Did you ever consider it? How many borders do you have around you? How many do you impose or support? What type of borders gets you out of your mind? How do you perceive boundaries, margins, your place in the world and limitations around you? Would you be surprised to find out that others see it the same or have a totally different view on it?
I just had to check it so I attended the seminar “From Borders to European Integration-Itineraries from Yesterday to Today” in Skopje, between February 7-10, 2013, organized by European Intercultural Forum (Germany) within the Europe for Citizens programme. The NGO I represent (ATCE-SR) is partner in this project which is made of a series of seminars tackling the topic stated in the title, customized according to the venue (Berlin, Skopje, Warsaw, Tirana).
Two gone two more to go. For more technical info and past experiences, visit http://www.european-borders.com/ (also http://www.facebook.com/bordersintegration) and to attend the seminar in Warsaw, you can find the announcement here https://atcesr.wordpress.com.
There have been 3 full days in Skopje in which we tackled topics like European Union enlargement and the perception of Macedonian people on the possibility of them joining the EU, social inclusion of minorities in a country where the main minority is approximately 20% of the population, governmental plans for national identity building received with high disapproval by the people, integration perspectives while people see a possible economical collapse in the EU, boarders evolution and perception. We received essential input from specialists on the EU integration process of Macedonia and on the Ohrid Agreement Framework, from the locals on the national reality and feelings, from the participants coming from the other countries involved in the project (Germany, Latvia, Albania, Poland) found on a different position related to the EU.
The learning part was achieved through mixed tools: from seminars, debates and discussions to small group workshops, open air activities, meeting local NGOs working in the field, field study visits and other methods from the non-formal education area.
On a personal note, I can say that I got a complex image on the local reality and I have seen the situation at different levels: regular local people’s view, civil society attitude, governmental action and statements, European Union input. There have been a few predictable situations or facts but several that shook the ground I was standing on.
It was interesting to see that the very same element can mean a separation for some and cohesion for others. Take rivers, for instance. Generally they can be natural boarders: for Romania, the Danube has always been the river that kept the country safe and unite against enemies along history. On the other hand, for Skopje, the Vardar River creates a transparent wall between 2 communities in the very heart of the city.
I always value the power of words and I believe that 2 of the biggest things that we can never take back are the words we express and how we make people feel. However, on this occasion I realized, once again and way stronger than before, that a single/simple word can make the difference between inclusion and separation, friends or foes, peace and war. Changing the name of the country (a word/ expression), not mentioning names of minorities in the Constitution, changing the nationality from Macedonian to Skopjan or other are changes made in words that affect nations or large communities; such changes led to war before, where would they lead nowadays?
I discovered a country that makes efforts to include everybody and ends up excluding some through their governmental programs. In order to create an inclusive framework, 25% of the jobs in the public sector are granted to minorities, thus bringing extra labor which is not actually needed, the result being that more than half of these people are paid to stay at home. There is positive discrimination in the educational system to support the enrollment of minority students, which gives to some minorities the opportunity to join a quarter of their body at the faculty they choose even if they have the highest admission grades compared to all their colleagues, regardless of the ethnicity.
However, in a world in which nations tend to be left behind for any reason and many people easily disregard their culture and identity, I met, as well, many youngsters that hold on to the name of the country and to their nationality even if they know that this keeps them far from joining the EU and the advantages of this process; youngsters that wonder how exactly the integration would go and how it would affect them, both positively and negatively; active youth in NGOs that believe that emigration is not a solution if they would be seen abroad as Skopjans and not Macedonians as they rightfully feel so they take small steps at least to understand the world they live in and to change it, if possible. I discovered Suto Orizari, a Roma community that has its own working and integration system, based on positive field work with all age groups starting from their needs, initiated by civil society and supported by their Roma leader and several international and European funds. When governments fail or have other priorities than some of their people, when international organizations lose sight of certain issues in favor of pressing economic crisis, people use the frame of civil society as a force to make a change- an inspiration for Romania and for Ramnicu Sarat as well.
All this and much more I discovered and learnt in 3 days. The lucky ones who will go to Warsaw will live a different experience but the same as interesting or more than this one.
Did I reconsider my own borders, work and life objectives? You bet I did, every 3 hours of every day spent there and after my return home when I was still digesting the experience…and even now as we speak.