Across the Western Balkans, young people are looking for better opportunities and security so that they can remain in their countries and thrive. They face the challenge of wanting to improve their society, but not always having access or tools to enact change. We asked a group of activists how they saw their own roles in society, what inspired them for action, and what they think is needed to engage the younger generations.
Tereza Vujošević, Podgorica, Montenegro
As a young activist from Montenegro, I’ve faced a lot of challenges.
I started volunteering and engaging with NGOs and the Red Cross when I finished high school. I realized very early that many young people don’t actively participate in their community and social life and are not aware of their opportunities. I became more active in student and other organizations, and brought young people together around common issues to build a community.
While I was completing my Master’s in International Relations and Gender Studies in Iceland, I met many students from both developing and already well-developed countries. Their stories made me realize that women across the globe go through similar obstacles in their personal and professional life. I became more aware of gender dynamics, which inspired me to pursue a career path dedicated to the improvement of women's lives in my country.
But I quickly realized that although our voices are sometimes heard, our recommendations are never actually implemented. Institutions or decision-makers are trying to involve young people merely for the sake of it, not because they recognize youth as generators for change. There are also many inactive young people that decide not to participate, simply because they feel they don’t have the power to change things by themselves and aren’t aware of their potential. Young people in the Balkans find themselves in this gap between tradition – like family, society, the past - and this evolving and insecure present, trying to find their place in society.
Young people need to make the future happen here, and not dream about being in another country. We need to make things change and get out of this never-ending negative circle of constant complaining about the present situation, hoping there will be a better future, without taking action. And I believe that as young people, we can make this difference to improve society.
Arbër Selmani, Pristina, Kosovo*
The way I see it, living in Kosovo puts you in a situation where you either choose to accept things as they are and stay silent or you fight for the causes that matter to you. I chose to become a journalist and activist, engaging in LGBTQI, green environment, special needs, and the Roma- Ashkali-Egyptian community rights. Early on, I was awarded the Sakharov Fellowship, given by the European Parliament for human rights defenders. That recognition motivated me to work even harder.
When I was in primary school, I was a shy and timid kid. I was considered different from society’s expectations of young men (too “feminine”, to be precise) and was bullied for it. Around 15 or 16, I realized I didn't want other young people to be treated the same way. I wanted to improve my community and work on creating a better environment for youth.
Young people in Kosovo and the Balkans want to be engaged and active. For example, if you come to a parade or protest in Kosovo, you see many young people present. But in some ways, we are never given space. We watch people on TV discussing social and political issues, but most of them are 60+. It is the same in government. Young people are not invited to participate. For young people to be involved, we need encouragement, training in civic skills and financial support.
There is a new generation coming, one that is very much informed of what's happening around them. And we advocate for things in different ways. I hope to see even more open-mindedness in the future as well as in all spheres.
One of the the biggest challenge we have right now is the narrative that exists in the Western Balkans following the conflicts in the 1990s– but I don’t think we should allow it to direct our lives. I dream for Kosovo to become a place that makes room for young people to want to stay here and not to leave.
Katarina Čežek, Belgrade, Serbia
I think that in the Serbian context, youth are disappointed. There have been many political changes in the last few decades, with a lot of promises and expectations for a better future. But things actually seem to be getting worse. We’ve reached a point where we perceive politics and being involved in politics as terrible and dirty, so youth often don’t see a way to get involved.
I am active in many initiatives for the Western Balkans, especially related to Prishtina- Belgrade relations. As part of the Dialogue Academy for Young Women, run by the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) Missions in Kosovo and Serbia, I am active around women’s rights and reconciliation. I try to motivate my friends and other young people to get to know those from different communities. When my peers see that I travel with friends from Kosovo and Bosnia or visit places like Prishtina (which a lot of young people don’t), they also get motivated. The main problem is that many don’t know or have not met other young people from different ethnicities. I try to share good stories and connect with them on a personal level to see beyond what media and politics show us.
Young generations are more active in the online world. The world of traditional civic activism is a bit vague to young people. Youth engagement should be transferred to the world we understand. We want to be approached through channels familiar to us, using the language we know and understand.
There are a lot of creative, hardworking, well-educated and enthusiastic people in Serbia. Those strengths are usually most visible in the hardest times, such as natural disasters or the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, when people organize themselves to help each other and their respective communities. I would love to see more of that energy and solidarity in regular circumstances.
Many young people are leaving Serbia because of a lack of jobs. So I think we need to approach people and ask them what they would change. This could motivate them to think about ways to be active, to stay and make change here. I would love to see more free media, more diversity in media, more success stories, more faith in youth.
Stiven Shala, Shkoder, Albania
Young people in Albania are not lazy or unwilling to contribute to change. What they are is very disappointed and discouraged.
