Participants from BiH share their reflections on “Voice UP” Western Balkans Youth Forum

Mirsad Ugarak is a sophomore at the Law School, University of Sarajevo and comes from central Bosnia and Herzegovina - Bugojno.

After a long wait, it finally happened. We landed at the Tirana International Airport Nene Teresa. A sharp, sudden ray of sunlight woke me up from the sleepy, jet lag influenced state I was in, making me realize we were in Albania. The swift change of climate was quite pleasant, as we left a chilly, foggy Sarajevo, to land in a place where it felt like it's still summertime.

Passing through the strict and thorough security checks wasn't really fun, but soon enough, we were on our way to the place we were supposed to stay at for three nights. While driving to the hostel, I soon realized what kind of driving culture is on force here, making my notices and jokes about it. Although my colleagues and I were among the ones who were furthest away from Tirana, we manged to arrive first, contrary to our predictions. After settling in, one of the girls that was also a winner of the competition, and who appeared to reside in Tirana while studying, decided to give us a quick tour of the city center. Few hundreds of meters of walking were enough for me to realize that this town had an astonishingly Mediterranean vibe, feeling to it, contrary to the usual beliefs I had. The infrastructure of the capital of Albania was quite positively surprising for me, as many things were extremely modern and recently built or renovated. Wherever we'd look, we'd find a construction site, giving us a hint that this is only the beginning. But, not to make everything shiny and glittery, I have to point out that some places were quite undeveloped and certainly didn't match the modern atmosphere that was dominant, making up a huge contrast in the streets of Tirana.

On the other hand, monuments and buildings that I saw were a wondrous mixture of different cultures, historical periods that Albania went through. The perfect and most simple manifestation of that is probably the mural of the National Museum of History, which presents the history of Albania from start to end, marking Illyrians, Ottomans, Partisans and modern Albanians. Some monuments and carvings in buildings gave out a socialist vibe, while on the street across you'd have an ottoman-themed statue with palm trees next to it. Describing this variety of cultures is a true challenge, so the best thing for anyone who wants to find out more is to visit Tirana themselves.

After a long, pleasant walk, we later on went to a restaurant for dinner, where I met the other participants from different countries. I considered that to be a great idea for us to get to know each other better.

The next day was probably the most action packed one for me. A whole entire day was dedicated for discussions, everyone was active, motivated, and managed to transfer all of their positive energy to boost the effects of workshops. Some new things were learned by everyone present in the room, while also, a lot of knowledge and ideas were shared.

For the late evening, an intercultural discussion was reserved, where some of the participants brought traditional national foods, starting up quite a conversation among all of us.

The day after was much more relaxing and laid back. We did a couple of exercises and discussions, while conserving a much more spontaneous atmosphere. Visiting the Mayor of Tirana, where we had quite a decent time, talking with him and exploring the Tirana City Hall, was something to mark the day. Later on, we went out on a collective dinner, where we met some other folks and concluded that night as well.

The last day was quite hectic for us, participants from Bosnia and Herzegovina, as we had to get ready to travel back to our country, and still be part of the forum that was being held at the Tirana International Hotel. There, most of the guests and presenters from various organizations shared some great ideas and valuable information, which I found to be quite useful for my future decision-making processes.

While the others were able to stay for a collective dinner and formal farewell in both the hotel and hostel, my colleagues and I had to travel to the airport, in order to catch our flights back to Bosnia. During the process of boarding the plane, it struck me how fast everything went by, how it all ended so quickly, without me even being able to notice it.

All in all, it's been quite a unique adventure that really helped me break my bubble of beliefs and experience new things, new people, new ideas and new surroundings. Although I might've expected something more productive to come out of this, I'm still thankful for the opportunity that I got, the reason being that I've met all the people, connected with them, and increased my knowledge and motivation to tackle upcoming challenges life's got waiting for me.

Ema Selimovic, is a junior at the Bihac Gymnasium and comes from northwestern part of Bosnia and Herzegovina - Bihac.

A Step Forward

I've first come across the essay competition ''Three reasons to stay in my country'' (organized by the Western Balkans Youth Cooperation Platform) in May 2018.
I can't say I wasn't intrigued – it was also my first time to ever hear about the WBYCP. So, I went on to do my own research about the organization, because I didn't want to do something, in this case to participate in the competition, without knowing what the gist of it all was. I have to say I was pleasantly surprised. Having read all about the organization on their official website, I decided to participate in the competition.

However, it wasn't a particularly easy thing to do. To list all the reasons why, I had to thoroughly work over my ideas and carefully sort them out in the essay. I also had to have valid arguments and fit all I wanted to say into 1000 words. The whole process lasted about a few days and finally, I sent my essay.

