Co-director and Project Coordinator of the Reconciliation and Culture Cooperative Network, Inc., New York
Interviewed by Julian Portilla, 2003
This rough transcript provides a text alternative to audio. We apologize for occasional errors and unintelligible sections (which are marked with ???).
A: 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.
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.
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.
Q: 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 lose 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 a part, you know there are mixed marriages. In New York, people get married, or meet, maybe they're 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.