural dialogue in the region. That is why through this project we organized training sessions for teachers from across the region and provided them with toolkits and knowledge which they can now use in their classrooms to tackle these topics. 

We already have lots of positive feedback from the teachers who have gone through these training sessions. They are saying that they are now more equipped to start the discussions around the mentioned topics and that young people indeed want to discuss them. We will continue to invest in these activities because we believe that good teachers teach but the great ones always learn and apply the new knowledge in their classrooms. The region needs more of these great teachers.

Is there anything RYCO would like to send as a key message for the Western Balkan youth, their teachers, the civil society and the six governments of the region?

We are the ones who are holding our future in our own hands. How this future will look depends exclusively on us. That is why we need to join our forces and efforts in providing young people with the opportunities to develop themselves but also actively listen to their needs. Last but not least, young people have to be involved in every stage of every policy that is created for them. As we usually say in our organization, creating policies for young people without young people will never work. This is exactly why we say that a better region starts with youth.

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