“Surva” – Bulgarian masquerade festival between the tradition and the modernity

By Rumyana Yotova,  American Councils Bulgaria Program assistant

On January 28th American Councils team in Sofia together with YES abroad students Rachel Freeman and Elijah Septoff visited the International festival of masquerade games “Surva”. The festival traditionally takes place in the city of Pernik every year in the last weekend of January and it is the biggest event not only for Bulgaria but in Balkan context as well.

The festival promotes ancient masquerade rituals known in Bulgaria as Kukeri and Survakari, that are still alive in the folklore tradition but also integrate new interpretation of the mask culture. It is a competitive event in which more then 100 groups from almost every folklore region in Bulgaria are taking part as well as the International competition with companies from Europe, Asia and Africa. The participants are marching in a procession showing not only their masks and costumes but also dancing and making sounds with huge bells hanging from their belts or performing different shows. According to the traditions these pre-spring rituals are performed by single men and are related to the end of the old year and the advent of the new with the wish for a rich harvest, health and fertility for humans and farm animals. The role of the mask is to protect from the harmful influence of impure powers and it usually represent heads of peculiar creatures with scary faces.

During the festival the YES abroad students had the chance to get familiar with these ancient pagan rituals still part of the Bulgarian culture. Besides the variety of handcraft masks Rachel and Elijah were able to see national costumes from different ethnological regions that participants were wearing as well as performing folklore music and dances . Some of the groups were also representing scenes of country life and different roles in the Bulgarian patriarchal family as well as traditional rituals such as wedding.

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Yes abroad students next to a Kuker. According to some beliefs touching the masked men brings good luck and good health.

Not Quite 17 Again: A YES Abroad Alumna Returns to Sarajevo

By Emma Morgan, American Councils BiH Administrative Intern, YES Abroad Bosnia and Herzegovina ’14

Returning to the place where you were a high school exchange student is a strange thing. At times, you feel like you’re 17 again, but the trick is to remember that you’re not. You’re older now, and (hopefully) wiser. You’ve been given an opportunity not just to revisit all your favorite spots, but to dive deeper and learn more about the city you called home for a year.

That’s what I’ve been telling myself since arriving back in Sarajevo, but the truth is old habits die hard. The french bakery will always be where I go to treat myself and I’m loyal to one doner place, and one doner place only. Even so, I’ve made it my personal mission to do the things in Sarajevo I neglected to or wasn’t able to do in high school.

Before I started my year as a YES Abroad student, I devoured information about Bosnia. I read countless books and articles about the country’s past and present. Once I arrived, however, I never really took advantage of the in-country opportunities to explore Bosnian history. I guess I had decided early into my exchange year that museums were for tourists and that I was no tourist. In hindsight, that was a very dumb decision.

In order to right my previous wrong, I’ve decided that I’ll spend my second term in Sarajevo visiting as many museums, lectures, and events in the city as I’m interested in. First on my list, is the National Museum. It was closed the year I was here in high school so I never got the chance to see the Sarajevo Haggadah, which actually played a large role in what that initially got me interested in Bosnia. Lucky for me, February 1st is the Museum’s 129th birthday and they’re hosting a special viewing of the original Haggadah. Talk about serendipity!

Onto the next phase of my mission: making more friends. When I was in high school here I spent the majority of my free time with my fellow Americans or other international students. I only really had one or two close Bosnian friends that I would hang out with, and now they both attend universities outside of the country. As a result, I’m left back in Sarajevo without the friends I made here the first time around.

So I’m faced with two options: make more friends while I’m here or become a hermit. I’m far too talkative to really enjoy a life of social seclusion, so the former option wins out. Unfortunately, I’m no longer in school here which means that I run into far fewer people in a day. I, therefore, have to seek out spaces where I have the opportunity to meet new people and make friends. (A ˝high contact˝ situation as my sociology professor back in the US would call it).

Cafés, for example, the hallmark of Bosnian social life, are actually not great high contact locales. People go there to hang out with the friends they’ve already made, not to meet new ones.  Gyms are equally tricky, because even if they’re crowded, most people (myself included) want to tune out the world and listen to music while they work out. As such, I’ve turned my attention to clubs and classes around the city. These are great spots to potentially meet a friend, because they guarantee that me and my hypothetical new friend already share at least one interest.So far, I have the information for three different groups around the city. My plan is to test the waters of each and find one that is both fun and social.

I doubt that most people feel the need to jump into new routines when they visit the place they studied abroad, but I really do. By seeing and doing more here than I did the first time around, I’m not allowing myself to think of my exchange experience as open and shut. I consider my year as a YES Abroad student here a success, but it was more of an Act I of the ˝Emma in Bosnia˝ story (working title) rather than the whole show. I’m back, the curtain is rising on Act II, and now the fun really starts.

YES Abroad Macedonia Mid-Year Orientation (January 16th and 17th, 2017 – Veles, Macedonia)

By Vesna Naumovska, YES Abroad Coordinator

It’s been 5 months that we have Jeremy, Kyra, Jaleh and Arshia in Macedonia. They were not happy at all that they are on a half way of their exchange, so instead of Mid-Year Orientation we called this Orientation “Trip to Veles”.

We organized everything for our trip on Monday, except the weather – we couldn’t control the weather and since it was snowing so much we couldn’t get on the morning train as planned so we took the later bus instead and we made it safely to Veles.

We had very successful Mid-Year Orientation in Hotel Gardenia. Reflecting on goals and expectations, setting up new goals for the next 5 months and seeing how much students have grown was very interesting and valuable for all.


Mid-Year Orientation is so essential and students understood the value of it when they were done with all activities. We ended up the first day with relaxing activities enjoying the spa and wellness center at the hotel.

The following day the YES Abroad students met with Aleksandra Najdevska, YES Alumna from Veles. Thank you Aleksandra for spending time with us and sharing your exchange experience. It is always interesting to hear stories from YES Alumni.

My dear students, every day you experience something new. Time flies, so don’t waste time on worries and things that you cannot change or control. Enjoy the rest of your stay in Macedonia, explore and share and be the best youth Ambassadors that you can.


Holiday Cheer At The American Corner in Banja Luka

By Lela Draganić, YES Programs Local Coordinator for Bosnia and Herzegovina


YES Abroad student Tana and Deputy Director of the Embassy Branch Office with kids at Thanksgiving

YES Abroad student Tana and Deputy Director of the Embassy Branch Office with kids at Thanksgiving

For three years now, the American Corner in Banja Luka has been a wonderful partner to American Councils in Bosnia and Herzegovina. They had provided us with the space to host our events, workshops and activities, and YES alumni and YES Abroad participants volunteer or come with their ideas and organize activities.

This year, we have celebrated every holiday at the Corner: Halloween, Thanksgiving and Christmas. Together with U.S. Embassy Banja Luka Branch Office staff, YES Abroad student Tana Korhonen and Cole Potter came up with fun games for elementary school kids and helped read famous American children’s stories on the day. With lots of laughter and squeals, the kids got to participate in a Mummy wrapping competition (toilet paper standing in for ancient band aids),  stuck their hands into ”Mystery Boxes” and touched eyeballs (peeled grapes) and raw brains (spaghetti). While our YES Abroad students were busy chasing after the youngsters, YES alumna Jelena Pilipović spoke to the media about the YES program and the work of American Councils in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

YES alumna Jelena Pilipović, PY 15/16, giving an interview during Halloween activities

YES alumna Jelena Pilipović, PY 15/16, giving an interview during Halloween activities

For Thanksgiving, YES Abroad student Tana helped Mrs. Sutton Meagher, the Deputy Director of the U.S. Embassy Branch Office, read stories to kindergarten and elementary school students. After this ”StoryTime” activity, the kids did some crafts and played games.

