Sunday, May 25, 2014

Syrian refugees in northern Jordan

We've been in Jordan now for over a week; it's been a crazy-busy 8-9 days already: orienting students to Amman and Jordan and their Homestays; starting Arabic classes; guest lectures; and a quick trip to the Dead Sea as well.

Yesterday, we visited a Syrian refugee community of around 200 people in the north of Jordan, near Mafraq.  We were asked to set up a "community center" in the form of a UNHCR ("UN Refugee agency") tent.  It was a simple task, given the eagerness of so many NU and Project GO students.  We accomplished it in less than an hour - and our students were asking to do more ... "what next?" they asked, hoping that we could contribute even more than we just did.  But that was it - the Syrians have so little already, and our efforts were so minimal, yet the end result is a nice tent for young kids to hang out and play, draw, or do whatever they and their parents want them to do.

After our visit to the informal camp, including several visits inside the "tent homes" of several different Syrian families, we had a debrief at Mr. Jihad Al-Tabini's home outside Mafraq.  Jihad is the brother of Dr. Raed, our host at SIT.  Jihad is the one who organized the whole day, and we asked him to tell us what more we can do, what more we can give, to this community.

The students are eager to come back a few times in the next few weeks so that we can establish even more of a dialogue with these families, and so that we can offer our help even more than we have so far.  Let us hope we can give them more - and let's hope that it is what they want, not just what we want to give - but what they need us to give.

Here are a few pics of our efforts:

Thursday, August 1, 2013

Serbian Foreign Ministry, Office of War Crimes, & Tesla

It has been a busy week, and we're nearing the end of our Dialogue.  Highlights of the week include:

This post won't capture all the great things we did and learned (nor will it critique the visits either).  Just want to post some pics, as our days are fast coming to a close.  

Tomorrow will be a full day of final presentations (what Dr. Will calls "Disputations") plus a final dinner with the students and us all.  

Foreign Ministry

Will and Mladen "accused", Office of War Crimes Prosecutor

Catholic Cathedral, Novi Sad

Friday, July 26, 2013

"Serbia On the Move!" (Srbija u Pokretu)

We met with Predrag Stojicic, one of the principal "change agents" of Srbija u Pokretu today.  Their motto:  We are building movers, not movements!

Their website tells you more than I can tell ... especially about their active campaigns, which include:

  • What is your doctor like? (see below)
  • Raise the ramp! (about improving public access for people in wheelchairs, parents with small children in strollers, etc.)
  • Green April - a recycling initiative

Predrag spoke at length about Kakav je Doktor, basically a "rate my M.D." project.  The campaign was financed by USAID, among others.  It was very popular after launching in November 2012, but it "ticked off" a lot of doctors, who (not surprisingly) were being called out for malpractice, poor treatment of patients, and other failings.  But primarily, it found that people generally liked their doctors and it proved to be a source for people seeking good doctors.

The bizarre thing is:  the so-called "Liberal Democratic Government" (the previous government) banned the campaign!!!  It succumbed to pressure from some in the medical community and came up with some reason to stop the campaign.  Predrag said that only increased the number of activists who got involved!

"If you want to get a campaign going, hope for someone to try to ban it!"

Thursday, July 25, 2013

Serbian Army visit: Military Academy ("West Point") & Air Defense Brigade

We were warmly received by the 2 separate military institutions we visited today:

  • 250th Air Defense Missile Brigade (which was busy in 1999 fighting against us)
  • the Serbian Military Academy (combination West Point & US Army War College)

The 250th's greatest victory may have been its shooting down of a Stealth Bomber (which, I'm told, just isn't done!) as well as an F-16.  We saw wings of both of these - they are on display as "trophies".  But, it is more the wounds of battle that continue to be the 'heaviest' matter on the base of the 250th.  28 men died in the 1999 battles between the US and Serbia, when NATO pounded Belgrade (and other parts of Serbia) in its attempt to put Pres. Milosevic in line with American policy on Kosovo; in Serbia, this is known as "NATO Aggression".  We visited the memorial to these fallen soldiers.  And we found that the air defense unit, like the Military Academy leaders (see below), do not forget but indeed they have moved on - to seeking greater cooperation with the US and other members of NATO.

The other visit was just as welcoming and as professional as the first visit.  We learned a lot about the Military Academy, its programs (from high school academy to undergrad, grad, and PhD programs) and its various cooperative efforts with more and more countries around the world.  

As usual, the students asked brilliant questions ... 

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

US - Serbian relations: diplomatic, economic, and cultural

(click to enlarge)

We spent 2 hours today at the new American Embassy in Belgrade.  It's in a beautiful neighborhood, a few miles outside the city center and among the hills and open-green-space of Belgrade.  It's a beautiful new building; the old Embassy may as well be put out to pasture.  It's old, small, worn out (including after having been set alight by Serbian protesters after the US recognized Kosovo in 2008).  This space - the grounds themselves, the architecture of the building (a "green building" no less!), and the interior - are a great investment for the American taxpayers, and a great symbol of the strong partnership the US is (re-)building with Serbia.

