Before hostilities broke out in the 1990s, Zenica was an important industrial city, with steel production as the major source of employment. During the war, steel manufacturing operations shut down and a large majority of the city’s population was left unemployed. For the past five years, the unemployment rate has hovered around 40% in Bosnia, and in Zenica it is higher than average. The town saw very little active fighting during the war, but supply lines and communications were severely disrupted during a year-long blockade. Refugees from other parts of the country flooded into Zenica and further strained the city’s resources. In 1994, there were more than 54,000 displaced people in Zenica. Thousands had no relatives or friends who could take them in, leaving them no place to go but refugee camps. Most of the refugees carried with them brutal memories of atrocities they had witnessed or experienced.
Today, Zenica does not look like a war-torn city in the way many Americans would expect. The effects of the war are found below the surface, quite literally. The beautiful green hills that surround the city are still studded with landmines that may never be fully cleared away. Unemployment, divorce, housing shortages and traumatic memories put an enormous strain on the people. Chronic ailments like high blood pressure, diabetes, and heart disease affect even young people in their 20s. With the help of the international community, the people of Zenica – and Bosnia as a whole – are doing their best to survive and make their lives better after more than a decade of extreme stress and hardship.
Sezam was the first local non-governmental, non-profit organization in Zenica. It grew out of a program coordinated by the International Medical Corps (IMC) to document the war trauma of refugee children. When the IMC ended their program in 1995, four Bosnian women who had been trained in that program decided there was still a dire need to help the children they had encountered. In February of 1995, they registered Sezam as a local NGO. The staff now consists of about fifteen members, lead by co-founder Venira Alihodzic and Larisa Kasumagic.
The word “sezam,” translated as “open sesame” in English, was taken from the fairy tale “Ali Baba and the 40 Thieves.” In the story, “sezam” was the word that allowed Ali Baba to unlock the cave and find treasure. In the same manner, Sezam aims to unlock the hearts of the children and discover their hidden treasures.
Since 1995, Sezam has provided psychological support and educational programs for more than 1,500 children in and around Zenica. Workshops for teenagers and elementary school teachers have been added over the years.
Sezam does not discriminate on the basis of nationality, race, religion, class, or political opinions. Its main goal is to help people, especially children, handle difficult situations and reduce psychological trauma resulting from the war. Sezam creates a warm, safe and secure environment where children, teenagers, and adults can play and talk, share their difficult memories and lingering fears, and explore all that they feel.