One of the most memorable academic experiences I’ve had at Colgate did not take place on campus, but it started here, and could not have happened without it. It was a dialogue shared in a coffee shop outside of Sarajevo, Bosnia-Herzegovina between Bosnian genocide survivors and my Sophomore Residential Seminars class, “The Century of Camps,” taught by Professor Ray Douglas.
At the end of our group’s ten-day trip to Europe, which included a visit to Dachau concentration camp in Munich, Germany, we returned to campus and enrolled in a follow-up SRS course titled “Research and Reflection” for the Spring 2018 term. Part of the course included organizing a philanthropic event, called “Dash at Dusk,” which was held on April 26.
We hosted a relay race around campus which ended at the Chapel to raise money for the independent organization, “Snaga Žene,” roughly translated to mean “Strength of a Woman,” which supports female and male refugees and survivors of concentration camps.
A few teams of five, including a Campus Safety superhero-themed squad, competed for a small prize and a plate or two of mac and cheese from the Hamilton Eatery.
In preparation for spreading word about the event, my classmates and I wrote blurbs for a pamphlet to be distributed. Here is my section, revised a bit upon reflection:
My classmates and I shared a valuable life experience during our time in Bosnia. Though we read about and discussed in depth the atrocities and horrors of the Bosnian genocide during the Fall 2017 semester at Colgate, it could not get as personal as sitting across from a husband and wife, a camp survivor and a rape survivor, talking about their experiences during the war in a smoke-filled café with sounds of a new language bouncing off the walls.
Before moving to the more intimate setting of the café, our class had the chance to hear from several war and rape survivors on the second floor of a slightly deteriorated, unheated building.
Their stories were told mostly through a translator who could not help but have a hard time keeping pace with the passionate, serious and, at times, surprisingly optimistic voices of the survivors.
While it took a little while to find the words to speak, we shared a long question and answer session and we heard about their experiences during the war, the problems that persisted in Bosnia 20 years ago and the ones that have not yet faded. We also heard about what they hope the future of their nation would look like when their children replaced their role in society.
After a while, we went and sat down for coffee and tea with the survivors in smaller groups. Table discussions were difficult at times due to the language barrier, but smiles between us were not lacking (the lighting up of cigarettes wasn’t either). But in that smoky café outside of Sarajevo, a group of Colgate students connected with a group of Bosnian War, sexual assault and concentration camp survivors.
Despite language barriers, listening meant so much to those on both sides of the table. We didn’t just talk about the war. We didn’t stay in the past. We connected on a human level, with eye contact and empathy, and found ways to relate.
We talked about the things that make us happy, the places we’ve been and where we hope to go; we laughed at ourselves, at our failed attempts to pronounce Bosnian words. We laughed with our new friends.
I could never dare to imagine what their experiences felt like, but this group of survivors showed me how perseverance can be embodied, and how valuable a positive mindset can be.
I will never forget the time I spent in Bosnia, and I am grateful to have shared this experience with my Colgate classmates.