Debates seek to spur change in the Balkans

Towson University plays host to monthlong program

July 30, 2002|By Ben Piven | Ben Piven,SUN STAFF

Sitting among an alert crowd of fellow young adults from the Balkans, Victoria Daskalova gazes critically at Ana Vojinic-Tunic during a debate over the value of requiring children to wear school uniforms.

"We believe in freedom of expression and don't think school uniforms are necessary," Vojinic-Tunic argues.

After analyzing both sides, Daskalova soon concludes that Vojinic-Tunic's speech does not match a previous one by Katya Georgieva of the team arguing in favor of uniforms.

A group of four attentive Macedonians disagrees, saying that Vojinic-Tunic's side was far more persuasive.

The debate - featuring a Serb and a Bulgarian arguing with a Kosovar and a Serb about school uniforms and the accompanying issue of youth culture - was one of a series yesterday at Towson University. The highly organized verbal contests culminate a monthlong program in communication.

A native of Pleven, Bulgaria, 17-year-old Daskalova is one of 99 students and teachers from six Balkan homelands to participate in the Southeastern European Youth Leadership Institute this month at Towson.

"I wanted to learn something about debates to develop the tools necessary to gain knowledge," said Daskalova, who, like the other participants, speaks English deliberately and eloquently. "I think it's important to be able to influence the social systems that involve young people - and to make real our dreams."

The primary goal of the institute is to enable the participants to initiate projects in their Balkan homelands: Bulgaria, Romania, Serbia, Macedonia, Kosovo and Montenegro. To that end, the students discuss conflict resolution, law, minority rights and environmental regulation.

Students were selected by Towson staff, who searched towns and cities in the Balkans for qualified and motivated young people with English skills and leadership potential, according to Ken Broda-Bahm, a Towson communications professor who directs the institute.

In its second year, the institute is funded by the State Department's Educational and Cultural Affairs Bureau and businessman George Soros' Open Society Institute.

"The kids are amazingly open to each other, and they see political conflicts as belonging to other generations," said Broda-Bahm.

The four-week program includes a 10-day home stay to immerse the students in American culture. Nights are filled with on-campus karaoke singing and excursions to local hangouts.

Snuggling next to each other during a break from their debates, Filip Mishevski of Macedonia and Milena Otasevic of Serbia seem to have transcended the historical friction between their homelands to form a close friendship.

"It's really great - the people from all the countries are pretty close. We mingle easily, and there are no fights between different groups," said Otasevic, 17.

During yesterday's session, Otasevic's debate covered euthanasia and patients' rights, while Mishevski's involved restrictions on mass media and entertainment.

Having spoken English for half of their lives, these two Balkan teens plan to use the communication skills they have acquired at the institute in the future. Otasevic wants to study psychology, and Mishevski looks to enter business and product design.

"I plan on returning to Serbia to start a follow-up project at the local level. Then, I will move on to something bigger," Otasevic said.

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