We met with a number of US Embassy personnel today - topped off with a surprise visit by the US Ambassador to Serbia, Michael Kirby.  Our speakers included:

  • Drew, Cultural Affairs Officer
  • Judith L., Political Officer/Human Rights
  • Matthew G., Economic Officer
  • Peter W., USAID
  • Catherine B., an MA student at Northeastern, interning at the Embassy!
  • and of course the Ambassador himself!

We heard a lot about how these US foreign service officers (and our own Intern!) are working to improve the cultural, economic, and diplomatic (and thus political) relations of the two countries.  The Human Rights Officer, Judith, was one of my personal favorites.  She shared with us her passion for promoting human rights among various minorities and persecuted peoples (LGBT, Roma, and others) and her tireless efforts to end human trafficking, with the help of some very brave Serbian police officers.  The economic and security discussions were great.

And Drew's hard work promoting cultural, educational, and "public engagement" work - the "people-to-people" intiatives, improving the relationship both ways - is impressive.

As usual, our students asked great questions - informed, probing, brilliant.  As with every other visit we have had, our hosts praised our students for being well-informed and exhibiting (in the midst of the questions themselves) deep knowledge of the intricacies of Serbian (or, earlier, Bosnian) politics.

After the US Embassy visit, which we all agreed was an amazing visit all around, we went to the Museum of Yugoslavia/Tito Museum.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Beograd, Serbia

Since we arrived here in Beograd (Belgrade), it has been non-stop work.

Walking tour of Beograd, "scavenger hunt" of places (plus monuments and foods!) around the city (Day 1).

CANVAS training/workshop - the Center for Applied Non-Violent Action & Strategy (formerly OTPOR!, "Rebel!").  This was a 2-day workshop, led by my favorite of CANVAS trainers (who must remain anonymous).  Students were trained in strategic planning, developing their "visions of tomorrow", analyzing power in society (easy-peasy for these mostly Political Science majors!), propaganda and communication techniques, "dilemma actions" (ask me and I'll explain!), and generally - how to manage a non-violent campaign to change/revolt/overturn established corrupt orders ...

The next day was a "lighter" day - one (great) meeting with a Serbian Orthodox Bishop, Jovan Culibrk, who spoke at length about Kosovo (over which he is responsible, in terms of Church administration), the joys of living in the former Yugoslavia, and the +'s and -'s of US and EU interventions in the former Yugoslavia.

And today began with a wonderful visit to the Serbian Parliament.  We toured the building, including the main assembly hall for the Parliament (pictured below), the Library, and the "club" for the Progressive Party members of Parliament - where we met with some of these members, and had a great conversation with Mr. Zoran Babic, chair of the administrative committee of Parliament.  Mr. Babic spoke at length about how the Progressive Party (the dominant party in Serbia, even though it is more of a 'radical conservative' party in US terms than 'progressive') is "bullish" on EU accession, foreign investments in Serbia, military industrial expansion, and tackling the blight of corruption throughout Serbian politics and society.

Later today, we meet with Dr. Dusan Batakovic, former Serbian ambassador to France, and Dr. Ivan Vujavic, former ambassador to the US.  (Fitting, because tomorrow we go to the US Embassy, plus the Tito Museum).

Stay tuned!

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Banja Luka, Republika Srpska - to Belgrade, Serbia

We left Sarajevo (I've lost track of when!), went to Mostar for 2 days and had discussions with Croatian political party leaders and Nansen Dialogue Center, which promotes cooperation and dialogue and trust-building among the divided city's various religious groups: Croatian Catholics, Bosniak Muslims, and even a small minority of Serbian Orthodox.

Tuesday, we traveled from Mostar to Banja Luka (with a stop in Jajce, where we had lunch and enjoyed the amazing waterfalls).

Wednesday was a very busy day in the capital of Republika Srpska ("RS").  We received a tour of the government building and met with the Prime Minister, Zeljka Cvijanovic.  The Prime Minister prides herself (and the RS) with the fact that there are 6 women in top political leadership roles in the RS, starting with her as Prime Minister.

After hearing from the Prime Minister, we met with 3 of her top aides: EU Integration, Education, and Foreign Relations/Diplomacy.  And then off to the University of Banja Luka for a welcome from the Vice Rector, Prof. Valerija Saula, and a lecture/discussion with Prof. Darko Tanaskovic.  Prof. Darko happens also to have been my wife's mentor in the late 1980s; he is the leading academic in Serbia (and now in the RS) on Islam, Islamic movements, as well as Arabic and Turkish languages.  Prof. Darko spoke about Turkey's leading role in the Balkans; he based the talk on his book, "Neo Ottomanism", a critical look at Turkey's dominance in certain places in the Balkans (especially Bosnia).

Today, we drove from Banja Luka (leaving 7:30 am!) for a visit to Brcko District (which requires its own, full blog post another day!).  We finally arrived in Belgrade around 6:30 pm ... whew!  what a day!