The strength of solidarity
From the Balkans to Ukraine. From Cali to Sarajevo. This is how the story of solidarity at the UB has been built.
Albert Einstein said “those who have the privilege to know, have the duty to act”. In addition to the three traditional aims developed by the universities —teaching, research and knowledge transfer—, the pre-eminence of the fourth —responsibility as a social actor— has characterized the centres historically. Regarding the UB, solidarity is a distinctive feature of its DNA, a source of pride.
The early nineties were turbulent times for the European continent. The several conflicts that erupted in the Balkans opened a wound in the heart of Europe, which was hard to close. The images of destroyed towns, mass graves and forced migratory movements made it to the prime time in television. Since World War II, the continent has not seen a similar degree of destruction. Srebrenica, one of the darkest episodes of our contemporary history, became the largest mass murder in Europe since 1945.
In this context, the University of Barcelona signed an agreement with the Catalan Association for Solidarity and Aid to Refugees (ACSAR) in 1993 to welcome students coming from conflict areas. Elodia Guillamon, member of the Administrative and Service Staff (AdSS) at the Office of Mobility and International Programmes (OMPI), remembers it as if it was today: “Requested by Rector Bricall, the UB was a pioneer in providing support and taking students in not only from countries under war, but also from other unstable areas. For instance, in the academic year 1995-1996 we had students from Bosnia, Peru, Cuba and Western Sahara under the support program”.
This initiative, through which the UB offered free enrolment and accommodation in one of the halls of residence that joined the program, was one of the most distinguished actions launched by the UB during the nineties and it opened the way for the university solidarity that took shape with the UB Solidarity Foundation.
Carles Martí, who was the head of OMPI at the time, visited Bosnia and Herzegovina in 1994 as a member of a delegation sent by the Conference of Rectors of the Spanish Universities (CRUE) to rebuild the local universities: “We went there early; there were many hostilities, and that prevented us from drawing conclusions from this first incursion. But our presence was very important as a recognition and hope for the future”. The UB collaborated decisively in more initiatives launched in Catalonia to support Bosnia, such as the case of the successful District 11, promoted by the Barcelona City Council led by Pasqual Maragall.
Xavier López, director of the UB Solidarity Foundation, explains the genesis of the Foundation: “There were precedents for solidarity actions in the university itself, such as the Món-3 Foundation. Thanks to the insistence of the students and the determination of the people in charge of the university, we created a structure with the aim of uniting this trajectory of solidarity and social transformation within the UB”.
“The reading of this more-than-25-years of history is a positive one —says López—, since they positioned the UB as a social actor of reference in the fields of peacebuilding and solidarity, both in the national and international fields”. With a team of eighteen people, UB Solidarity is structured by projects: the area of education for global citizenship, aimed at promoting the curricular integration of education for peace and human rights; an area of refugees and inclusion, the area of university training and cooperation, and democratic memory issues, conveyed through the European Observatory on Memories (EUROM).
The curriculum of actions of the Foundation is extensive and has had several fields of intervention worldwide. One of these fields was East Timor, where the UB lecturer of Constitutional Law Mar Aguilera, first worked for the United Nations, in 1999, and then with the support from UB Solidarity. East Timor, the Portuguese colony until the Indonesian invasion of 1975, is one of the most paradigmatic examples of violence and violation of human rights. The triumph of the pro-independence option in the 1999 referendum unleashed a wave of violence aimed at intimidating the civilian population. With experience in international observation tasks in more than thirty countries, Aguilera remembers the experience in Timor with sadness: “The 15-day mission, with the support from UB Solidarity, was aimed at finding out how to help the country reconstruct. The situation on land was precarious, since the country was devastated”.
Another country UB Solidarity has contributed to decisively in the peacebuilding process is Colombia. The UB lecturer of Law David Bondia, current ombudsman at the city of Barcelona, was the co-director of the Institute of Intercultural Studies, an entity aimed at social justice and promotion of peace in the country. Bondia, who has been collaborating for more than twenty years with the Foundation in environments such as Palestine and Morocco, says one of the big challenges in the conflict resolution in Colombia was to create a climate of culture of peace: “It was very difficult. We had to talk to and listen to the victims, mainly the invisible ones. This was what the UB Solidarity project was about, to tell and give visibility to the lesser-known stories, both in the South American country and in Barcelona”. “It was essential for the indigenous people, farmers, and Afro-descendants —adds Bondia— to take part in the peace process. This is why UB Solidarity took part in the creation of the Institute, to give a voice to those who do not have it in such conflicts like the one in Colombia”.
