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Bosnian students who fought school segregation win prestigious award

Days after their victory was announced, over 100 students from across Bosnia rallied outside the Central Bosnia Canton building in Travnik on Tuesday, June 20, to protest the ongoing policy of school segregation around the country. (WNV/Anela Ibraković)

Last year, high school students from Jajce, Bosnia and Herzegovina, successfully defeated a government plan to segregate their school. Now they are the recipients of a prestigious award for their courage and persistence. On Friday, the students were named winner of the 2018 Max van der Stoel Award — a $58,600 prize awarded by an international jury through the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, or OSCE. The award is given every two years for outstanding achievements in promoting integration and social cohesion in OSCE countries.

Nikolas Rimac, one of the high school students who led the effort against segregation in Jajce, said he hopes the funds will help establish a foundation for student activism in the future. “We are truly keen to use [this money] for goodwill and a better tomorrow,” Rimac said.

Beginning in the summer of 2016, the students in Jajce, a small town in central Bosnia, organized protests and creative actions in opposition to a plan by local government officials to divide high school students based on ethnic identity. The plan to create a new high school serving only Bosniak (Bosnian Muslim) students would further a policy called “Two Schools Under One Roof,” established after the end of the Bosnian War and still applied in over 50 schools across the country. The plan to segregate Jajce’s high school was condemned by students and local activists as a politically-motivated attempt to gain votes in an upcoming election, and would have entrenched existing institutional divisions among the younger generation.

Students of all backgrounds marched through the center of town carrying flags to represent all three ethno-national groups — Croatian, Serbian and Bosnian — living in Jajce, and began to speak publicly about their plan to organize resistance to the new school.

Despite discouragement from community members, classmates and often their own parents, the students continued to speak out against the segregation plan. The students gave interviews with numerous media outlets and held classroom walk-outs, eventually gaining support from leaders in the international community who exert considerable influence on Bosnia and Herzegovina’s political system. Some teachers joined in supporting the students, despite risking their jobs and reputations for standing against local political leaders.

Young people from around the country joined the Jajce students by holding rallies in their own towns, drawing nationwide attention to the continued practice of “two schools under one roof.” In June 2017, the government of the Central Bosnian Canton officially dropped the plan to segregate their high school — a resounding success for the small band of students who sparked a national conversation on the future of divided schools in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

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The award was established in 2001 by the Netherlands’ Ministry of Foreign Affairs and is named after renowned Dutch statesman Max van der Stoel, who became the first OSCE High Commissioner on National Minorities in 1993. The prize is a significant recognition of the students’ tenacity and bravery in standing up to their political leaders, and may motivate future student actions to promote school integrations across Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Rimac noted that the students are still discussing how the funds will be allocated and distributed. He said he hopes the students’ success in Jajce will inspire other students throughout Bosnia to challenge division in their own schools.

“It is our duty to react against discrimination,” said Rimac, who will begin his university studies in philosophy this fall in Sarajevo. “We think we are a crucial part of the development of the political system, no matter [what people may think].”