ROM 2022 Summer Gathering United Young Leaders in a Divided Country

The goal of the Renewing Our Minds (ROM) summer gathering that took place in Trebinje, Bosnia & Herzegovina August 6-20, 2022 was to equip ROM participants to return to their communities as bridge-builders and peacemakers, seeking to bring unity to communities divided along ethnic, religious, or socio-economic lines.

The fifty participants were young leaders from 16 countries, including students and young professionals in various spheres.

The ROM program is a journey. This year our journey began with discussion of issues of identity, nationalism, forgiveness, the power of narrative, reconciliation, peacebuilding, and healing, then moved on to themes of leadership and action, exploring topics such as integrity, how to recognize the truth, how to disagree well, and servant leadership.

This was the first year that our summer gathering took place in Bosnia & Herzegovina, and a highlight of the program was hearing from two experienced Bosnian peacebuilders.

Mirela Popaja-Hadzic talked about the effects of intergenerational trauma and toxic narratives on young potential leaders in the Balkans: “In Yugoslavia abusive, authoritarian leadership was modeled,” Mirela shared. “Centuries of trauma led to lost dignity, power, voice. In the 90s, after the war, nationalism arose, but not nationalism for nationalism’s sake but nationalism for election’s sake. In order to talk about division and toxic leadership we must talk about intergenerational trauma. If we want to build leaders in our country we have to teach critical thinking. When you’re subordinate for centuries, you forget you have a brain. It is hard because we are unlearning what we were taught for 700 years.”

Amra Pandzo shared some of her story of how surviving the Siege of Sarajevo (and marrying a Serbian husband in the middle of the war) motivated her to become a peace activist. “If you feel like you can’t accept just one narrative as definitive, then you are on your way to becoming a peacebuilder,” Amra shared. She then led us through an engaging exercise to identity our core group values in peacebuilding.

We were grateful for the opportunity to learn general principles and also to learn more about the history and complexity of the country we were guests in, which is still starkly divided between the three main ethnic and religious groups: Catholic Croats, Muslim Bosniaks, and Orthodox Serbs.

The topics presented by our team of speakers all worked together to convey a cohesive message: we should not allow the media or society to build bigger barriers and create larger gaps between countries, or religious, ethnic, or social groups. Instead, we should cross divides, listen to each other’s stories, see each other as human beings, and then we will be able to heal divisions and have productive conversations about the issues facing our societies and work together to find solutions.

Feedback from participants:

Gent, Albania: “ROM teaches you that you have more in common with other people than divisions and how to come together to create a better society and bring our countries together and avoid war between us. Also ROM is a place where you can learn that not everything that you knew is as you knew it, there is not just your truth but there are also other truths and you have to accept this and try to create a balance between your truth and the truth of other peoples, which make it possible to create a more peaceful world.”

Josh, USA: “What I learned is that ROM is a safe place to express yourself. You can express your values without people telling you that you are wrong. Its a place where different communities, countries, and cultural values come together to express themselves in a way that is uplifting and allows people to feel heard. In many ways I learned more about my country. I learned about myself and how I can apply different people’s values from different countries to my own country. Ultimately it’s a place of building amazing relationships with people you never expected to build a relationship with. ROM is a place that exposes you to so many different values, and beliefs, and ideas, only to allow you to grow your own ideas. But above all, everyone here has a good heart, a good spirit and wants to do good in their own communities, and that is something we can all relate to and connect on to some degree. I’m going to be a better person when I go back, and it’s been a great two weeks, and one of the best summers of my life.”

Noemi, team member from Spain: “ROM is a place and a moment where you can meet people from different European countries. Where you get to know each other on a personal level and many things about their countries. And they become like your family. You can talk about politics, life, many topics, and at the same time you have fun.”

Dusan, Serbia: “ROM is a great opportunity, it’s really fantastic to be here and experience all this diversity of other cultures and countries and learn about them and learn how we can overcome divisions with other countries, with our stereotypes and everything else that composes our reality. We learn how to apply the skills we learned here in our hometowns and native regions. We learned skills here and how to be leaders in our communities. There is much work to be done to influence others and take what we learned here back and try to be transformative and compassionate leaders. It’s a great opportunity!”