Charlotte students immersed in tragic lessons of a divided nation

Sadik Selimovic, a survivor of July 1995 massacre in Srebrenica, prays by his relatives' grave at a memorial center in Potocari, in March. In June, students from five Mecklenburg high schools will travel to Bosnia-Herzegovina as part of the Charlotte-based Echo Foundation’s annual “Voices Against Indifference” program.
Sadik Selimovic, a survivor of July 1995 massacre in Srebrenica, prays by his relatives' grave at a memorial center in Potocari, in March. In June, students from five Mecklenburg high schools will travel to Bosnia-Herzegovina as part of the Charlotte-based Echo Foundation’s annual “Voices Against Indifference” program. AFP/Getty Images

High school juniors Seungmin Park and Alexa Duffy may seem awfully young to be humanitarian ambassadors.

Yet in mid-June, after studying and discussing a region still reeling from war, they will join eight other students from five Mecklenburg high schools on a two-week mission of service to Bosnia-Herzegovina as part of the Charlotte-based Echo Foundation’s annual “Voices Against Indifference” program.

There, the teenagers will hear about the cultures, history and experiences of people who have survived years of war, massacres and persistent political and ethnic divides. The country is so partitioned it has three presidents for its predominant ethnicities: Bosnian Serbs, Muslim Bosniaks and Bosnian Croats. The students will also perform a service project of their choosing.

Before they go, the young ambassadors on Tuesday will join nearly 300 other high school students in the foundation’s yearly “student dialogue” with three panelists. They are: Bosnian novelist Aleksandar Hemon, a MacArthur Fellow; photojournalist Ron Haviv, who has spent years covering war and humanitarian crises including ethnic cleansing in Bosnia-Herzegovina; and Elisabeth Zerofsky, a contributing editor for The New Yorker magazine who has written recently about Bosnia.

Tuesday night, the three panelists will join Bosnian Ambassador Haris Hrle in a public discussion about Bosnia at the Wells Fargo Auditorum (under the Knight Theater on South Tryon Street) and at a reception that follows at the Bechtler Museum of Modern Art.

The event falls 20 years after the Srebrenica massacre, considered the worst atrocity in Europe since World War II, and the subsequent Dayton Peace Agreement in Ohio that – in policy – ended the 3 1/2-year Bosnian War. But, many Bosnians believe, it brought a tenuous peace.

The tribute is fitting since the Charlotte region is home to about 2,500 Bosnian refugees, one of the nation’s largest communities of Bosnians. About 500 of them survived the massacre in Srebrenica, when in a seven-day stretch beginning on July 11, 1995, more than 8,300 Muslim Bosniaks, mostly men and boys, were gunned down by Serbian troops as they tried to flee.

“We have these 2,500 neighbors in the local Bosnian community living in our midst and how many of us know them? How many of us go to lunch with them? Or interact with them?” asked Stephanie Ansaldo, the Echo Foundation’s president who started the organization in 1997 after Nobel Laureate and Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel came to Charlotte to speak against indifference.

“We have this global city now, and our students need to benefit from that.”

Past student trips included Rwanda and the German concentration camps that Wiesel survived.

‘Hope you’ll do more’

Ansaldo and others designed the program for high school students based on what worked for the Wiesel visit nearly 20 years ago.

She had met him at a conference, and for 2 1/2 years doggedly invited him to come to Charlotte to speak. Wiesel finally relented, and in 1997 he flew in for a program at Charlotte Latin School, where Ansaldo worked at the time.

“Someone at the school didn’t know who Elie Wiesel was, and we decided we needed to educate them before we brought this famous man here,” Ansaldo said.

When Wiesel arrived, he was greeted by students singing in Yiddish and Hebrew. Wiesel didn’t want to lecture. Instead he presided over a dialogue on the need for voices against injustice everywhere. He was impressed by what the high school students – from throughout the Charlotte region – knew and found Charlotte as a city committed to taking action.

