Young people set example for ethnic integration in Macedonia

Most schools in Macedonia are not ethnically integrated. If a school is in an ethnically diverse community, often the school will operate in shifts, one in the morning and one in the afternoon. Each shift delivers instruction in a different language.
Children of the same age who attend the same school but are from from different ethnicities might never have the opportunity to interact with one another. With limited exposure to children from other ethnicities, students end up having prejudices about their peers from different ethnic backgrounds.

Sofija Matovska, 14, is ethnic Macedonian and studies at Zivko Brajkovski Primary School in Skopje. Anisa Plakaj, 14, is ethnic Albanian and attends the same school. They met and became friends at a joint art workshop in 2012 organized through the USAID Interethnic Integration in Education Project.

Stepping out of their comfort zones, students studying in Macedonian and Albanian languages collaborated to plant flower gardens at a fun art workshop. By creating a space for students to share common interests, their teachers helped foster friendships among students who enjoy similar activities.

Initially, I wasn’t particularly interested in meeting new people. But I’m just so glad that they brought us together for the art workshop. That was six years ago. We have been friends ever since”, said Sofija.

We are not like most people our age. We enjoy practicing mathematics, while most of our friends want to take pictures and post them on Instagram. Both of us love traveling. We want to see new places and experience new things”, said Anisa. “Had it not been for the joint art workshop, we might not have found each other — two teens who prefer going to each other’s homes to practice math instead of hanging out at the park and listening to music.

Because Anisa speaks Macedonian very well, there was no language barrier. In other cases, students learn each other’s language by participating in joint activities with the help of their teachers, who also teach in different languages.

Sofija and Anisa are an example of the thousands of friendships that have blossomed across Macedonia through curricular and extracurricular activities organized by multiyear USAID projects to advance interethnic integration. Activities include bringing students from the same neighborhood, and at times from different cities, to meet and collaborate with peers from different ethnicities The students volunteer together to beautify community spaces, engage their mayors to fix sidewalks and add speed bumps outside their schools, and draw the local authorities’ attention to air pollution.

These activities provide a platform for students from different ethnicities to come together and take collective action at a grassroots level. USAID-funded interethnic integration projects are conducted in partnership with schools and local municipalities, multiplying the impact students have on their schools and communities.

Macedonians and Albanians in our school did not always get along very well, but this has slowly been changing”, said Sofija. “I believe that we are setting an example for our peers.

By creating opportunities for students to interact with one another and collaborate on initiatives, the USAID Youth Ethnic Integration Project, which began in 2017, fosters positive interactions among ethnically diverse youth at the school and community level, and improves civic engagement among Macedonia’s youth. The project targets youth from all primary and secondary schools across Macedonia. There are 435 schools in the country with approximately 200,000 students.

The project builds on the achievements of its predecessor, the USAID Interethnic Integration in Education Project (2011-2016), which raised awareness and trained school boards, principals, teachers and administration officials to deal with diversity and multiethnic issues in support of central and local government efforts for ethnic integration. All teachers, totaling about 20,000, from all schools were trained under the project.