Co-director and Project Coordinator of the Reconciliation and Culture Cooperative Network, Inc., New York
Topics: trauma healing, cultural sensitivity, dialogue
Interviewed by Julian Portilla — 2003
Listen to Full Interview
- Arts in Conflict Resolution
- Trauma Dialogue
- Identity and Cultural Sensitivity
- Repression in the Land of the Free
This rough transcript provides a text alternative to audio. We apologize for occasional errors and unintelligible sections (which are marked with ???).
A: It's very important to get to know all these people who are around in town, and who give lectures like you know my reconciliation group is Galtan and doing the same thing with Galtan. Initially this was a project of the American Friends Service Committee, which was a dialogue among people from the Balkans. Kevin Clements? did an evaluation of that project while he was at George Mason because he was also doing a service. This has held parts of people who are involved with that field get sort of ??? across to each other. Jack Patterson was facilitating the dialog and he's a bit ??? up there on the 5th floor, you might want to check with him.
Q: Jack Patterson?
A: Yeah, he facilitated dialogs between former Yugoslavs during the 1980s. He was the head of the conflict resolution program with American Friend Service Community here in New York Metropolitan Area. At the same time was doing a dialogue in Northern Ireland and in Sri Lanka, so it was very interesting. Jack, through self-evaluation services, says, "You are not supposed to have a dialogue while the conflict was going on and just lurking"; In that kind of setting people are really desperate. The way how it really started in that particular dialog was there was a member of the community, who she only found at the beginning of this last war in the former Yugoslavia, who's father was involved with the Nazi Movement in Croatia. She never really knew that, he is a history professor somewhere, but she had only found out recently that her father was involved in the Nazi Movement at that time. She approached the American Friend's Service Community to do it. Dialogue sometimes would happen or not happen, but it was quite intense. Sometime in 1994 there was a playwright who approached the AFFC to do a play of Trojan women in three languages. Suddenly he found all this new constituency of people who couldn't really maintain a dialogue, who couldn't really communicate what they were going through, and who couldn't really express their own personal story or experiences by talking. Rather by using other people's words, or expressing themselves in a different way. And we also found that technology is working very well with younger groups. Ivo Skoric, who is the co-director of Raccoon, in 1994, set up something called www.Balkansnet.org. It has everything and anything. It could be probably one of these pages where people talk about peace, but they also talk about the repatriotism or symbols of violence sometimes people find it controversial in that sense. In any event it was actually to communicate with young people or people who, he likes to say who are members of the Rock-n-Roll generation, in the former Yugoslavia in the 70s and 80s who were aware or not really aware of national identities. They found for themselves that there is a cultural identity that they associated themselves with, but indeed that's not the cultural identity of either of the nations of which they were forced to choose in this process of Nazification, in Serbia.
Q: Is this targeted at youth in the Balkans, or the youth in this country?
A: Mostly exiles, but not necessarily in this country. You might want to know that there are 7 million people who fled the former Yugoslavia since 1991. Amongst these 7 million people, a lot of them are young people who either didn't belong or didn't want to participate in war. There are a lot of students who left; some of them were in the middle of America or in the middle of Canada and were completely isolated. The only thing they would have is a computer and that's how they would communicate. I found myself in this country in 1994 at the New School and as soon as I came in I already sort of had a ground. I met people from the AFC a long time ago in the former Yugoslavia. I did all kinds of work before that, in the same respect and it was involved with something called Women in Black movement. Women would organize conferences that would involve women from all over Yugoslavia, coming together, meeting, having 3 or 4 days of conferences agreeing, disagreeing, crying, making statements, and dancing like crazy, having a really great time. I'd like to say that it kept my sanity, being involved in that particular movement at that time was very very important for all of us. It does become a lot when you are really day to day involved. I was involved with dealing with the humanitarian crisis, primarily with the refugee crisis and then also involved in this particular movement but it becomes too much that one can take. I'm sad to say that there are some friends of mine who were involved with that particular movement who have either had to withdraw, to resist what they were doing, or had heart attacks or these terrible diseases. Last year we lost two of these really very strong people, one of them was a scholar and an activist, and the other was an activist who was a housewife before and then became an activist. I'm not sure if you're familiar with South Eastern Bosnia where there were really horrible things happening in the area of Srebrenica and Jakha. This woman who is a Muslim insisted that she keep in touch with her Serbian friends and meet with them. She was in refugee camps, but she went back, created this organization with a Serbian woman, and then there was an accident or something like that and she lost her life. These are things that are very, very intense, all of these losses have happened the same time. There are these things that I have always really admired, to really look at every piece of art or of creating of art or of something is the outcome of something really beautiful; and that beautiful thing doesn't necessarily have an identity other than being beautiful. What we do with Balkan conflict resolution is
to decrease polarization amongst people from the Balkans in the New York Metropolitan area. There are 250,000 from that part of the world, more than 60,000 who came as refugees and they have all kind of needs. Somebody says, maybe it's not good to look at the trauma, because some people are not ready, and this is exactly why we are there. We are there to help out if there are needs for referrals, but not direct assistance, we just to show where the place is, which is very much needed for this place. We are also there to allow things to happen, whether a theatre play, or a puppet show,. We create a safe space for people of various ethnic identities to be able to listen to each other's stories, and to hear each other's experiences.