YES Abroad student Tana and Mrs. Sutton Meagher reading stories during Thanksgiving celebrations

YES Abroad student Tana and Mrs. Sutton Meagher reading stories during Thanksgiving celebrations


Two days after Christmas, during a time slot when the Fulbright English Teaching Assistant, Ellie Dupler, runs her English conversation class they screened the now staple Christmas movie, ”Elf”, to a crowd of some 25 people. Since it was announced we would be creating a proper holiday atmosphere and bring some additional cheer by serving hot chocolate, tea, coffee and sweets to the audience, both kids, young adults and adults were in attendance.

Thank you to the American Corner, Fulbright English Teaching Assistants and the U.S. Embassy Branch Office staff. We are looking forward to many more activities and holidays with you!

YES Abroad student Tana hosting the Christmas movie night at the Corner

YES Abroad student Tana hosting the Christmas movie night at the Corner




A Brewed Awakening: Bosnian Tradition Brings the Feeling of Home

By: Ben B., YES Abroad 2016-2017, Bosnia and Herzegovina

This story was originally written for the Sarajevo Times, an online English language media outlet based in Sarajevo, on November 24, 2016. 

Almost every day, my host brother asks me, “Hoćeš kafu? Do you want coffee?”, to which I always reply yes. After preparing the drink the traditional Bosnian way, he carefully pours the hot black coffee from its džezva. My host brother passes me the the small cup and we sit back and slowly sip our drinks. This Bosnian tradition has become a tradition for me too, and is something I have come to appreciate and enjoy. Drinking coffee with my host family is one of my favorite parts of the day, and is part of what makes me feel truly at home living in a city over 6000 miles away from home.

Ben Blum Bosnian Coffee

My name is Ben Blum, and I am a 16-year old American high school student from the coasts of California, living in Bosnia and Herzegovina as a “youth ambassador” on the Kennedy-Lugar YES Abroad program. I’ve been in Sarajevo for almost three months now, and so far my time here has been filled with learning a new language, exploring a new city and meeting new people. Even though studying abroad has had its highs and lows, living in Bosnia and being able to open my eyes to a new culture and way of life has been an incredibly life-changing experience for me so far. From playing late night pickup basketball games with my host brothers to helping my host mom peel dried grah beans, being immersed into the daily life of Sarajevo has taught me so much about the culture of the country I now call my home.

As the excitement of living in a new city has faded into daily life for me, I have realized how similar the culture of my Bosnian host family is to the culture of my American family. Despite speaking different languages and celebrating different traditions, I believe that we are alike in more ways that we are different. When I first arrived in Bosnia, I was able to connect with my host brothers through shared interests and beliefs. Despite growing up in different countries, we became closer because of our shared passion for graphic design, photography and the NBA. We even read the same books, just translated into our own languages. Moreover, I have noticed my two families share common goals and aspirations, and both strive for a better future for not only themselves, but for their friends, their community, and their country. My two families also share common fears and worries for the future. Understanding and accepting these shared aspects of our cultures has made living in Sarajevo even more meaningful for me – not only has it expanded my worldview, it has made me realize how similar we all are, regardless of where we’re from for what we believe in.

When I leave Bosnia and Herzegovina in June, it is this idea that I want to carry with me back home. Today, more conflicts are being ignited because of cultural differences than ever before. Religion, language, traditions and beliefs – more and more, we are becoming divided by the qualities that makes us us. How can we progress as a nation and as a world if we are stuck fighting battles over culture? Through immersing myself in a culture different from my own, I have realized that these conflicts could be more easily resolved if people simply open their eyes, hearts and minds to other cultures, and accept others for who they truly are instead of who they are thought to be.

