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Back to school with a smile

By Sgt. Peter Fitzgerald
First published in
SFOR Informer#123, October 3, 2001

First graders from the Ilijas municipality got a surprise when they attended their first day of school: new backpacks full of school supplies. Thanks to the efforts of the American and German National Support Elements (NSEs), and some caring individuals and organisations, these children started off their school year in fine fashion.

Ilijas - The smiles told the story. One by one, the first graders lined up to get their backpacks. As SFOR soldiers handed out the packs, they were greeted by handshakes and hugs. Some of the children tried to say thank you in German or English. Mostly, though, they just smiled, and that was enough.
"Smiles just broke out on their faces," said Dr. Christian Winter, German Army chaplain. "The reaction of the kids was really fantastic. It was something really special for them, and it was special that it was SFOR soldiers doing it."
Ilijas municipality is about 20 kilometres north of Sarajevo. It is an impoverished area, heavily damaged by the war. Of the 16,500 people in Ilijas, more than 60 percent of them are displaced persons or returnees. Unemployment is high and there is little money in the district. Under such difficult circumstances, a little help goes a long way.
Damir Gulamovic, a legal translator with the American NSE, found a way to help. By enlisting the support of the American and German NSE's, and other organisations and individuals, Gulamovic helped put together a special day for the young children of Ilijas.
"The idea was to present the first graders in the Ilijas municipality with backpacks and school materials," he said.
Gulamovic worked closely with the NSEs and Dusko Drljaca, the deputy mayor of Ilijas, to get the project underway. When it got started, there were about 150 first graders in the four schools of Ilijas municipality. It was agreed that the American NSE would provide the backpacks and the German NSE would get the school supplies. It was the first joint endeavour between the two NSE's.
"It was important to do a joint project," said Maj. Hendrik Guttau, German NSE commander. By working together the NSE's were able to pool their resources, Guttau added.
The need to pool resources became evident as more people returned to the Ilijas area before the start of the school year, increasing the number of students. The number of backpacks needed went up to more than 200. To meet the greater need, more people became a part of the project.
"We had to react and get more people involved," said U.S. Army Lt. Col. Steven Forster, Base Support Battalion commander.
The U.S. National Intelligence Cell made a contribution to the effort and donations were collected from SFOR soldiers. Several individuals also joined in the project. Mark Pomerleau, a representative of the Mead Corporation, helped secure materials. German Company Sgt. Gunther Westphal took time during his leave in Germany to gather school supplies and toys and bring them back to Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH). Bonnie Miller, wife of the former U.S. Ambassador to BiH, made a final donation before departing the country to cover the remaining costs of the project.
"A lot of people pitched in to support this project," Winter said. "Together, we managed to provide for all the school children."
Along with the school supplies, the packs also contained a stuffed animal toy, a copy of Mirko magazine and some mine awareness information.
"We wanted to include not just fun things, but useful things," Winter said.
As the backpacks were handed out it was hard to tell who enjoyed the event more, the children or the soldiers.
"This has just been a great thing for us to participate in," Forster said. "We don't have our families here. The sight of young children is something we're lacking here on this base. We thanked them for their bright smiles."
Gulamovic said he understood why the soldiers wanted to help.
"It reminded them of home," he said. "People can see that SFOR is more than just people dressed in green."
While the project may have benefited only a small portion of a small community, Gulamovic said that it is important to continue such projects.
"Big projects may take years to show any benefits to people. There's a generation of people who don't have time to wait," he said.
Lt. Col. Hans-Werner Piechowiak, German senior national representative, agreed: "Big organisations support big projects. In this effort, every mark goes to the children. That's why we did it."
Winter recalled meeting a child's mother at the school.
"She said, 'My child wants to thank you.' Even if we help one single person, that makes a difference."

Related links:
Nations of SFOR: US, Germany
Humanitarian Aid