“When he left, he said, ‘I hope you’ll do more,’ ” Ansaldo said.

With seed money from Wiesel, she and others set up the Echo Foundation as a nonprofit humanitarian organization to advocate for human dignity, justice and moral courage – all traits the students found in Wiesel.

They’ve brought to Charlotte speakers such as Partners in Health founder Dr. Paul Farmer, Harvard historian Henry Louis Gates Jr., human rights advocate Kerry Kennedy and Chinese dissident Harry Wu.

‘Make a difference’

The current student ambassadors, who had to apply for the Bosnia program, meet every three weeks to learn about the region and bond as a group. Since January, they have studied an Echo-customized curriculum called “Ideology, Conflict & Hope: The Bosnia Project.” The other students participating in Tuesday’s event have read along, too. Through Microsoft, the discussion will be Skyped to as many as 10,000 people in the world.

“When (the student ambassadors) travel to Bosnia, if they’re well-informed they will have a very different impact than if they’d gone as a tourist,” Ansaldo said.

The trip will cost $10,000 for each student. The students and their families pay what they can; Echo subsidizes the rest.

Student ambassador Seungmin Park, an 11th-grader at Myers Park High, said the group came together quickly and has taken the curriculum “very seriously.”

Park was born in Seoul, South Korea, and at 6 moved to the United States with his mother, intending to stay a year. “We fell in love with America, and my mother decided the education opportunities were so much better, so we stayed,” he said. Soon his father came.

Through the Bosnia studies, he now understands that there are “subtle discriminations that occur in our culture.” As a newcomer he didn’t experience them. “I was fortunate. I had this childhood bliss of ignorance,” he said.

Park said he sees some similarities between the political divides in Bosnia-Herzegovina and Democrats and Republicans in U.S. politics.

“Except the violence there sparks more of a divide than what you find in America,” he said. “It’s a much higher degree than what we have here.”

He said his group may volunteer at hospitals and schools, and help build warehouses and gardens.

Among the cities they’ll visit are Sarajevo, site of the longest siege in warfare, Potočari, Srebrenica and Mostar, with its famous bridge – a Balkan landmark – where nearly 2,000 people died during the Bosnian War.

Alexa Duffy, an 11th-grader at Hough High in Cornelius, said the group has used Facebook to build a relationship with a similar sized group of Bosnian college students. The two groups plan to meet in June.

“These people my age were born just after the war,” Duffy said. “Bosnia is still recovering. So it will be interesting to understand the impact it had on a generation that didn’t live through the war, but grew up in it’s aftermath.”

She looks forward to bringing home what the group learns “to spread the knowledge to people our age.”

“Our age group doesn’t have a lot of exposure to things like this,” she said. “Our goal is to gain experiences there and bring them back ... and show people that we can all make a difference through knowledge and education.”

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The Bosnia Project

Echo’s annual student dialogue with the three panelists will be Tuesday from 9:30 a.m. to 11:30 a.m. at the Knight Theater’s Wells Fargo Auditorium. A Microsoft partnership will allow organizers to Skype the discussion to 10,000 participants worldwide. To connect by Skype click here or go to www.echofoundation.org and click on the blue Skype box.

The public discussion with the three panelists and Bosnian ambassador will start at the Wells Fargo Auditorium at 5 p.m. with remarks from all four, moderated by Dr. Mirsad Hadzikadic, head of the Data Science Initiative at UNC Charlotte. From 5 to 6 p.m., Bosnian novelist Aleksandar Hemon, one of the panelists, will sign copies of his book “The Lazarus Project” and other books in the lobby. After the dialogue, a reception will be held at the Bechtler Museum of Modern Art, where there will be Bosnian dancers and food prepared by Charlotte’s Bosnian community. Tickets are $85. To buy them, click here or go to www.echofoundation.org, or call the foundation at 704-347-3844.