This very same setting is something that has worked among women's groups in the former Yugoslavia. One might be surprised or not, but women's groups from Serbia were invited last year to the Srebrenica commemoration, which is the location of the 2nd largest massacre after WWII. It was conducted of course by Serbs, so Serbian women would be the last to be invited to this kind of event, in a normal circumstance. It took a really long time, working with personal connections, having really good meetings and exchanges, and finally the Srebrenica Women's Organization came last year to Belgrade to work around that. At one point there were some other troubles that had nothing to do with the women's organization, but had something to do with local authorities that didn't allow all of us to come in, just a few women. We decided that we would do something about that and "Raccoon" supported them last year to help in an event in Sarajevo on September 11, women from all over came. This stood for the same thing that "raccoon?" stands for, to really fight violence and to address the traumatic social memory.
Q: What about your work has especially inspired and touched you?
A: I just mentioned this puppet show. I'm always afraid that we won't get enough kids, or that people might not have the enthusiasm, or that something might happen; all of the worries of an organizer. Also being able to let it go and going into shock afterwards or before hand, after I know that everything is going to work out. I've made something that has to be shared. It shouldn't be just one person involved all the time, and in turns of leadership, we have a shared leadership, which is always a challenge, but it is exactly what we wanted. I was working on my own feelings, fears, anxieties, such as how do I do these things what's going to happen there, whether there would be enough people, and if it was going to happen, what is it going to look like? It was beautiful, there were like 3 then 5 then 10 then 15 kids, and all of them had such a great time.
Who put on the puppet show?
A: There is an artist whose name is Katarina Ceman. We also have a psychologist who actually who works with children, his name is Erik Tanchorov. There was an intern whose name is ???Irma Mabad. She was from Pakistan and a student at the New School I taught the chorus there, and she wanted to do an internship, because she liked the idea and she likes working with kids. There were 3 people who were involved with that, and then of course there was the office manager of the space who helped announce events. We have a listserv of about 50 people who get information.
Q: What was the puppet show about?
A: It was of "Peter and the Wolf." They did the costumes, the drawings, and a little acting. It wasn't a really big big play, but it ran for 5 days. What mostly inspires me is to see the people who come to the space, and very often, people come because they are in terrible need of something very concrete, for instance, if someone needs to get something from one of the social services. Once you are there you then find out that there are a zillion other things that are available. Then they become associated with groups and perhaps some of them just decide to come to a yoga class, then they decide to come to the puppet show, and then they don't have any more time to come and you loose touch with them. Six months down the line, you find out they've become a big shot somewhere else which they couldn't have become if they hadn't dealt with their problem. The process of actually being able to see a change in individual people's lives has been the very source of inspiration for me.
Q: When these kids come to see a puppet show, are they Croatian kids, Serbian kids, Bosnian Kids?
A: They are all mixed in. There is even a guide for the kids who brings some African-Americans, because he was somebody who served in Bosnia, and he wants to be in touch so he brings some of his own kids also to be apart, you know there are mixed marriages. In New York, people get married, or meet, maybe their Vietnamese or Israeli. Very often we see a pattern of people meeting others who were in a very similar sort of situation. . You may see a Croatian woman who perhaps marries an Israeli man, and this is where they come.
Q: When the kids come to the shows, do the parents also come?
A: The parents also come, and usually they have some sort of little social event. This is always a good time to form a support group. Very often these things don't happen completely planned. This is why it needs a great deal of sensitivity, knowledge, and skill to how to deal with it, because anything could come up at anytime. It's been interesting in that we've never really had a negative experience. We've had very serious discussions, but we don't have anymore direct dialogues. What we do is hold conversations in coffee houses, or we invite somebody to speak about what happened in their country. If they are there we write people to speak about immigration rights here. If somebody was arrested and needed to get help, then the person gets help, and then after a while we write the person to talk about that particular experience so people hear first hand how to deal, and what to do. We also invite the lawyer to talk about the situation, such as what to do if they're Muslim. Now the first thing they ask when they arrest you is if you are Muslim and a lot of our constituency is Muslim. The FBI does.
