Bosnian Genocide Educational Trust was formally established in 2020 following 7 years of tireless efforts by our Founder and Chair, Smajo Bešo, and his peacebuilding, campaigning, and educational work through the sharing of his own story of becoming a refugee and living through the Bosnian war.
Life in Bosnia
Smajo was 6 years old when the war against Bosnia began. He survived so called “ethnic cleansing”, living under siege in East Mostar, his father’s imprisonment in a concentration camp, and the murder of his aunt Emina by Bosnian-Croat nationalist extremists. In July of 1994, he was brought to Newcastle upon Tyne with his siblings and mother as part of a UK government programme, in collaboration with international humanitarian agencies, known as the ‘Bosnia Project’. His father, who Smajo had not seen for a year by that point, was brought separately to the UK 7 months earlier from a Croatian concentration camp.
Since this time Smajo has come to learn of some of the incredible people that helped to bring his family to safety including former Labour MP of Newcastle Jim Cousins, family reunion coordinator of the International Welfare Department Anna Moore, who personally went to find Smajo and his family in Mostar in 1994, as well as Sarah McHugh, who actually typed the names of Smajo and his relatives into a letter to the UK Home Office requesting their visa approval.
Arriving in the UK
Arriving at Newcastle airport as a 9-year-old refugee, Smajo realised he had to start life all over again. All the things that anchor a person in life were suddenly gone; family, home, community, culture, language and the ability to read and write. Smajo’s dad, Džemal, was already living in a reception centre set up for Bosnian refugees on Linden Road in Gosforth, Newcastle upon Tyne.
Smajo remembers the first day in Newcastle, hearing birds for the first time in years, appreciating the silence and sounds of the city without explosions, gun fire and screams. He also remembers the first time he saw his father in over a year and realising how much they had both changed. He was excited that his family was finally reunited but his first night in Newcastle would be the beginning of his struggle with PTSD waking up screaming from terrible nightmares.
The road to recovery has been a long one for Smajo and his family and it is only possible with the help of other people. After everything that they had been through and experienced, what they wanted more than anything was to be recognised as human beings, for people to see that they had a history, dreams, relationships and hopes for the future. And that is exactly what the people of the North East did, welcoming the family with great generosity and compassion. They had volunteers that took the Bešo’s on to day trips around the North East, teachers that helped Smajo and his siblings with learning English and homework, kind people like Christina and John, an elderly couple who lived next to the reception centre, opened their home for all the families living in the centre, cooking meals and organising dinner parties for them. So many incredible acts of kindness like this.
Smajo and his siblings, sister Senada and brother Sead, started school in Gosforth only 2 months after arriving in Newcastle but quickly had to readjust again to a new school and environment after being housed in Heaton in October of 1994, when council housing became available. Settling into school life in the UK was a difficult process but made easier with individual acts of kindness. One example of this is when Smajo’s classmates at Chillingham Road Primary School surprised him by singing a song in Bosnian for him. While Smajo was having separate English lessons, his amazing teacher, Claire Webster Saaraments, had been secretly teaching the rest of his class to sing a song in Bosnian to make him feel more welcome. He describes this moment of kindness as an act of peace and a reason why he went home with a smile on his face for the first time in months. In 2018, Smajo and Claire’s paths crossed again when they met to work on a project for Holocaust Memorial Day, to record his experience as a Bosnian refugee, neither of them realising that they already knew each other.
Desire to go back
While Smajo and his family where happy to be finally together again, their plan was never to stay in the UK forever. They imagined they would return once the fighting had stopped to family and friends and rebuild their loves once again. The family returned to Bosnia for the first time in 1998, only to find their house was torched by Croatian nationalist extremists. After years of uncertainty, only getting small visa extensions, the family were finally granted indefinite leave to remain in 2002, after 8 years of living in the UK. By this time, Smajo’s sister, Senada had a successful career working with refugees and asylum seekers, while his brother Sead was studying bio-medical science at Newcastle University.
Motivation for this work
As Smajo grew up he became more interested and engaged with local social issues, he began to reflect on his childhood experiences as an adult and felt an increasing desire to seek justice for his family and other victims of war. He explains that he did not have an epiphany or a single moment of revelation for doing this work, but rather a growing consciousness of the world around him, his experiences and the experiences of his family. He could not stand by and do nothing while perpetrators of some of the most inhumane crimes in Bosnia still walked the streets freely and the same ideology that led to the Bosnian genocide was being allowed to flourish across the world.
As a child, Smajo was often reminded by his parents about the importance of remembering and one day telling his story so that we may learn. The passing of his grandmother, Šacira Rizvanović, without ever seeing the killers of her daughter Emina, brought to justice spurred Smajo on. He feared that if he did not tell her story and the story of so many others, their experience would be in vain and lost forever. Smajo started the process of recording memories and preserving stories initially by video recording his parents talking about the war in Bosnia. Hearing his own parents recollect their experiences helped Smajo to piece together his own story of war from a child’s perspective. Since then, storytelling has become a vital part of Smajo’s road to recovery, using it as a tool for education and peace-making as way of reducing the chances of what happened in Bosnia happening anywhere else.
Smajo’s involvement with genocide education started off with more of a ‘background role’; organising events and facilitating other people sharing their stories before he eventually felt comfortable enough to begin sharing his own story. Since then, Smajo has spoken at hundreds of events across the UK and internationally, telling his story at schools, colleges, universities, Government departments and ministries and has reached over 100,000 people to date.
As Smajo reflects on his storytelling journey so far, he recognises that the story of Bosnia is not just about him or his family, but it is the story of all of us, “when someone truly listens and hears another person’s story, it becomes part of their own story, you take it on, and it informs how you relate to the world” in the same way that the people who have listened to Smajo are now part of his story.
Bosnian Genocide Educational Trust
The support and response from listeners over the years has been overwhelming and it has shown that humanising history in this way is an incredibly powerful tool for engagement and reflection. As Smajo witnessed the impact of his story on those listening, he recognised the need to nurture this process to facilitate for other survivors to do the same to ensure their stories are properly heard and validated. The trust was established to do exactly this.
With the help of his good friend and colleague, Emily Scullion, Smajo was able to define what the trust should and could be. A driving factor was the shared belief that as the Bosnian genocide moves further into history, those of us who are still alive must inherit the stories of those who are not and so the trust is imagined as a depository of stories, experiences, memories, objects, and fragments as a way of preserving their stories and humanity. The long-term vision is for this collection and archive to be the cornerstone of all future research, educational and creative material to facilitate reflection, teaching and learning. One of the trust’s primary aims is to add the Bosnian genocide and war to the UK National Curriculum.
Just as peace is built on a foundation of collaboration and teamwork, the Bosnian Genocide Educational Trust could not have been established without the tireless support and efforts of a diverse and passionate group of people including friends, family members, activists, faith leaders from the Christian, Jewish and Muslim communities, journalists amongst many others. One of the fundamental principles of how BGET works is to continue to nurture these relationships to collaborate on achieving our shared goal of creating a better place to live in.
The war against Bosnia has shown that peace isn’t just the absence of war, rather peace is all the actions taken to prevent war. Smajo remembers all the selfless people in the North East that showed compassion through individual acts of peace. Remembering is important to paying respect to the past but only by taking action will we build a better future for us all. Smajo describes the trust as his act of peace.
We are extremely grateful for to all those who have contributed to this work of peace. We call you all to join us on our journey.