Alum speaks on life in the former Yugoslavia
In the former Yugoslavia, Ariele Cohen ’99 engaged directly with the study of ethnic conflict during the summer entering her senior year at Brandeis. She was a member of the inaugural class of Sorensen Fellows, and during this time abroad she cultivated skills such as the art of listening and withholding preconceptions of others. On Oct. 22, Cohen returned to Brandeis to share her experiences in Yugoslavia and the lessons that she has carried forward in her life and career.
“Our tag line these days is, we pay you 4,000 dollars, you put social justice into action,” Marci McPhee said of the Sorensen Fellowship’s objective in her introduction of Cohen at the event. McPhee oversees the Sorensen Fellowship as the director of campus programs at the International Center for Ethics, Justice and Public Life at Brandeis. The event, titled “A Sorensen Fellow’s Journey from the Balkans to Wall Street: Implementing Lessons Learned in Unexpected Ways,” was hosted by the Ethics Center.
The Sorensen Fellowship was the first program out of the Ethics Center after its founding in 1998, McPhee explained, because the Ethics Center “wanted to make a deep impact right away on the undergraduate population.” Sorensen Fellows spend a summer abroad working at an internship related to social justice, as well as enrolling in courses in the spring and fall bookending their internship abroad to prepare for, and then reflect on, their experiences. According to the Ethics Center website, there have now been over 100 active Fellowship alumni since the program began.
Cohen is the first Sorensen Fellow Mini-Resident, which is a new program that is the result of a grant from Gillian Sorensen, a member of the Ethics Center’s international advisory board. Gillian is the widow of President John F. Kennedy’s speechwriter and Founding Chair of the Ethics Center’s Board, Theodore Sorensen, for whom the Fellowship is named.
“The decision to go to the former Yugoslavia kind of fit naturally within the coursework I was studying,” Cohen affirmed at the beginning of her presentation. She had spent time working with Prof. Steven Burg (POL), who was studying Yugoslavia at the time and was acquainted with a group of international professionals who had come from Yugoslavia to study at Brandeis as fellows. One had founded the Center for Anti-War Action, where Cohen would ultimately complete her Sorensen Fellow internship while in the former Federal Republic of Yugoslavia.
In 1998, the region of Yugoslavia was rife with conflict from the Bosnian-Serbian War and the emerging war in Kosovo, Cohen explained. “There was a lot to talk about in the context of co-existence and ethnic conflict,” she stated. She spent the summer living in Belgrade, interning at the Center for Anti-War Action, whose purpose was to build civil society and democracy in Yugoslavia, while also discoursing with the non-governmental organization community on the topic of ethnic conflict.
Cohen stated that she feels she derived important lessons from her time in the former Yugoslavia. In her presentation she emphasized “learning the art of listening, first of all, and the art that you can’t judge people by what they look like.”
As an example, Cohen offered, “I met somebody that was selling newspapers on the street and later found out that he used to be professor of psychology and was a national chess champion in Yugoslavia.”
In addition, Cohen also spent two weeks at a summer school in Montenegro to talk to young people from all over the Balkans about their struggles with ethnic conflict. She gained an appreciation for having direct interactions with people and their lives in conflict zones, stating, “If you listened to their stories you get a much richer sense of what is going on rather than necessarily being inside and reading about it.”
After her time in Yugoslavia, Cohen stated that she “felt like I didn’t even scratch the surface.” Wanting to build on her first-hand experience with ethnic conflict and social justice, Cohen moved to Sri Lanka for a year and half after graduating law school. Living in Sri Lanka during the turmoil of a tsunami, Cohen stated that she “realized that small things can actually make a big difference.”
She added that some of these realizations were “that somebody can give you a pair of underwear and really help you kind of manage to survive. Somebody can hold your hand. Little things like that make a big difference in the world.”
Cohen then explained that although she is now a corporate lawyer, her time as a Sorensen Fellow still impacts how she operates in her career. She does significant pro bono work as part of her legal career, helping students with learning disabilities obtain benefits from the Department of Education, as well as working with Iraqi and Afghani nationals employed by the United States government as interpreters obtain special immigration visas.
McPhee then revealed that she had brought a booklet of questions that Cohen had written in the 1998 Sorensen Fellowship exhibition publication, a booklet that every class of Sorensen Fellows compiles detailing their key dilemmas, reflections and conclusions following their work experience.
Cohen took time to converse with the questions she had written after her time in Yugoslavia.
In 1998, she had offered the question, “How can I, as an American, empathize with and understand the powerful emotions associated with a nationality and ethnicity in the Balkans?” Answering her younger self, Cohen maintained, as she had throughout the event, that the key to understanding other people is to enter situations open to listening without judgment, always with honesty about one’s own self-identity.
The event concluded with an audience discussion on sources of conflict and peace. One audience member discussed a Croatian friend of his at Brandeis who, during the height of the Croatian-Serbian conflict in Yugoslavia, had still managed to bond with other Serbians at the University over their shared experiences and cultures.
Cohen ended by offering that disparities in wealth and social status exacerbate ethnic tension, concluding, “When people don’t have their basic needs met, it’s harder to address the questions of co-existence and living together.”