In 2009, representatives from Meridian and a Serbian youth organization, Youth Initiative for Human Rights (YIHR), met serendipitously in Jakarta, Indonesia at a World Movement for Democracy conference. This meeting resulted in a proposal and four years of partnership implementing the Youth Leadership Program with Central Europe (YLPCE).
YLPCE was a program funded by the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs Youth Programs Division that built on their longest running Youth Leadership Program with Serbia. This modification to the program brought youth from Serbia but also Hungary, Slovenia and Slovakia, all members of the European Union, and allowed them to share culture and experiences with their neighbors and even former adversaries.
Additionally, the program recruited emerging young leaders from three U.S. cities to bring them to Serbia and Hungary on a reciprocal leadership development program. This program also targeted a diverse group of participants, meaning we recruited from rural and urban communities, and both developed and underserved areas in order to bring together a broad cross-section of young people with the ambition to make an impact in their world.
The outcomes have touched communities around the world and leaves us with hope that a bright future lies ahead.
When Meridian first started recruiting for the YLPCE in the United States, it was often a hard sell. We heard things like “where is Serbia?” or “why should we care about what’s going on in Hungary?”
Little did the applicants know that the United States has quite the history in this region, particularly during the break-up of the Former Republic of Yugoslavia. Many were surprised to learn that NATO, led by U.S. efforts, had intervened in Bosnia, Serbia and Kosovo, leading to the Dayton Accords and eventually an independent Kosovo. Government buildings which were bombed in 1999 remain in downtown Belgrade as an eternal reminder of the conflict and a visible representation for our young American participants. It was even more surprising to them that Gallup polls found Serbians to have some of the lowest approval ratings of American leadership.
The YLPCE experience taught these participants more about their own country’s involvement in foreign affairs while also giving them a forum to serve as citizen diplomats and dispel the many myths about Americans in this region. Over the years, these participants left with lasting memories of what Americans are truly like through the representatives they met and the host families they stayed with throughout the region.
One of the areas we recruited from was in Southern Serbia, in the Albanian majority areas of Presevo and Bujanovac as well as Western Serbia in Valjevo, Sabac and Loznica and Eastern Serbia in Bor, Negotin and Majdenpek. Many of the students from the West had never been to the South and swore their parents wouldn’t even allow them to travel there due to the unrest present in the previous 15 years. Many of the student’s parents in these areas had never met an American and were wary of what the program might hold.
As a result of the YLPCE, participants from all countries became friends after they were able to set aside their differences and preconceived notions during their U.S. experience and have continued a dialogue on openness and understanding between these communities. Some participants from Slovakia held deeply seated prejudice against those from Hungary; those prejudices quickly dissipated and some of the best friendships remain. One Slovak alumni even recalled her friends at school being in disbelief when she told them she had become best friends with a fellow Hungarian participant.
Four years later, we have countless success stories. Not only are YLPCE alumni attending top-notch universities such as Harvard and Yale as well as many gaining admission into the prestigious United World College program. But our YLPCE alumni continue to make an impact in their countries through countless community action projects. At our final All Star Seminar held in the summer of 2014, in conjunction with YIHR’s Ideas Fair, our 2013 All Stars presented on the following initiatives to inspire more young Serbians to take action and be the change they hope to see in the world. Here are a few of those initiatives:
- Let’s Read Together: A reading project for underserved youth and “Be Responsible, Be a Volunteer”, a volunteerism initiative for disabled students in Eastern Serbia
- MURALE: A mural arts and mentorship program with Kansas City homeless teens
- SOS Health Ltd: A CPR and emergency preparedness campaign being launched across Hungary
- An online forum to communicate community problems to elected officials in Kosice, Slovakia
- Kosice Debates: A local debate tournament for Slovak high school students
- Slo-Hun Friendship Exchange: Slovenian-Hungarian youth exchange program for minority students
- Reading Corner: A reading space and tutoring project for low-achieving students in Slovenia
Previous Alumni All Stars have also excelled in moving their action plans forward, such as creating technology training camps for elderly citizens (Technology4Tomorrow), creating a refugee mentoring program (FRIEND Inc.), implemented annual volunteerism festivals in their capital cities (Rozbal’ to Bratislava) and created numerous youth camps for minorities and underserved, encouraging integration and youth development throughout Europe. The YLPCE instilled the core skills participants needed to develop successful action plans, engage community stakeholders, and perhaps most importantly empower and support them to be changemakers in their communities.
While the YLPCE has now come to a close, we know that over 200 empowered young adults across Europe and the United States will continue to do amazing things and create better communities for this world.
YLPCE Promo Video Edited by 2011 Alumni, Neel Desai
YLPCE 2013 Program Slide Show Compiled by 2011 Alumni, Neel Desai
Meridian would like to thank all of it’s implementing partners, in addition to YIHR, including the Ekvilib Institute, Partners for Democratic Change in Slovakia, Mistral International, Kansas City International Visitor’s Center, International Affairs Council of Research Triangle and The Vermont Council on World Affairs.