Practice Spotlight: Interview with Marijeta Mojasevic – Youth Advisor for the Municipality of Berane, Montenegro

Marijeta Mojašević is a Youth Advisor for the Municipality of Berane, a town in the north of Montenegro. Following the breakup of Yugoslavia in 1992, the region was rocked by armed conflict throughout the 1990s and early 2000s. Montenegro gained independence in 2006, and while the country has remained peaceful, the aftermath of the Balkan conflicts still has a significant impact in mainstream politics and society, with mistrust and tensions split along ethnic, political and religious lines.

As part of its Practice Spotlight series, Strong Cities Network (SCN) spoke to the inspiring Marijeta about her work with youth in Berane, the challenges they face and how is driving efforts to help narrow the gap between traditional youth work and countering extremism efforts.

Marijeta has been a municipal representative of Berane since 2016 when the city joined the SCN. Having attended the SCN Global Summit 2017 in Aarhus, Denmark, she was inspired by the people she met to work with youth and wrote two articles on her experience at this event on her blog, Misli Mladosti, translated as The Thoughts of Youth.

While Montenegro has its own Youth Office within the Ministry for Youth and Sports and its own programme of delivery for the year, the prevention of violent extremism is not included in that plan.

Identifying this gap, Marijeta saw it was her job to start resilience-building programming with youth.

“In 2017 I did six workshops with high school pupils, which were really successful, and this last year I was working with student parliaments from of our most important high schools.[…] At this moment I’m working on this programme Active Young Citizens, and during the next half year I will do 10 workshops with a group of 15 young people.”

“I’m letting them think for themselves. That is the key. The most important thing is to give them the chance to express themselves.”

Most of the young people Marijeta works with are aged from 15-20, and predominantly high school and university students.

Marijeta’s approach is novel. Since the municipality of Berane lacks resources for comprehensive P/CVE programming, which includes youth policy, Marijeta has taken it upon herself to talk to youth about a range of issues connected to radicalisation, from drugs and alcohol abuse to prejudice, racism and religion.

 “I think it’s really important to try to talk about these topics with them at an early stage, because they know a lot about it on their own.”

Critically she provides them the space and freedom to express their own feelings without fear of penalty or chastisement.

“This is the first time that someone is there for them to talk about things that they cannot hear in schools… I’m never saying ‘this is good’ or ‘this is bad’. I’m letting them think for themselves. That is the key. The most important thing is to give them the chance to express themselves. When they ask for my opinion [I don’t give it], and say ‘this is just yours. This is the theatre and you have the stage. I’m just giving you ideas to think about.’”

Marijeta recognises that youth are stigmatised.

“I think that young people in our country are a vulnerable group… because in many cases there is no person to understand them, to talk to them, to talk about their point of view, which is really significant.”

The gap between youth work and PVE is a vital one to address. As Marijeta notes, a student from a high school in Berane Municipality left to fight in Syria a few years ago, a change in behaviour which was not caught by the teachers.  It reveals a gap in the wider understanding of PVE and a need to build both institutional and individual resilience as early as possible.

On the wider topic of violent extremism and radicalisation, Marijeta has found that youth who express these extreme views are not being radicalised at school or through their religion, but at home. With the memory of the past conflicts still a raw and deeply sensitive issue for many in Montenegro, some of the ethnic and religious distrust borne of these clashes and which were simply buried with the declaration of peace, have since resurfaced. More than this, stories are being propagated through popular culture and passed down to children by their parents, many of whom will have either fought in or been affected by the conflicts.

“They are getting different stories from their home, and they can be true and not so true… And some people from our public life are spreading these [false] stories. I think that some people are not willing to accept peace. I always say to them that peace is an imperative – you can never go to school if there was no peace.”

However, Marijeta sees her role as a guide and mentor of sorts, as well a social worker.

“I don’t judge them. I see my role as spreading understanding and an attitude that people can be bad or good no matter their faith or nationality.”

Using the example of her friend from Bosnia and Herzegovina, whose father was murdered in the last war, Marijeta discusses the prospect of open-mindedness, plurality and tolerance.

“I never tell them her faith… She never judged other people about their religion, connecting that to [her father’s murder]. She has friends from other religions and faiths… She is not letting her past ruin her reality. And [when I say this] the students are so open-minded. They say the people who did that to her family were bad people, they were war criminals. They find it really positive. I found [working with youth] so inspiring. They’re so open-minded and so mature, and they will be included in our Youth Office. As young as they are, they will promote stories about differences, and how healthy differences are, not can be. 

Marijeta is learning through experience – that smaller classes provide more space and are less intimidating for youth to speak openly than larger classes; that pupils will likely behave differently when teachers are present; that multiple sessions with the same group yield far better results than a single session. However, she is doing this alone with no support network around her.

“I don’t judge them. I see my role as spreading understanding and an attitude that people can be bad or good no matter their faith or nationality.”

“We have laws [on counter-terrorism] and we have action plans, but unlike in the UK it’s not a hot topic – most of the work is done by NGOs at the national level. But here youth policies are really new – we have had laws in place since 2016. I feel like I’m obliged to know things, but I have no role models, no people to learn from. Connecting with schools in your municipality is easy, but connecting with others is much harder, and they also have good advisers.”

Municipalities are expected to achieve benchmarks and hit targets, but the fundamental support structures, institutional knowledge and referral mechanisms are lacking. More than that, there is little in the way of cooperation or communication with other municipalities, which compounds wider efforts to compare different models, contrast data, or adapt or improve existing methods. This reluctance to cooperate with other municipalities is partly owed to the recent nature of the laws; however, it is also due to a lack of funding. As Marijeta explains,

Challenges are always financial in nature. I always have a lot of support from my superiors… but we are a poor municipality. Doing a project for us is only possible if we get funds from some programme. And that is our main problem – the financial sustainability of everything you start.”

(Above) Berane is located in north-east Montenegro, about 15km from the border with Kosovo.

She is, however, optimistic about the future, with a local action plan for youth due to be written this year which promises to address the gap between youth work and PVE. Ever-ambitious, Marijeta also has grand plans for the future.

“I would like to speak at the national level… to connect young people, because the best thing for young people is if they meet different people [of different regions, cities, countries, religions etc.] I know from my experience that this is the best method. I’m changing things here [at the local level] because nowhere else in Montenegro is work being done like this.”

You can find links to Marijeta’s articles below:

Youth can make a difference

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