Nadja Halilbegovich and Allan Boesak Launch the Youth Fellows Initiative

IMG_0043The Youth Fellows Initiative was launched on September, 24 2014 with opening remarks from both Dr. Allan Boesak, Executive Director of the Desmond Tutu Center for Peace, Reconciliation, and Global Justice, and Dr. Matthew Boulton, President of the Christian Theological Seminary.

The Youth Fellows Program is an empowerment program for young emerging leaders from Central Indiana and South Africa. Youth Fellows will be selected based on their proposed idea for a social justice-related project. The Youth Fellows Initiative supports at-risk youth ages 16 to 21 who want to change and challenge existing norms that prevent their community from achieving equality. The Desmond Tutu Center is partnering with the Peace Learning Center to find these youths and aims to help connect them with other like-minded youth.

IMG_0049In Dr. Allan Boesak’s remarks, he described how the idea for the Youth Fellows Initiative was inspired by a simple concept, to invest in young people in a meaningful way so they may work on their dreams and aspirations and make a difference in the world. He quoted Dr. Boulton who said, “Show me a social movement that makes a difference in the world, and I’ll show you young people.” Dr. Boesak described how the youth of South Africa provided hope in the face of the struggle against apartheid.  In 1976, the youth took leadership in the struggle and set an example of how to look the problem in the eye and address how to make a lasting impact and change. They took their stand to the streets of Soweto, marching non-violently, and although that year they were mowed down by the bullets of police, killed and maimed, they provided a turning point in the struggle. They were willing to give up their own aspirations and ambitions, and to face the guns, be sent to prison, tortured and killed as sacrifices to standing for what they believed. They believed change was possible, if not for them, for the future, and Boesak spoke of his awe for their courage. With this program, we seek those youth here who have not yet succumbed to cynicism, but who still have hope that change is possible, as is the future they envision.

IMG_0058The keynote speech was delivered by Nadja Halilbegovich, youth survivor from the Bosnian War and author of “My Childhood Under Fire:  A Sarajevo Diary.” As she began her speech, she noted that she had two primary contributions to offer to the launch of this initiative. First, that she was a firsthand witness to the effects of war on the lives of civilians, in particular, the lives of children, and that she reminds us that millions of children around the world are still experiencing these effects. This drives her to share her story and be an agent of peace. Second, in using her painful experience to bring about awareness on this issue, she whole-heartedly supports such a program. She noted how important it was that as a young person she was encouraged and empowered to do something in the midst of the horrors of war.

After months of bombings and bullets, her family left the confines of their buildings’ basement and tried to live as normal of a life as possible. Her mom continues to go to her job everyday, and while her father no longer had a job, he spent every day in search of food and collecting water, a deadly endeavor. Her 18-year-old brother whose future plans had been sidelined by the war began working in the kitchen and food service at the UN station. As he served food to the UN workers, with his stomach grumbling, he gathered up the courage to ask to take the food leftovers home with him, instead of throwing them away, and further asked if he could receive payment in food instead of money. He would then come home each day sharing this food with their family and neighbors. These actions inspired Nadja to want to contribute somehow, so one day she called the national radio program and bolding asked if she could read her poetry. They were stunned, but then then allowed it and recorded her, and replayed it many times. The next day she was contacted by the radio station and offered her own radio show. She used this radio show to read from her diary, where she documented their lives to remember all they experienced. Her stories spoke to parents and children alike, and so a national poet asked to read her diary. He said that her diary must be published immediately, not after the war, in order to provide the hope of a child to an entire nation.

She remained in war-torn Bosnia for four years until the age of 16 when she was offered an opportunity to come to America along with 19 other youth. After a harrowing escape through the underground tunnel leading her and her mother out underneath the city, she nearly gave up, but her mother told her, “Remember your dream, Nadja, and keep walking.” So, she turned around and continued. These many years later, she uses her experiences to connect with youth around the world sharing her story and her wish to inspire other youth to choose hope over despair and action over despondence. She said that as a child of war, she is the perfect instrument of peace, and reiterated how important it is for each of us to encourage and empower children who have experienced trauma to also become such instruments of change.


I deeply enjoyed sharing my story and message of peace with the audiences and the staff of DTC at the Youth Fellows Launch on September 24, 2015. As a child-survivor of the war in Bosnia, I will carry the scars and the trauma of my experiences forever. Still, thanks to the great support and encouragement from numerous individuals along my way, I have been able to lead a happy and meaningful life despite the war’s lingering effects. Furthermore, I have become someone who uses her painful experiences to bring about awareness and positive change and I find much meaning and personal healing in the act of speaking and peace making. Thus, I can wholeheartedly offer my support for the Youth Fellows Program which endeavors to offer similar support and empowerment to the young people of Indiana and South Africa so that they may create positive changes in their lives and in their communities. I am genuinely excited and inspired by this project. – Nadja Halilbegovich

Gracious thanks to the Herbert Simon Family Foundation for their support without which this program would not be possible.

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Article by Amie Vanderford, DTC Youth Fellows Coordinator

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