Young people are taking ownership of their shared heritage in Kosovo*

by Polina Leonov

I arrived in Kosovo from Canada, not knowing what to expect.

I had never been to the Balkans, nor had I any contacts there. All I had to go by was what I had read beforehand in preparation for my internship with the United Nations Development Programme.

During my time here, I’m supporting an initiative on cultural heritage. The programme seeks to build confidence between the communities in Kosovo through restoring heritage sites.

Right before I jumped on the plane, in an attempt to seem somewhat prepared, I typed “Intercultural Relations Kosovo” into my search engine. What came up were images of vandalism, protests and an overarching theme of separatism.

I am roughly nine weeks into my internship now. I am working to help engage local youth through the initiative. We recently organized a workshop with young people in Kamenicë/Kamenica. We wanted to give young people the tools to design their own solutions for protection of cultural heritage of their own land.

As a young person, I often sense a lack of confidence in my generation. In fact, I often fall into that trap myself, assuming my input to be less valuable than those of my supervisors. It was with this mentality that I approached this workshop. What could this group of young people possibly come up with that hasn’t already been proposed by a higher institution?

Not only was I wrong about the capacity of Kosovan youth, but I completely underestimated their will.

The international narrative surrounding Kosovo hadn’t left much room for stories of cooperation and solidarity. But these young people defied everything I had read in preparation for this project, actively challenging the narrative of division.

During the workshop, I watched as they created a list of events that will encourage more people from all communities to take part in cultural heritage initiatives. Music festivals, fashion shows, food festivals and outdoor camping excursions as means to promote cultural heritage sites.

They rebranded cultural heritage as something our team would have never been able to do on their own: they made cultural heritage cool.

They are sparking a movement that re-invents cultural heritage in accordance with the future, their shared future.

(In retrospect, I guess this makes me a bit of a hypocrite.)

We have selected 10 youth ambassadors to represent and coordinate volunteer activities for each of the 10 heritage sites we plan to restore over the course of next year.

These ambassadors will act as the “face” of the sites by sharing their personal stories of cultural heritage.

Such human interest stories bring life to an otherwise inanimate object. They allow people to relate to stories rather than just buildings.

Who are these youth ambassadors?

They are young, passionate innovators that represent communities from all over Kosovo.

They are conceptual design artists, fashion designers, writers and social media gurus that use cultural heritage to inspire their work.

They voted unanimously on the statement, “Cultural heritage is shared. It is not yours or mine, it is ours, and it is our shared responsibility to protect it.”

Young people in Kosovo are setting an example for inter-communal cooperation, celebrating diversity and overcoming difference.

They are pioneering alternatives to inter-ethnic and inter-religious reconciliation, fostering a respect for all cultural identity and heritage.

I consider myself incredibly lucky to be working alongside such talented and passionate individuals. It is an experience that has definitely challenged my perspective on how to bring about positive change and what makes this type of work meaningful.

If you loved this piece, remember to click the heart below and recommend the story to others!

Editor’s Note: This initiative is supported by European Union and implemented by the United Nations Development Programme in Kosovo.

References to Kosovo shall be understood to be in the context of Security Council resolution 1244 (1999).

Show your support

Clapping shows how much you appreciated UNDP Eurasia’s story.