As an activist, I’ve faced many challenges because of this specific mindset. But when you start, it’s always about a passion and finding inspiration to overcome and continue to work.
I had the honor to be the first Youth Delegate of Albania to the UN. As a youth delegate, you are a representative of the government and the young people of the country. At last year’s UN General Assembly in New York, I participated in many high-level summits and gave a speech at the UN to stress the need and concerns of young people. I’ve met hundreds of young people and got to talk to them about different issues and concerns, how we can start initiatives, and why youth activism is needed more than ever. We managed to engage many young people, raise their awareness and share the UN’s values. We tried to bring the UN closer to young people, and young people closer to the UN.
Now, I’m a student and a member of the Youth Advisory Group of the OSCE Mission in Albania, where together with other young people I help integrate the youth perspective and presence in OSCE’S programs, and plan and implement projects targeting youth.
I understood very early that there is a lot of work that needs to be done. Youth are not as appreciated as we should be. Too often young people have been told that we are young, we don’t know much, and we shouldn’t demand change because that’s for seniors to decide. But on the other hand, if we’re not active, we hear comments that young people are lazy or not involved enough.
In Albania and the Western Balkans, we have up-and-coming young people: the future in the Western Balkans would be great if we concentrate all the youth’s power and capacity for effective change. If we do encourage a new culture, a new way of thinking, then surely this potential would be brought to life and will help to push different agendas further for the best of our country and next generations.
Rina Osmani, Skopje, North Macedonia
I live in North Macedonia, a multi-ethnic society. I attended a school that segregated students by ethnicity, keeping Macedonians and Albanians apart. It wasn't easy to meet people who did not belong to my Albanian community, until I started to participate in intercultural conferences and go beyond what school offered. This made me realize that that's the only way to go, be active and engaged.
When society is segregated, it’s easy for the majority to be dominant, leading to self-discrimination by the minority. often separate themselves, feel discriminated against, and begin to self-reinforce the inferior. As a result, when it comes to being active in society, we as minorities feel inferior, create prejudices for ourselves, and are often afraid to speak freely for fear of being further judged. I felt that way in particular situations. But with more interaction with students of other communities, I started seeing things from different angles.
I understand that people face difficulties with stereotypes and discrimination. So my goal is to work and create a community, especially among youth, that is supportive and gives everyone space to be engaged.
Sometimes we as young people are not aware that we have the present and the future in our hands. A lot of times, we are not even allowed by society or family to make decisions, so we are unaware of having the right to make decisions. Knowing our rights as young people and recognizing our power is critical. Young people should be aware of their fundamental rights.
Young people in North Macedonia are native to using digital tools, and our way of being active is through that. However, the challenge is also that young people do not have much space in the traditional form of activism. And the way to get them involved is to start inviting youth, motivate them to be part of your work, and create youth networks.
Damjan Jugović, Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina
I like to say that I am a peacebuilder, or at least actively working towards it in my country.
I’ve faced many challenges in life, starting from my status as an internally displaced person due to the war situation in the 1990’s. My family was forced to leave the Sarajevo region and migrate to the northeast. Growing up in a multi-ethnic country, I was aware very early about the importance of breaking ethnic prejudices and interaction with peers of different backgrounds. I have been running and participating in various projects that bring youth from different ethnicities and religions together, advocating to break down barriers between ethnic groups.
Since high school, I’ve been committed to improving different aspects of life in Ugljevik, where I grew up, and then in Sarajevo, initially as a student and now working for the Council of Europe on a project related to citizen participation and democracy.
When I moved to Sarajevo, I had to work to sustain myself to pay for school tuition while studying and attending university lectures. I was proud to achieve the status of the best student in my class, which motivated me to not give up. One of the conditions that is necessary for our progress is to receive support, whether it comes from family or friends.
At the Council of Europe, I represent my country as part of their “Youth Peace Ambassadors” program. I’ve developed local projects for peace and advocated for human rights and dignity, bringing this international experience to Bosnia and Herzegovina.
I don’t believe that things will get better for youth and go in a positive direction in the Western Balkans until society realizes the potential of fruitful cooperation and working together. However, to achieve that, it is necessary for society to invest more in education both formal and non-formal, and for our generation to think more critically, learn about our past and use it to create a future for ourselves.
UNDP enhances youth civic engagement and strengthens youth participation in peacebuilding. The people featured here are part of the "From Divisive Narratives to Shared Futures" initiative, in collaboration with UNFPA and the Regional Youth Cooperation Office (RYCO). The initiative provides opportunities for young people across the Western Balkans to work together across conflict and societal divides for strengthened peace, reconciliation, and security.
* References to Kosovo on this website shall be understood to be in the context of Security Council Resolution 1244 (1999)