There is almost no country in the world that he has not visited, but he remained in the Balkans. He currently lives in Banja Luka, Republic of Srpska, Bosnia and Herzegovina. When he talks about himself, often jokingly, he says that he is from the United States of Banja Luka. For John, his friends like to say that it has a Balkan soul. In order to find out exactly why he came to the Balkans and what led him to spend the past 16 years away from his homeland, we aked him a few questions.
1. What can you say about yourself and your career?
I grew up in the USA state of Virginia, in the suburbs of Washington DC. I developed a strong interest in social justice and equality issues from a young age. My early career in the USA was focused on work with young people who were experiencing trauma in the home and were displaying emotional and behavioral issues. I have a bachelor in psychology and a master’s in youth development.
My career path took a turn (a positive one) when I came to Bosnia and Herzegovina in 1996 on what was going to be a short term volunteer experience working with the local NGO Hi Neighbor. I did not know at that time that the experience would change my life and 16 years later I would still be living and working here. I was involved with some dedicated Banja Luka students in 1997 with the start of Youth Communication Center NGO (which recently celebrated its 15th Anniversary) and in 1998 I started working with CARE International. I have a strong interest in the positive and healthy development of young people. This includes looking at government policies that contribute to the healthy development of youth; the supports needed, including what we can do to help families and how the community, through schools and NGOs can contribute; and most importantly how we can empower young people to play active roles in their own development (and the larger societies).
2. Is the job the only reason for coming to the Balkans?
I have always had a strong interest in Eastern Europe, from a cultural and historical perspective. I did some work in Russia before coming to this region and that contributed to my general interest. I also met someone on a train traveling from Romania to Ukraine in 1993 from Bosnia and Herzegovina and that encountered really strengthened my interest in knowing more about the country.
3. Did you have prejudices about the Balkans?
I don’t believe so but others may be better judges of that. I had done lots of reading on the former Yugoslavia before coming. I don’t believe one should solely base their understanding of different places on media accounts however.
4. What are the common prejudices that people from the USA have about the Balkans?
Well having not lived in the USA for such a long time that is a difficult question to answer. I think a lot of people don’t have a detailed knowledge about the region, unless it pops up in the headlines. Of course many of the diaspora from this region who lives in the USA stay up on current developments. So some people may still think things are like it was in 1994 or others may just not be informed. You can see obviously from Hollywood movies that it plays into stereotypes in many cases about using different villains from this region and unfortunately that may contribute to negative impressions.
5. Can you describe the Balkans in 5 words?
Fascinating, Complicated, Beautiful, Diversity, Important.