Q: I didn't realize that was a standard line of in the questioning. It sounds like a lot of the convening of people from different groups is done indirectly. That is, they come together not to talk about the problems of the Balkans, but to have normal interactions that you would have except the abnormal thing is that they are crossing the lines.
A: That is the unusual thing, and I'm not going to say that we don't have resistance. The highest resistance comes from people who are involved in the community, that very often the exiles communities, in particular, Serbian or Croatian. They are all involved in sending relief during the war, and they also learn in that process it's not as simple as putting the other on the other side. The very important thing is during political talks, I don't recall any time when we had to say, "We're taking a stand on this particular issue." The stand that will be for us always to be able to hear each other's experience, whatever our story is. It's like, if you have a screening of films, and everybody says it is Serbian propaganda, I still find a reason good enough if it's a good film, if it's done well as a film, to go out to see it.
Q: Did that happen?
A: I'm just saying, it's far from being perfect, but there is a space, an opening, and an opportunity. Many people look suspicious, and they say, "Oh why would I want to be helped by a Serb."
Nobody ever felt that we had to explain anything to anybody. For us it was always very important for us to address the needs of the constituency. This is ________ for Peace, here the walls have ears. You're across the street from the UN, this is the culture that "I told you, but you never say to anyone that I told you"
Q: What aspects of your work have been most rewarding?
A: There are two ways to look at that. You can see people go through the process, but the other thing is seeing the policy changes because of your work.
Q: You've seen that?
A: Yes, it takes a lot of time. For instance, we have this small community in NY in comparison to other immigrant communities. We are still sizeable, interesting to look at, we work on domestic violence issues, and the mayor's office. We're not at all involved in contracting the CP agencies or anything like that. They were holding public forums on how the police treat victims of violence, in particular women. It wasn't easy to get women to speak, but there were a few of our women who came across and met with the police, and we were able to do that. We just recently had that event, and I was holding the paper the other day and it said the curriculum that they were having is going to change because of these public forums, so you know it was a good feeling.
In your work at Raccoon what techniques have you found that were most useful to accomplish the goals of your work?
A: It's interesting, but when one is having a dialogue, just the simple conflict resolution techniques as in talking about the actual conflict, really does help.
Like I said, we aren't doing any more of the dialogue itself, but we will probably do it again, around particular issues. I just recently got acquainted with a technique that's called Appreciative Inquiry. It worked really well for some particular things that we are doing amongst our staff. We're hoping to take it out, and to work with some members of the community. It's a very difficult time for people here, so that's one technique that I'm looking forward to using more. The dialogue definitely helps, it's not necessarily as applicable for younger people or for people who are not able to formalize their thoughts, but
it does work really well for people who are going through a particular experience. I hate to say it, less to say with the knowledge of language but more about how they really where is the stage of their trauma also helps. Understand that their individual trauma is seen as a part of the social trauma, which is not really the same. Very often, it becomes very individual, very personal; this is one of the challenges that get addressed in having a dialogue.
Q: So you're saying to distinguish from individual trauma versus trauma that someone would associate would the trauma of their people is an important step in the process?
A: Yes. I think that in the early days of dialogues, there was a lot need for my mother... my father... and that becomes my people... or the way that I have experienced as apart of my people. It's a different step. If the social trauma is not addressed, it stays unresolved, and some people choose to do it forever, but I think that having dialogues is really good technique for now, in my experience.
Q: You've mentioned a few obstacles: people are hesitant to receive help from the other side of the lines and that people are busy. What other obstacles do you come across?
A: The very largest obstacles in this work are the very high expectations that people have, like understanding the community. For me, it was very important to have the understanding, the acceptance, the cherishing of the mentality or the culture from their own group of people. One other obstacle is working on one's self. This is very important for anyone in this type of work that says that everything is personal.
Q: You mean for interveners?
A: Yes, it's very important to have the clarity within yourself and in respective parties. It is an obstacle for reconciliation for anyone who does that kind of work because everyone is apart of the crowd. It becomes very much communal and has to be open, at least have the openness to talk about it. In some professions, you don't have to do that; nobody cares about who you are. I'm biased. If there is not that understanding, that's something I would identify as an obstacle,
Q: Understanding that the person who is facilitating, or intervening, somehow is aware of their own biases and if they don't understand what the motives of that person being there are?
