Five-year-old Pepi and 6-year-old Leart, best friends, huddle in a sunny room and draw a picture of a giant frowning flower.
Eran Fraenkel, the Israeli-American who set up the unique interethnic kindergarten they attend, looks on with a mixture of hope and anxiety. He is trying to prevent a war.
The boys live in Skopje, the ethnically polarized capital of Macedonia. Pepi is a Macedonian Slav, and Leart is ethnic Albanian. Although neither boy yet understands the significance of language and ethnic background, they were born on opposite sides of the latest Balkan conflict.
"In Macedonia, most people from different ethnic groups live in parallel worlds that very rarely intersect," Mr. Fraenkel explains. "The neighborhoods are segregated. The media [are] in different languages. The kids go to different schools. These kindergartens are a way of breaking that cycle."
That's a lot of hope to put on the shoulders of small children.
Last month, Macedonian security forces clashed with ethnic-Albanian rebels in the mountains along the border with Kosovo and in Macedonia's second-largest city, Tetovo, forcing 30,000 refugees to flee their homes. The Macedonian government and two ethnic-Albanian political parties are now conducting closed-door peace talks. But last week, Albanian leaders warned that if the government does not heed their demands for greater civil rights, more fighting may ensue in coming weeks.
"Education is the key in the region, not just in Macedonia," says Vera Budway of the East-West Institute in Prague. "The interethnic kindergarten is a step forward towards making coexistence normal for children. Obviously one program isn't enough. It needs to be replicated in other schools."
Fraenkel, who heads the Skopje branch of Search for Common Ground, says ethnic segregation is the root of the problem. "People here spend their entire lives without ever really talking to people from the other community," he says. "If you change those circumstances for the children, you can change the future."
Fraenkel founded Mozaik, Macedonia's first interethnic kindergarten, in Skopje three years ago. He later expanded the program to four cities farther west, "places that are ready to break off and join Albania," he says. The challenge was to get parents - especially Macedonians, who often view Albanians as backward and prone to involvement with organized crime, to send their kids to school with "the enemy."
Similar interethnic programs have been tried with mixed success in Israel and Northern Ireland.
Today, Mozaik operates six classes, each with 20 children and four teachers. Two of the teachers speak only Macedonian, and two speak only Albanian. "The kids often end up translating for each other," says Fraenkel
Pepi, who has attended Mozaik for only a few months, watches with round eyes as Leart, a three-year veteran, chatters to classmates. He switches easily between Macedonian and Albanian.
Lindita Ademi, an Albanian teacher, sits down next to the boys, calling out "Bravo!" in traditional greeting. Pepi remains shyly silent. "You say 'Bravo' when a new person comes along," Leart whispers. Finally, Pepi giggles and shakes hands with the teacher.
Macedonia, a landlocked country of 2 million people, holds the distinction of being the only republic of the former Yugoslavia to gain independence without a single shot being fired. But it has experienced internal tensions, with a 30 percent Albanian minority complaining of second-class treatment. Some, encouraged by what Albanians perceive as success in Kosovo, have launched a similar rebel movement here.
Natasha Velikova, Pepi's mother, huddles in an overlarge chair at the office where she works as an accountant. "Of course, I worry about the fighting," she says. "We are all afraid that there will be a war. I have many Albanian friends, and I want my son to have that chance."
Ms. Velikova says she misses the cosmopolitan atmosphere Skopje had when she was a child, when Yugoslavia was united. "The neighborhood where I grew up had lots of nationalities," she whispers. "Now the city is very divided."
For the Albanian minority, the kindergartens are also a welcome haven of equality. "I live in a district with no Albanian-language kindergartens," says Nafi Saracini, Leart's father. "My only option was to send my son to a Macedonian kindergarten where he would be the only Albanian - a black sheep in the group. Considering the stereotypes about Albanians, that is not an option any parent would want."
A struggle for hope
Velikova says some relatives have criticized her for sending her son to a mixed school, but she says it won't change her mind. She recalls that an uncle recently asked Pepi whether his best friend was an Albanian. The boy replied, "I don't know. He's just my friend."
Despite the local media's calls for calm, public opinion is becoming increasingly alienated by the violence and lack of political settlement. Mr. Saracini feels besieged. "At home, we try to ignore the whole negative atmosphere and behave normally in front of our kids, but it is almost impossible," he says.
If Mozaik and its children are part of Macedonia's last hope, then it is a tenuous one. The program has funding for just one more year. Parents pay part of the expenses, and the last thing Fraenkel wants to do is raise prices.
Fraenkel has been trying, unsuccessfully, to get the government to take on part of the cost. "Regardless, the project must continue," he says. "It needs to be expanded beyond kindergarten into the rest of the school system. It is a shock for the kids to enter the monolingual, highly regimented environment of the public schools afterwards."
Both Velikova and Saracini worry about what will happen when their children enter regular school. "Right now, my son is always ready to socialize with other kids, be they Macedonian or Albanian," Saracini says, beaming with pride. "He has something that a lot of adults don't. He accepts ethnic differences as a normal part of life. I hope he doesn't lose that."
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor