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Cohen speaks about past experience studying ethnic conflict in Yugoslavia

By Emily Sorkin Smith

Section: News

October 23, 2015

Arielle Cohen ’99 went to the former Yugoslavia in the summer of 1998 as one of the first Sorensen Fellows to volunteer at the Center for Antiwar Action. There, she witnessed the region deal with war and ethnic conflict. Cohen spoke about her experience as a Sorensen Fellow, a program that finances students’ summer internships around the globe, at an event hosted by the International Center for Ethics, Justice and Public Life on Thursday, Oct. 22.

She is currently serving as the fellows’ program’s “Fellow in Residence,” hosting office hours during Fall Fest and relating her experiences to the current fellows and the community as a whole.

Cohen lived in Belgrade, in present-day Serbia, when it was part of the Former Republic of Yugoslavia which encompassed the modern nations of Serbia, Montenegro and Kosovo. The nation had just come out of conflicts with Slovenia, Croatia and Bosnia, and was about to go to war with the Kosovo Liberation Army. The ethnic tensions that informed these conflicts were the subject of Cohen’s work in the region.

The Sorensen Fellowship, when Cohen was a fellow, centered on ethnic conflict, somewhat narrowing the countries that she could choose to travel to. She decided on Yugoslavia because she felt she had already developed a connection to the nation, having friends at Brandeis who were from Yugoslavia and working with professors and visiting fellows who had done work in the region.

Her experiences were defined by the contrast between her own outsider’s perspective on the region’s ethnic conflicts and the desire to make a real impact in the nation.

“I felt like I didn’t even scratch the surface really, at the same time I felt very inspired because I was in a foreign country and met people that I felt were really making an impact. So it was this kind of juxtaposition with feeling kind of overwhelmed and feeling like there was somebody here I could learn from and carry with me through my life,” said Cohen during her speech.

While serving as a fellow in Belgrade, Cohen spoke to university students and other youth members of movements working to build democracy and civic society in Yugoslavia. She spent two weeks of her time at a summer school where she met with students from Yugoslavia, Bosnia and Albania, among other countries, who had all grown up experiencing ethnic and political conflict. Her role there was primarily observational, and she learned the importance of listening and understanding the perspectives of people involved in a conflict.

Cohen recognizes that her current career as a lawyer for AIG is different from her social justice work in Yugoslavia. However she has managed to incorporate social justice principles into the corporate world. In addition to her job at AIG, she does pro-bono work with Iraqi and Afghani citizens who served as interpreters for the U.S., helping them receive special visas to immigrate to the U.S.

Marci McPhee, the director of campus programs at the Center, brought out some of Cohen’s reflections composed upon returning from her fellowship. McPhee emphasized the importance of framing history in a way that doesn’t dehumanize conflict, which she argued often causes them to erupt again. The way that history, especially the history of conflicts, is taught can determine whether nations are stable in the future.

Conflicts, she explained, often come from governments and aren’t supported by the people living under their rule. Focusing on and attempting to solve these ethnic conflicts, however, can be difficult when people lack basic needs. McPhee and Cohen both related a sentiment they had both encountered that ethnic problems are a “rich man’s” problem, that many people struggle to exist and can’t worry about co-existence.

The Sorensen Fellowship, named after John F. Kennedy’s speechwriter Ted Sorensen, is designed to fund students’ social justice-related projects both in the U.S. and abroad. It is a three-part program that consists of a course in the spring relating to the student’s project, a summer internship at an organization of the student’s choosing and a fall course for fellows to reflect on their experiences together. Fellows going abroad receive $4,000 to fund their internship, while students working in the U.S. get $3,500. The fellowship is sponsored by the International Center for Ethics, Justice and Public Life.

The Sorensen Fellowship was created, according to McPhee, out of a desire to “make a deep … impact right away on the undergraduate population with students as a part of what we see as our mission at the ethics center.” The fellowship has evolved since its inception, focusing originally on ethnic conflicts and growing to include a vast range of social justice topics. In 2015, eight Sorensen Fellows completed a range of projects that included STEM education in Ethiopia and migrant health in Norway.

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