Sara Habibi talks about her work on an innovative education programme which aims to help the peace building process in Bosnia.
Sara Habibi was working on a peace education programme in Bosnia just over a decade ago. On one occasion, she was assisting a training event in Travnik/Nova Bila designed to bring the very divided Croat and Bosniak communities together.
Days before the event a Croat mother of three children died and the training had to be delayed because the whole school was in mourning and were attending the woman’s funeral. The Muslim school who were also taking part in the programme received news of the situation. When the training ultimately got underway, the trainer spoke about untimely death, what it meant for people’s understanding of the purpose of life, and how this understanding influences our choices towards peace and conflict. “Everyone was on the edge of their seats and very moved,” says Sara. “Education for Peace in contexts of massive violence is in many respects about rehumanising people. The type of violence they had experienced was so dehumanising that it undermined their fundamental trust in humanity. The process of recovery for these participants began with recognising their shared humanity with former enemies.”
One Bosniak man attending the training was so moved that he spoke about how people in the Croat community had risked their own lives during the war to help his wounded sister get to a hospital. “Even though she died, I have never thanked these people for what they did,” he said. Then turning to the Croat participants on the other side of the room he said, “I want to thank you now.” The director of the Croat school then acknowledged that each of the communities had done a lot of good things for the other, but these are not spoken about. “She said we should celebrate this history and use it as a basis to remember the ties we have. The two sides of the divided room then started to approach each other.”
The event was part of an innovative and ongoing peace education project which formed the subject of Sara’s MPhil research last year. For her PhD she will be exploring the relationships between intergroup violence, memory, identity, pedagogy and reconciliation in more depth.
Sara  was born in Montreal. Both her parents are both academics. Her mother is an adult education specialist and her father is assistant deputy minister of education for the province of Ontario.
When she was 16 she moved to Israel where her mother was working for the Baha’i World Centre.
Inspired by the many youth she met there who were engaging actively around the world in community development projects, she decided to volunteer for a year in Zambia at a new secondary school for girls. It was her first experience of really feeling the gap between the wealthy and the poor and seeing the legacy of colonialism in action. After this experience, she says, she felt very much committed to education as a vehicle for social transformation. “It opens up a dialogue about our social values and notions of community,” she says.
She returned to Canada to begin her undergraduate degree at the University of Toronto in 1995 where she pursued an interdisciplinary programme of Ethics, Society and Law, with a minor in cultural anthropology. However, she felt it was all very theoretical and she wanted to do something more applied. She won a work study scholarship to do a master’s course on conflict resolution in Switzerland. The year she was there the university was invited to develop a pilot programme for peace education in schools in Bosnia.
Sara was one of a team of six graduate students from a range of countries who went to Bosnia under the direction of several experts. She was appointed national coordinator due to her administrative experience having worked throughout her university life, including as personal assistant to the Swiss university president. The director of the programme, and Sara’s mentor for the following 10 years, was a retired psychiatrist and professor of conflict resolution and peace education.
It was 2000, five years after the war in Bosnia had finished. The team was sent to schools in three locations – Sarajevo, the Serb city of Banja Luka and the Croat-Bosniak area of Nova Bila/Travnik. Two students went to each area and worked with local teachers there. “We immersed ourselves in the community and learnt the local languages,” says Sara. They trained everyone who came into the school, from students to teachers and administrative staff, about the principles of violence recovery and peace building.
It was a hugely sensitive task. Most of the students in one of the Sarajevo schools where Sara worked were refugees from Srebrenica. In Banja Luka many of the fathers of the high school students were being prosecuted at the Hague for war crimes. “We were trying to build a culture of peace and healing,” says Sara, adding that being young was advantageous because the political atmosphere was so charged between different ethnic groups and between the local community and the international community. “Many people were suspicious of and resentful towards the international community. They felt patronised and there was a real power struggle going on. But as young people we had no power and so we didn’t represent such a threat,” she says. “We built a sense of trust through open discussions and collective decision-making.”
The project assumed that peace was relevant to all subjects and could serve as a useful framework, for instance, biology could show the diversity in nature. Sara says it was difficult to change the established style of teaching, which was based on an authoritarian approach. “It was hard to make the classroom more democratic. So we facilitated workshops in which teachers brainstormed lesson ideas and designed new pedagogical strategies together,” she says. “Once people got over their initial unease, it became a very dynamic process. We created an interethnic and interregional community of colleagues.”
The students created presentations at the end of term to demonstrate how they had taken on the peace concepts. “They were invited to be creative and inclusive in how they reflect on the principles of peace,” says Sara. The student presentations were made at community “peace events”, involving their families, local authorities, the media and others. “The whole community came to the schools in the spirit of peace building, which was really significant because schools had been used as torture centres during the war in Bosnia,” says Sara. “It was very emotional.”
There were three national events a year based on a handful of the presentations and these took place in the three different regions. Schools from the other regions would visit their counterparts in different parts of the country. “It was very difficult to get buses to cross the lines between the communities,” says Sara, “because they feared for their security.”
The programme won praise from all sides. The major of Sarajevo said it was the first programme to normalise relationships between people.
The original pilot project lasted two years and Sara returned to Switzerland to build an NGO that could develop the curriculum and training modules, and fund raise for the expansion of the project. She spent several years then travelling back and forth between the two countries.
After a couple of years away while raising her two children, she then decided she wanted to pursue further studies to deepen her knowledge of post-conflict peace building and pedagogy so she could advise on policy issues and educational practice more effectively.
She completed an MPhil at the University of Cambridge last year focused on the long-term impacts of the project on its participants. She returned to Bosnia to interview teachers from the different regions, some of whom were in the original pilot programme. “I was interested in the role of teachers as mediators between peace education theory and practice in complex social-political environments.”
The most effective part of the programme, she thinks, was the horizontalisation of relationships achieved by encouraging collaboration between teachers. “The more the teachers participated in that new collegial community the more transformative the programme became,” says Sara. Many teachers said the programme had helped them heal from the traumatic experiences of the war and that through their own healing they were no longer an impediment to the healing and reconciliation of their students.
“They said that when they found their own inner peace they could bring it out more in others,” she adds. She noticed that many of the teachers interviewed, especially those who were involved in the initial pilot programme, expressed a greater sense of healing and transformation. All, however, continued to be affected by the complexities of the current social-political environment and the incomplete justice processes associated with the prosecution of war crimes. “One man who was a soldier said that too much blood had been spilt to change things over night. It is 20 years since the war started. Peace education clearly can’t change things on its own. There have to be justice procedures, but it fills an important need,” says Sara who has just begun her PhD which will continue her work on reconciliation and education. “I do believe that education is a powerful tool for social recovery,” she says, “if it is done in a way that is humanising and inclusive.”
Picture credit of Banja Luka: Jaime VD and Creative Commons.