Peace education programme provides opportunity for learning, life skills and leisure

The violent ripples of the ethnic conflict that rocked the former Yugoslav republic (TFYR) of Macedonia last year have barely settled. Residents of Tetovo will tell you that gunfire can still sometimes be heard from the hills above the city today.

But in the neighborhood around Pioneer House Bratstvo – Edinstvo (meaning Brotherhood and unity), it’s more likely that you’ll hear the raised voices of young Albanians, TFYR Macedonians and Turks having fun. Nearly 400 children 7-14 years old participate in the centre’s activities focused on building their life skills, development and youth participation.

There are 26 such centres throughout TFYR Macedonia: established and supplied through UNICEF, managed by local non-governmental organizations and operated in facilities provided by local authorities.

The programmes on offer include art, child rights, ballet, conflict resolution, literature, debate and peace education. Basic livelihood skills, like English language and computer education, are provided at most of the centres. These skills are indispensable in today’s labor market and are important tools for breaking the cycle of poverty.

I started coming here because I heard about it at my school. It is a lot of fun and we make new friends here, says Maria, 13, who attends Pioneer House Bratstvo – Edinstvo. I wanted to paint and draw but before this [centre] we just used to go to school, there were no special activities.

A new and neutral meeting place

It is a positive irony that peace is blooming in this community youth centre, located in the very city in which the worst of the violence took place. Communities in TFYR Macedonia are generally ethnically segregated, but here children from all ethnic backgrounds have a neutral space to come together for learning and leisure.

A group of children in the ballet class at Pioneer House are playing an energetic game of tag to warm up and to get to know one another better. In another room, boys and girls between 7 and 11 years are introducing themselves and explaining what their names mean, all part of learning about their right to birth registration. The older group of 11 to 14 year olds is engrossed in an art class where everything from painting to drawing and sculpture is underway.

I have met people I would not otherwise have met before. The girls, for example, go to one school and we go to another. This was the first time we met, says Aleksandar, 14. I have a vision for children: that we can go on and make the world beautiful.

Price tag for peace is unpaid

More than 13,000 children from all ethnic groups attend the centres countrywide. Among the 381 young people attending Tetovo’s Pioneer House, 291 are Albanian, 64 are TFYR Macedonian and 26 are Turkish.

The centres have specific criteria: the ethnic mix reflects the local population, at least 60 per cent of the children are from impoverished families, at least 50 per cent are girls and special provisions are made for children with disabilities.

But the initial funding from the World Bank for the programme has now been exhausted. Without support, the doors to all the centres will be closed.

If they close, there is no other place for the children to go, says UNICEF Skopje Education Officer, Elena Misik. These centres provide the only opportunity for these children to meet and conquer the ethnic divisions which have sowed such sorrow in the past.

There is a price to pay for the peace of a new generation. The question now remains: How will it be met?

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