Bosnia and Herzegovina is another of the focuses of action of UB Solidarity. “Twenty-six years after the end of the war, the country draws a social map divided into ethnic and religious groups, imposed by the ruling class; it is hard to find spaces where different cultures mix normally, and it was usual before the war”, notes Oriol López, coordinator of the European Observatory on Memories (EUROM). For this reason, since 2018, the Foundation organizes an annual exchange of young students from Catalonia and Bosnia, who are members of the Barcelona Youth Council and the Youth Initiative for Human Rights in Bosnia. “With these exchanges —notes the coordinator— we aim to contribute to the interaction between young people from different groups and collectives in order to be active in the definition and development of memorial initiatives in their countries”.
Syria: the big challenge
López is clear about this. If there is a project he is proud of, that would be the support program to refugees and people from conflict areas. Born in 2016 to deal with the humanitarian crisis in the Arab country, one of the measures the UB launched was a course for university access aimed, in a first phase, to Syrian students, although it later included people from other conflict areas. Now, a new edition aimed at Ukrainian students has been launched too. More than forty students have entered the university rooms. Forty lives that have been recovered.
“This is where the action-result binomial can be best seen —says López regarding the program—. We have taken in people who were under harsh situations at all levels, and with an effort that is comparatively small, they have been able to recover their life horizon”. The coordinator of this program, Cati Jerez, shares the diagnosis: “Following the wave of indignation caused by the image of Aylan on the Turkish coast, the European civil society asked themselves what to do in order to help Syria. The UB knew it could provide support in the human and academic fields, and it could prevent young people from losing their university studies and help many to take back their life horizon”.
Sara Carmona is a student mentor for the refugee students at the UB Solidarity Foundation. Her aim is to accompany, guide and provide emotional support to the students so they can successfully finish their transition course to university studies. “The chance to offer a continuity of life is priceless —says Carmona— and the reward lies in the daily life, when you see they pass a test, when they fall in love, make friends, when they enjoy life again”.
The light at the end of the tunnel
The passing of time does not erase memories and experiences. Guillamon remembers the story of a student of Medicine from Peru who was threatened by Sendero Luminoso, and the University of Barcelona offered this student the chance to start a new life in Spain: “I remember the faces of all the Bosnian students who came here fleeing the war in their country”.
One of those Barcelona stories was written by Liliana Zoranovic, who does not have enough words to thank the UB collaborators for the opportunity to “be one more Catalan”. Zoranovic arrived in Barcelona in 1994, she came from Sarajevo. She admits she took her time to leave the country, which was under attack since 1992. Finally, she arrived in Barcelona transiting through Croatia. “A friend encouraged me —says Zoranovic— and asked the UB if it would accept me. I was very incredulous. But they said yes, and the first year they allowed me to be an unregistered student in the INEFC lessons, the studies I wanted to take up”. A dream that started in 1995 and which finished with success in 2000. She is now a teacher of physical education in a secondary education school in Badalona.
“History is a cycle. Unfortunately —says Zoranovic— wars will never end. Ukraine has woken up my old demons. All the suffering we see on television or social networks, I have lived that myself”. This is the reason it is so important for the universities, like the UB, to provide academic support to the students “who have been left without a country and without a family”, concludes the teacher.
Shahid Sbeih arrived in Barcelona from Syria in October 2016. After finishing the transition course to university students and a training to specialize on audiovisual production, she will retake her studies on Business Administration and Management at the UB in September. “At first, it was very hard —says Sbeih— mainly because of the language. My language is Arabic and it was hard to adapt, but at the end, everything went well. “The UB Solidarity Foundation helped me a lot. I was very young when I came here, I was 18, and I want to emphasize the psychological support they gave me. For me, it was essential to have a helping hand to overcome my traumas”, notes the student.
Watching the horizon
“We tried to optimize to the maximum —says Xavier López— the capacity of the University of Barcelona, which, of course, has limited resources, to try and have the maximum possible incidence with the maximum possible agility”, and adds that “it is about leaving the walls of the university to be effective wherever they need us”.
“You always have some dissatisfaction, because you cannot solve everything you want, but I think we can be proud of the solidarity work at the UB”, concludes López.