Feature 02 Nov 17

Macedonian Schools Work to Bridge Ethnic Divide

Pupils and teachers from two schools in Skopje, one ethnic Macedonian and the other Albanian, have been organising joint activities in a bid to bridge the longstanding ethnic divide in society.

Sinisa Jakov Marusic BIRN Skopje
Pupils involved in the multi-ethnic project. Photo: Natasa Geleva.

Two elementary schools - Lazo Trpovski in Skopje’s ethnic Macedonian-dominated municipality of Karposh, and Liria in the capital’s Albanian-dominated district of Cair - have for years been typical examples of Macedonia’s ethnically divided society.

Although they are located only few kilometres apart from each other, for years, ethnic Macedonian pupils from Lazo Trpovski knew very little about their Albanian counterparts and their culture, and vice versa.

“I did not have Macedonian friends… I was even scared to go to Karposh, because I was afraid from getting attacked, because I am Albanian… I heard stories that Macedonians hated us,” Meti, a pupil from Liria elementary school, told BIRN.

But thanks to enthusiastic teachers from both schools who organised a series of joint activities to get the pupils to work and have fun together, Meti now has many ethnic Macedonian friends, who he says are in no way different from his Albanian ones.

“We get together often, or share things on Facebook. You know how it goes,” Meti said.

Meti was just one of the participants at a fashion show in Skopje on Monday which brought together pupils from both schools as part of a celebration which marked the successful conclusing of the joint project entitled ‘Against Violence- Under the Same Sky’.

The fashion show traditional Macedonian, Albanian, Turkish and Roma garments with modern street style, ccompanied by a music mix that the pupils put together using samples of famous songs sung in all these languages.

The project, funded by the Skopje-based Civica Mobilitas NGO, which brought together some 150 pupils from these two and several other schools for various creative activities, ran from May to October.

The fashion show merged traditional Macedonian, Albanian, Turkish and Roma garments with modern street style.

“We have held debates on ethnic violence, including children who themselves have been victims or witnessed violence, created an ethno room with traditional garments, held yoga and meditation exercises together, had drawing and writing activities and of course, did a lot of socialising,” said teacher Tanja Boskovic, one of the project coordinators.

With modest funds, the enthusiastic team of teachers and other school employees managed to combat what has been one of the most pressing problems in Macedonia’s largely divided society, the ethnic hate-related violence between pupils and youngsters based on deeply embedded prejudices.

In 2001, Macedonia went through a brief armed conflict between ethnic Albanian rebels and the security forces.

The conflict ended that year with the signing of the Ohrid Peace Deal, an internationally brokered accord guaranteeing greater rights to the Albanians who make up about a quarter of the population of 2.1 million.

But ethnic divisions in Macedonia remained strong and have been particularly pronounced in the education system, in which there is little or no contact between ethnic Macedonian and Albanian students. 

Ethnically-motivated brawls between pupils and students in school yards, on public transport or at sporting events have meanwhile increased.

Boskovic explained that the ethnic prejudice seems deeply rooted among parents as well.

“Not all parents gave consent for their children to participate in the programme,” she said.

Pupils who took part of the joint activities said they wished that all of their friends learned what they have learned.

“I will tell all my friends that violence leads to nowhere. We must understand each other and be friends because we are all the same,” said Daniel, a pupil from Lazo Trpovski.

Apart from the newly-forged friendships between the children, another legacy of this project is a short film made by Jane Altiparmakov, entitled ‘Under the Same Sky’, which is intended to be screened in other schools.

The film and an accompanying collection of photographs depict the pupils’ interactions and their thoughts on unity and friendship as a way to combat violence and prejudice.

Over the past decade, all the attempts to bridge the ethnic gap in Macedonian schools have been carried out by various civic associations and NGOs, with little to no help from the central government and local authorities.

Although experts advised this was a necessity after the end of the 2001 conflict, integrated multi-ethnic classes and activities involving pupils from different backgrounds are not yet part of Macedonia’s official curriculum.

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