0:28:27.4 A: Well, at least to have clarity of, I'm not sure I would say the motive of why that person is there, but more to know who that person is. In particular, to have that kind of introspective screening before anybody goes on, because one has to be aware that this is their life in the open, working with the community. The other purpose, I think is a particular obstacle for people from socialist countries, and particularly the former Yugoslavia, is because we grew up in a state where the state was providing everything for us, so you were not supposed to really worry. You grew up expecting that something was going to happen. It was a very patronalistic kind of structure of the society where somebody was providing so there was no need for individuals to take control of their own life, to take ownership of their own actions, it was all a part of the commune, or something from above. So people might be very highly educated, or not, but they have to be communal bound. Often when they come to this country, unless they don't know what they are standing for, they're not going to either make it in this country, not so much for young educated people, but for many people who come from rural areas who don't have the same kind of skills. They just become isolated in smaller places and then they rely on the word of mouth to get you know, health plus. All of your children can have Medicaid, but that doesn't mean the person know, because that kind of information is not available. It doesn't come from something that says he or she can take care of that. For instance, all the superintendents of NYC, I feel are from just one or two villages in Montenegro, and they all have these jobs. It works really well in the US, because this is how the States works. All the Irish and the Italian peoples are really into the business garbage, and here are the superintendents, and they you have the wives of the superintendents who come here, and they are married into the picture, or come here some how and are completely isolated.
Q: So this makes it hard for you to do any kind of reconciliation?
A: Yes, because some of them just don't get out. They don't take advantage of "the Met" right across the street from the subway steps. That's the thing that I couldn't believe. "The Met" is right there. There's this beautiful thing you can see for just a dollar, and you don't even always have to pay. Now they're in Queens,. I do feel that is an obstacle for us. We really have to go where they live. I like to say, that
one of the principles of our work is an active presence for the members of our community, in particular for working in NYC. People who do therapy say," but you don't know where", and you say you do know. You have to know where that person is because she is probably going through all kinds of stages if she is a victim of violence, has 3 children to take care of, and she is 28 years old.
Q: So, it's not enough to hang a shingle on your door that says, reconciliation here, and then open your door and expect people are going to flood in.
A: People usually come because they need something else, and that becomes a means of addressing the issues. Nobody comes to say, "I'm so traumatized, and I hate those Serbs."
Q: So, you use those services as a way to bring other people in to get them to see that you are there to begin with, and I presume that they still don't come necessarily to reconciliation initiatives, but perhaps to these talks that they have before certain events.
A: That's right. There are some events and talks that are about what's happening here. It's not necessarily the aim to say we are going to reconcile the group from there.
It might happen actually, because
one of the things that I find in my work is that members of the community, especially the community leaders become so partial. We are still very small for let's say policy makers here, to understand that there is a particularity of this culture. For instance, the policemen, had no idea that when they were going to a battered woman's house, that she's not going to invite them in. For one, she does not trust the police. Secondly, there were people in uniforms, who were taking them out of their homes back in Bosnia, and they come from the same memory here, so they are not going to trust them. Thirdly, they don't understand the rules and procedures, when and how to do them. Fourthly, the community is going to ostracize them if her husband is going to be sent back because of the violence that she has experienced, because domestic violence is perceived as something normal, and it happens. We all of course know that once there is greater violence in society, there is greater violence in the home. There are all these frustrated people who don't know what to do with themselves, and fight all the time. Beating up children is a normal part of the culture. It's ok. So why do Americans make such a big deal out of disciplining your children?
Q: So you have all these problems, and it's obviously a very complicated type of situation. What type of success have you had?
A: As I said, the personal successes of people and the fact that we are celebrating the 6th anniversary of our organization in June. Like anybody else who has thought of anything like that, I go back and forth and say, is this too big to be chewing? Then you really see that something really happens. We have a board member, who was born in Tuzla, and has done all kinds of things. She became a board member 2 years ago and she was very direct and very open and is 26 and, did the ABC nightline for a huge interview about reconciliation techniques, and it's fun to watch that happen. It really is a good piece, her name is Selma Subasic's story and it's on ABC Nightline, it was broadcast on 26 September 2002 and she said hatred will ruin your own life, and you're not going to do anything, if you hate. For someone who came to this country not knowing what to do, with a lot of skills, and also devotion to be able to help others understand what can happen and that you don't necessarily have to have hatred. This is indeed what we feel with other people. We had this other woman, who is now in Macedonia, and she was conducting these art workshops and Barbara was really gifted, was really a real and true artist and you could see and feel it. So Barbara comes here on a tourist visa, not knowing where to stay, her mother is in the country, and she could stay or not stay. She gets to ??? , Does really well, creates these beautiful pieces, she's a costume designer, and then she gets accepted to the Tisch School of Arts and we receive a grant from a small community foundation in NY. The program officer came to the office to talk to people and to the space. I think on the website you can see the space. He comes and we have these talks, and we say oh Barbara was just accepted to Tisch and she's going to go there in September and he says, "Oh that's what is funny with NYU. I studied psychology and I applied 10 times, and they turned me down, it is very competitive, they accept only 5 people a year. Of course, it is right that she is a great artists, but like she says, there was this old computer that costs $1, I don't know who gave it to us, that she wrote all of her applications on. She doesn't have a computer at home, she has her skills, but no sources, and neither would she know if she were not around in this field that this is the place for her to go, that this is the best place, and it does happen.
