NOTE: This is a guest post by Scott Shigeoka, Partnership Director at One World Youth Project.
IT RESEMBLES A BOB ROSS PAINTING: two towering mountain ranges form a valley, each with sheer cliffs of slate that look like waterfalls flowing between masses of pine trees. The valley is split by a dirt road; the only one for miles. Occasionally, a shepherd ventures onto the path and leads a large flock of sheep toward a nearby spring, which is the main source of water for most who live in the area. The Kosovar locals call this place Rugova Valley — it is beautiful.
Twelve university students stand in a circle, shoulder-to-shoulder, atop a deck overlooking the dirt road.
The students are from Turkey, Pakistan, Guyana, the U.S., and two are local to Kosovo. Each has a different story to share: some lived through war and others have never left their home country before. What they all share, though, is a deep passion to create a more just world. They will spend the next week together in northwestern Kosovo gaining the skills and knowledge needed to implement a yearlong cross-cultural exchange program in their local communities.
One by one, the students pass a lit candle around the circle; it’s nighttime in a rural area, so the light pollution is low enough for a brilliantly bright flame. Each student says a goal or dream they have for the upcoming week before passing the candle to the next person.
One of them says they “want to build a global network of lifelong friendships” because she has never met anyone from another country before. Another says his goal is “to learn enough to effectively implement the program.”
The last to hold the candle is Cady, the organization’s Program Director who leads trainings for the university participants. She smiles softly at everyone in the circle and tells the group to lean in as close to the flame as possible.
Cady raises the candle slightly and our eyes follow the movement. She tells the group, “We’re about to blow out the flame together, letting the smoke represent our goals and dreams that we just shared. We’ll allow our goals and dreams to float around us as we take it all in.”
She counts to three and everyone blows out the flame together. Whoosh. The smoke rises from the burnt wick and gently wafts around us. A few people close their eyes as they take the moment in, but I keep my eyes open and watch the goals and dreams drift ever so slightly up into the air toward the jungle of stars above us.
Kosovo is a young country in more than one way. It gained its independence four years ago in 2008, and more than 70 percent of the country is younger than 30 years old.
Kosovo took center stage in international politics during the late 90s because of a tragic war, and although the war has since officially ended, remnants of conflict are still present in some parts of the country. Kosovars told me that in some cities like Mitrovica, rivers divide Serbian and Albanian communities and few will take the bridge to the opposite sides.
Political, racial and ethnic conflict isn’t an isolated situation to Kosovo; heated divides across differences are happening all around the world. Take for instance a recent poll which found that half of Israeli high school students are opposed to equal rights for Arabs. The social injustices are not just centered on racial conflict either; these divisive conflicts span across all identities and know no national boundaries.
Even in the United States, the statistics on discrimination and conflict are chilling. About 22 percent of Americans wouldn’t want a Muslim as their neighbor. In 2011, there were more than 1,000 hate groups active in the United States. Beyond discrimination and hatred, there is an inherent lack of global awareness: 90 percent of American students can’t identify Afghanistan on a map. The United States is at war with Afghanistan.
On top of these social problems, our world is facing the immense challenge of tackling global environmental issues including climate change, increasing carbon dioxide emissions, widespread droughts and devastating storms. The numbers are scary, and if you dare to dive deeper, you must read Bill McKibben’s recent article in Rolling Stone. Most cases lead to the same conclusion: it will be dreadfully difficult, nearly impossible, to overcome all of the social obstacles that our generation faces.
Global issues are not discussed nearly enough in the media, and when they are, it is purely through the lens of politics. There is no discourse or vision of solutions led by citizens. Many, including myself, believe that the solutions to these issues will start with young people. I think this is why I am so fascinated by Kosovo — it is a forward-thinking country that is filled with effervescent energy, where streets are lined with passionate, intelligent and young leaders.
Traveling is a powerful experience that leads to profound perspective shifts, meaningful relationship building across differences and life introspection — at least, it had for me.
But the reality is that traveling is not an equal access activity. Often, only the privileged or the few that are fortunate to be supported through financial sponsorship are able to make the journey out of their country. I am lucky that I had the ability to take out a loan to study abroad, and I am incredibly fortunate to work for an organization that gives me the opportunity to travel to places like Kosovo. Others, unfortunately, don’t have this luxury.
Although access isn’t the only reason a dismal 1 percent of American university students participate in study abroad programs, understanding the concept of access to travel does shed light on an important issue: the skills and knowledge that youth gain from international travel experiences are not equal access on a global scale.
One World Youth Project (OWYP) tackles this problem head on. OWYP trains a team of exceptional university students to facilitate and mentor local classrooms in their community using a flexible “global competence” curriculum, enabling youth to connect, collaborate and co-create with other youth abroad via technology. University students become leaders to local 10-14 year olds, opening up doors to the 21st century world and simulating the experience of international travel.
We recognize that our organization alone is not the answer to the world’s problems, but we hope we can plant the seeds and empower as many young budding leaders around the world that we possibly can. We realize that solving our world’s problems will take a critical mass — even generations — of organizations, artists, entrepreneurs, intrapreneurs, educators, organizers, writers, innovators and global leaders collaborating together in the spirit of social and environmental change.
A week after the completion of our Summer Training Conference, I attended an event awarding outstanding Kosovar students with scholarships. The event was hosted in Pristina by the foundation leg of IPKO, one of the country’s major telecommunication companies.
The students I met were an inspiring bunch; many of them had not yet celebrated their 20th birthday but they were already pioneering innovative initiatives, including writing books, coding programs to teach Java to high school students or leading their own community outreach programs. I exchanged stories and shared laughs with this exceptional group and I was so engrossed that by the end of the night I enthusiastically clinked glasses with every young person I met and shouted, “Gazuer!” (Albanian for “Cheers!”)
I realized, just then, that Kosovo was the perfect country to host our training.
Photo credit: One World Youth Project. Members of the One World Youth Project Summer Training Conference in Kosovo.