Thanksgiving in Macedonia

By Jeremy Slater, YES Abroad 2016-17, Macedonia (Skopje)


Wow! Time is flying by. As the remaining leaves wither and fall from the trees and the temperature continues to drop, I am reminded of my favorite season, fall. I love this season for many reasons; however, Thanksgiving is by far my most favorite part of autumn.

Thanksgiving is a special time for many American families. It is a time where nuclear and extended families rejoin, eat many flavorful dishes, and have fellowship. I was cautious to celebrate Thanksgiving this year, because being away from my family seemed like a very difficult thing to do. 2016 has been an uphill battle for my family, and celebrating a holiday where family is the center was causing me turmoil. Nonetheless, the wonderful friends I have made here helped this holiday become wonderful, extremely unique, and exciting.

My YES family, which included many entertaining alumni, all had Thanksgiving dinner on Wednesday (the night before Thanksgiving). The current YES American students were organized to bring our favorite holiday dishes, and they all turned out phenomenal!


I was enlisted to cut the turkey. Let’s just say, I am not the head-of-the-house just yet…

I was enlisted to cut the turkey. Let’s just say, I am not the head-of-the-house just yet…

Finished product!!!

Finished product!!!


Also, I was invited by my American friend from church for a Thanksgiving dinner on Thursday. I was very happy to share Thanksgiving with my church family, and I was eager to talk to the Macedonians there about what this holiday means for our families. I am so incredibly thankful for the people who have come into my life; this year I have so much to be thankful for. While at my church’s Thanksgiving dinner, I met three Syrian refugees, who are seeking asylum in Skopje. They have journeyed here from Aleppo and it was very, very interesting talking to them about their odyssey.

Finally, as I end this blog post, I want to thank my two families, my coordinators and directors in DC, my lovely friends back in the States and abroad, for their unending display of love, support, and kindness as this year progresses. Being abroad during the holidays is never going to be easy, but being surrounded by an immensity of tenderness has made it so much easier. I am still so in awe for how incredibly blessed I am and I hope that this year continues to get even better.




European Day of Languages celebrated at JBT host high school

– By Jaleh Shambayati , YES Abroad 2016-17,  Macedonia ( Skopje)


The European Day of Languages is an event sponsored by the Council of Europe that is dedicated to recognizing the diversity of languages spoken throughout the world. This year the European Day of Languages was September 26, and schools all over the continent planned events meant to engage students in learning about a variety of international languages. Several Macedonian schools participated in the day, including Gymnasium Josip Broz Tito (JBT) where two YES Abroad students Kyra Jasper and I are enrolled for this academic year.

At JBT, the 3rd year IB students and the school’s various language departments (including English, Macedonian, Turkish, French, and German) were responsible for planning activities centered around different world languages. Each language represented got its own booth to showcase aspects of the language and the cultures of the countries it is spoken in.


Jaleh EDL

Jaleh serving apple pie at the English language booth

As native English speakers and exchange students from the United States, Kyra and I were responsible for helping with the English language booth. We presented pictures of the UK, Australia, and the US as well as books in English. We also served English tea and American apple pie, which were a big hit.

There was also an elaborate scavenger hunt where each clue was in a different language that was planned and executed by our class. The scavenger hunt was a huge success, and crowds of students were running around the school trying to decipher each of the clues for over an hour!

The main event of the day was a foreign language spelling bee where participants tried to spell out words in French, English, and German. At the end of the event, prizes were given out to the top spellers and the winners of the scavenger hunt. Overall the day was a big success; there were over 100 participants in total, and we all left knowing a little more about European languages.





Wedding Weekend in the Hills of Bosnia and Herzegovina

By Tana Korhonen, YES Abroad 2016-17, Bosnia and Herzegovina (Banja Luka)

Tana with her host mom, host sister and girl at the wedding


This weekend, I attended a wedding in a small town called Mrkonjić Grad, which is approximately 36 miles of winding roads away from Banja Luka, my home in Bosnia and Herzegovina. I was so excited to see a different part of my host country, and I was not disappointed. The drive alone was incredibly beautiful.