Q: That's a great story. So if someone were starting a reconciliation program with an emphasis in the arts, what kind of advice would you give them?
A: Be patient with yourself and everyone around you. It sounds like a good story, but it really takes lots of patience. Give it the best that you can and that you feel right about what is happening. I wouldn't want to say that there is anything that you don't know, like to be able to have funding or something like that, it has always been a problem. You can hardly show any positive outcomes of your work if you do dialogues or reconciliation, you're not doing direct services. You can show that if your program is working
if you went to a high school in the Bronx and there were problems of Albanian kids in the tight group and they had an arranged fight with the best or biggest local gang. Someone might say well this is what is traditionally happening in this area in the Bronx, Italians fought Irish and Irish fought Latinos. What they fought about was not some disagreements, but whether Albanian kids would be allowed to wear black and red because these were the colors of the Bloods, a Latino gang in that area. They have this fight on the premises of an educational institution in NYC and they have an excellent conflict resolution program, but it's not working b/c those kids are not coming to the CR programs so you do have to take a culturally sensitive approach and understand why these kids wear black and red. If you know this is a gang, why the hell do you want to wear these colors? Those are the colors of their national flag and the Albanian kids would never give it up, because it was so hard for them to maintain it under the repressive Kosovo, and they come all the way to America to have a gang do it as well; of course they're going to fight.
Q: Land of freedom, land they still can't have their flag...
A: Right, because of all the social environments and the circumstances they live in. Having an active presence is the most important part for our work, that's my advice.
Q: What have you learned, having done this for 6 years, what important lessons?
A: Well my important lessons have been everything that comes along interpersonal relationships. That academic training could be really great, but the depth of the knowledge comes from the inner experience. I learned from other people who are doing this work, Mennonites, or all of these other famous people who are doing this type of work. This is really a small program in those let's say big international alert conducts these huge trainings. Also to make sure that on a personal level, that although everything you do is out there open to the community, because professional standards just don't work, you can not be very professional with that particular community. Unless people see that there is something very personal that has touched you, that you are particularly moved and they don't see that that is your life, it has to be very open and personal and emotional habitat. What really works is to gain even more knowledge, to find a very good mentor to help you and to really have a positive imagery, a vision of where you want to go, because it might become your own. You're creating these big leaders, but you're really in a business to make sure that people understand that it is not only yourself who believes that peace is possible and that the only way people can achieve peace is that they live their own lives without violence and don't accept violent means as a way to resolve conflict. As simple as one could say, it is the only way. It's very important for one to understand what the personal needs are and to make sure that those personal needs are fulfilled. Very often the expectations of the community or environment is such that the conditioning in non-profit. I meet people all the time that say, I have stayed in the office until 4:00 and now I'm against serving something else and doing something, but unless they share the same vision, it's very difficult to come to the point where people have the understanding that they are there for the same reasons.. The other advice is to be really, really happy with the little improvements.
Q: Small successes?
A: As I'm saying, it might be small in the larger picture, but it's very big for each individual's life.
Q: Last question, you mentioned a film festival, a puppet show, and a dialogue. What other source of activities does Racoon do?
We have a domestic violence program, which is called Soul Counseling. We have yoga sessions. We have language classes, mostly teaching our languages, Serbian, Croatian, and Bosnian. We have writing workshops, theatre workshops, and we are in a business of hopefully creating a play based on the experiences of these people. That's a long process. That's it for now.
For the moment, nothing else is really happening. We do have another project that's addressing the needs after September 11, it's revisited the trauma of Balkan victims in particular. There's one for people who have lost their jobs, and need to find work in something else. The other one is on the people from the Balkans who worked in the building, who either lost his/or her job or are have traumatic stress. I mean if a woman came from Belgrade that worked on the 29th floor, who had 2 kids who were in school, and they were watching the plane go straight into the place, they very well knew that their mother might be there. They came to the US in the midst of bombing in Belgrade, and there is plane going straight into the place where there mother is.
Q: Thank you.
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