I have never thought about winning. I only wanted for someone to read what I had to say about the very popular question in our region. It was challenging to write about it from the perspective of a 17-year-old. Looking forward to receiving some kind of feedback, I didn't expect to receive an e-mail with the actual results of the competition. I was thrilled and also very surprised to find out that I'd been chosen as a winner in the category of high school students from Bosnia and Herzegovina. The WBYCP informed me about the Youth Exchange Program that was going to take place in October, in which all winners from 6 countries (Bosnia and Herzegovina, Serbia, Albania, Kosovo and Macedonia) were going to participate, as a reward for our success.

I've never had an opportunity to participate in a Youth Exchange Programme. Everything about my experience in Tirana can be described as exceptional. I traveled with Mirsad Ugarak – the other winner from Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Mr. Mak Selimovic –President of Bosnia and Herzegovina Association for United Nations. We arrived on the 9th of October to Tirana and that same day, we had a welcoming dinner with other representatives and participants – the day was labeled as Greeting Day, and that's exactly what it was: easy-going and fun.

The second day – Talk Day included two brainstorm sessions, an open discussion and a seminar. The welcome speech was given by Mrs. Krisela Hackaj – Executive Director of Cooperation and Development Institute and Mrs. Nertila Mosko – Director of Hanns Seidel Stiftung Tirana Office. Afterwards, there was an open discussion held by representatives from RYCO – Regional Youth Cooperation Office, which was very informative. The seminar was held by Mr. Amarildo Topi, Press and Information Officer at Delegation of the EU in Albania.  The topic was very interesting– „How to sell our point of view?“, and Mr. Topi skillfully presented ways of making our story more plausible. During the brainstorm sessions, we were given an opportunity to talk openly about certain topics important to youngsters.

The third day was Friend Day. We found out about many youth programs, projects and exchanges thanks to an informative session ''Could the Youth programs be a turning point in our lives?“ The brainstorm session focused on effective communication with policy makers, moderated by Mr. Endrit Shabani, PhDc at Oxford University who provided us with some very useful advice regarding the making of a political message. We were divided into groups, and each one had a task to choose a topic which had to be discussed. All topics were related to current issues in all 6 countries. At the end of this session, each participant had to explain what he/she learnt or found interesting. The results did not disappoint, and the session was overall very efficient and creative. Mr. Shabani's approach was clever and thought-provoking.  Later that day, we were invited to the Municipal Council Room, where Mr. Erion Veliaj – the Mayor of Tirana and Mrs. Aspasjana Kerxhalli – Head Of Youth Directorate welcomed us.  The Mayor explained the role of youth in Tirana, gave examples from his own experience and was straightforward while doing so. The participants could ask questions – if they had any – and we were definitely not disappointed with the answers. We could really identify with the Mayor of Tirana and were delighted that people who take youngsters into consideration still exist.

The Youth Forum took place on the last day of the Youth Exchange Program, at Tirana International Hotel. There were two panels – „Voicing up the youth potential“ and „Revitalizing the youth potential“. This was the most educational day, because we had an opportunity to talk to people whose jobs revolve around youth, education and sports. They all shared ideas, visions and gave detailed explanations on the role of youngsters in the region. We communicated with them and asked questions about how youngsters could strengthen their impact.

Like I said, my experience in Tirana can only be described as exceptional. Apart from the fact that I gained a lot of knowledge from brainstorming sessions and discussions, I also met so many wonderful people, and for that I have to thank the Western Balkans Youth Cooperation Platform. This was one of those rare opportunities where there's a perfect blend of education and fun. Even though what we discussed about may seem too dreary to some, you'd be surprised how much passion these youngsters have put into proving why their peers and young people in general should not leave their homeland. We all came to the same conclusion – we have the same vision, same goals in life: we want to be (we already are) activists who promote cooperation between youth from different countries; we want a better life for future generations; we want a better community. We want others to see why youngsters play such an important role in society, because we really do.

This exchange program will be one of many, at least for me. 12 youngsters from different countries proved that regardless of nationality, religion and certain beliefs – it's still possible to cooperate, very much so. You make friends. You learn about other cultures and traditions. You get to share your own opinion, and no one will judge you for it. You bond over lunch and dinner. You laugh. You make jokes. You talk in different languages. You have fun. You learn. You learn that your differences make you special, but in some aspects, you're still the same.

Last but not least, I advise all youngsters who are in search of youth opportunities such as various conferences, exchange programs, competitions, to register at the official website of WBYCP. Even though they were founded in 2017, the WBYCP is very successful.

This youth exchange program is one of many projects that the WBYCP is planning to host.

Thank you, WBYCP.