My host family and I arrived at the reception space around 1:45pm, where we ate meat and bread while chatting with family and friends. A few hours later, the bride and groom marched in accompanied by two accordion players. Everyone stood and cheered and began to dance in the middle. Then, we walked to the beautiful Orthodox church down the road, where the ceremony was held.

The ceremony was very different than weddings in the U.S. Everyone stood–women on the left and men on the right–and it lasted about 45 minutes in total. The priest did not speak, but sang. He had such a beautiful voice, and it echoed through the church. I did not understand most of it, as he sang very quickly, so I spent most of the time admiring the mosaics on the walls. Toward the end of the ceremony, the bride and groom both had crowns placed on their heads, then they switched crowns. After they had switched crowns, everyone walked to the front of the church to kiss the bride and groom.




Next, we went outside where a few fun traditions took place. One thing that is the same in weddings in the U.S. and Bosnia is the throwing of the bouquet. The bride stood on the church steps and threw her flowers, and whoever caught it is said to be the next one to marry. Another tradition is called the “Kum’s Moneybag.” The kum, or Godfather of the bride and groom, otherwise known as the Best Man in the U.S., has a bag of coins and candy, which he throws for guests to collect from the ground.

Students from the nearby school came and did a traditional dance. It was so fun to watch them dance and see traditional Bosnian clothes. After the dancing, we ate soup, bread, and a lot of meat–there was pork, followed by meat platters with sausage, chicken, kebabs, and more. During the meal, another interesting tradition took place. A friend of the bride steals the bride’s shoe, and the Godfather (Best Man) has to go and pay to “buy” back the bride’s shoe. The amount he pays depends on the person who stole the shoe because they have to bargain about the price. After we were done eating, everyone got up and danced. I had a lot of fun dancing to narodna muzika, or popular folk music and even learned a traditional dance. It seemed like every time I sat down someone new was pulling me by the arm back to the dance floor. After a while of dancing, the lights turned off and the wedding cake was rolled in, complete with a sparkler on top.

After eating cake, everyone got back to dancing. Eventually, my host sister and I were too exhausted to continue dancing, so we went to my host grandparents’ house to sleep. The next morning, I was woken up and taken back to the reception space. Not everyone who was at the reception the night before was there–only close friends and family–but that was still at least 60 people. We ate the same meal that was served at the wedding, and then my family and I drove back to Banja Luka.

Overall, I had an amazing weekend. I love my host city of Banja Luka, but seeing different parts of the country is incredible. I learned a lot more about the culture, met amazing people, and had fun dancing the night away. Everyday I become more amazed at the beauty of the landscape and people of Bosnia and hope I’ll have the opportunity to attend another wedding soon.


Tana with her host sister and best man or kum    Bride groom best man and wedding party


YES Alumni Mingle at Welcome Party

To celebrate the return of the YES Alumni 2015-2016, a party was held at American Councils on Saturday, June 25. The new alumni retuned to Macedonia from the United States a few days before the party, and the event was a way for them to get to know each other and other YES Alumni.

The party started when those in attendance went around the room to introduce themselves and tell the group where they were placed in the United States. The group then mingled and chatted in both Macedonian and English about their experiences. Alumni discussed what they enjoyed about the United States, what surprised them about the United States, and what they learned during their time abroad.

photo for party

They also shared stories about their unique experiences and then talked about what they hope to accomplish now that they are back in Macedonia and have access to the support system and network of YES Alumni.
Rina Halili, who spent the past year in Minnesota, said she was thankful the party gave her the opportunity to talk with everyone and hear about their experiences.

“Everyone was very welcoming and friendly,” she said. “The alumni really helped us by sharing some information and tips on what can we do in the future as YES Alumni.”

She also said she “really enjoyed” the food at the party. The Mexican lunch included mini burritos and quesadillas in addition to various soft drinks and chocolate-covered churros for dessert.