For nearly six years, Jelena Borak ’15 lived a life of chaos and terror in the war-torn Balkan states that comprised the former Yugoslavia. Born in Croatia in 1993 to parents of Serbian descent, Borak experienced first-hand the ethnic hatred that tore the region apart as her family moved from town to town in Croatia, Serbia and Kosovo to escape the bombing and shelling.
The family fled to the United States in 1999, settling in Boise, Idaho, but Borak has returned to Croatia several times since then. She’s listened to old friends and relatives talk about the scars of war. “There’s still a stark divide between the Croats and the Serbs in my hometown of Knin,” she says. “But my theory is that when stories about the war are shared, that’s when some of the healing can begin.”
Starting this summer, Borak will test that theory. She has been awarded a Thomas J. Watson Fellowship to spend 12 months talking to people whose families have experienced trauma and conflict in other parts of the world. Borak will begin her journey in July at a peace conference in Belgium, then spend several weeks in Northern Ireland. Later she’ll travel to Cyprus and visit a theater camp that was established to bring the children of Greek and Turkish Cypriots together. The second half of her trip will include visits to South Africa, Nepal, Korea and Thailand.
Borak says she purposely decided not to make the Balkans a part of her itinerary. “I’m still much too close to that conflict to be objective,” she says. Most of the countries she chose for the trip were involved in conflicts she studied in history or political science courses at Vassar.
Borak’s goal is to find out how survivors of violent conflicts and their families use storytelling to help them cope with the trauma of war. “As someone who has family members on both sides of a conflict, I’ve always been conscious of the shared pain that envelops a nation at war,” she says. “Storytelling – giving testimony about one’s own experiences – provides each survivor with a platform to describe the impact that the conflict has had.”
Borak says she believes the experiences of her childhood as well as her Vassar education, both in and out of the classroom, will enable her to engage and empathize with the men and women she meets during her journey. “I realize I’ll be facing many obstacles, many language and cultural barriers, during the trip,” she says, “but I’ve always been someone whose been able to adapt, as a child coming to this country and someone who came to Vassar from Idaho, not knowing anyone here.”
Borak says she’ll use the writing skills she learned as an English major and the skills she acquired as a peer listener for CARES, a student-run service that provides support for those who have undergone various forms of personal trauma. “A lot of the training we receive is about listening in an empathetic way, and that’s a skill that translates directly to what I’ll be doing on this fellowship.”
As her trip approaches, she describes it as “exciting and scary” but Borak says she’s anxious to begin. “I think Vassar has prepared me well,” she says. “You’re taught here to question everything, and that mind set will certainly help me. And through my training at CARES and my own experience, I’ve learned not to judge anyone, to try to understand their point of view.
“There’s no better way to answer my own questions about war and peace building and reconciliation than to listen to stories of love, loss, pain and hope,” Borak says. “With this fellowship, I’ve been given the rare opportunity to do that.”