Founder of Bead the Difference
She built a playground and started a summer camp for Bosnian girls to combat religious conflict and sexism.
GLAMOUR: You’ve done some really neat work to promote gender equality and interfaith dialogue in your home country, Bosnia. Tell me about your projects.
Ajla Karajko: The first is Bead the Difference. I wanted to do something in Bosnia, and I connected jewelry making with the female empowerment. So over summer 2011, I taught jewelry design, production, and marketing to 10 young girls in Bosnia. It was hard for some of their families to afford to send them to high school, so they could use the money they made from the jewelry sales to buy books and supplies. The group was Muslim, Christian, and Orthodox. It was great to bring together girls from different ethnic background to practice English, talk about their differences, play, work, and understand each other.
GLAMOUR: What were some of the best interactions you witnessed?
AK: As we got close, we also started talking about their school, my previous school, where there is a fence dividing students of different religions and their separate areas. If a Muslim girl had something bad happen to her by a person of another religion, we’d discuss it. Over time, all these touchy subjects got much easier to talk about.
GLAMOUR: How have you kept the peacemaking and interfaith dialogue discussions going while at Barnard?
AK: I’m an ambassador for One Young World, a giant organization of young people from all over who get together to discuss and create positive change. At the annual summit, I’d just started at Barnard, and my group did a presentation on religion and dialogue in front of Ban Ki-moon, secretary-general of the UN. We expressed the importance of people talking openly about religions and understanding each other’s differences as a means to prevent religious wars. And we stressed how just by discussing this, a lot of poverty could be reduced and more girls, and children in general, could go to school. I’m an intern at the U.N. this semester too.
GLAMOUR: What are some of your memories of growing up in Bosnia?
AK: I don’t remember that much from when I was very little, and unfortunately I don’t even have many pictures because it was war. But I do remember when a grenade hit my apartment. I was three years old and my brother was three days old. There were bullets all around my brother, but none of them touched him – he didn’t even wake up. I call it a miracle, but my whole life, even after the war, the country was in many ways completely destroyed.
GLAMOUR: What impact did that destruction and ongoing conflict have on you?
AK: During the war, I couldn’t do many of the things I wanted. I couldn’t even eat things I wanted. I feel like I missed a lot in those first few years, and now I want to make up for that. I’ve seen so many of the good things out that are out there just from watching TV, and I’ve always wanted to work to give those opportunities to my brother.
GLAMOUR: How does being a woman play into the limitations you faced? And what’s it like being at an all-girls school?
AK: Bosnia is still a very traditional country, and I missed many things just because I’m female. At Barnard, it’s very much devoted to women’s empowerment, which is great. We’re taught to be strong women and fight for what we want in the world. Right now, for example, I’m building a safe house for women and children who are victims of violence in my hometown.
GLAMOUR: How did Barnard get on your radar, and what has coming to New York City for college been like?
AK: At first, I didn’t know anyone in the U.S. – no friends, no family. Freshman year, I flew from Bosnia to Paris and landed at JFK with two big suitcases at 2 a.m. and took a cab to Barnard. I slept without bedding that first night.
GLAMOUR: And that was your first time in New York, right? That must have been a little surreal.
AK: I don’t even know how to explain it. I come from a town that is like 100 times smaller than Central Park. I’d only seen New York on TV, and I knew I wanted to be there. My whole life I had worked to get there, and I just had this feeling of finally.
GLAMOUR: You’ve managed to go back to Bosnia and organize another great interfaith dialogue project. Tell me about that one.
AK: My other big project is called Reconciliation Through Play. I received a $10,000 grant to go toward a peace initiative, and I chose to go to the very small Bosnian village where my father is from. It’s basically one mountain, and at the top of the mountain it’s Muslims and at the bottom it’s all Orthodox people. The school is in the middle and has students of both religions, so that’s basically the only place where these religious and ethnic groups interact.
GLAMOUR: So what was the thought with giving the kids a playground?
AK: The school is very old and only has one teacher and one classroom. When you’re in school, you’re forced to be with students. But with a playground, if you’re a Muslim, you want to come. If you’re a Christian, you want to come. You want to play together. Your parents will take you and they will probably talk too. I realized it is one of the most basic children’s rights – to have a safe place to play.
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