North Macedonia has experienced numerous waves of radicalisation that can be traced back to the disintegration of Yugoslav Communism in the region. Against this background, MotherSchools North Macedonia, the first Parenting for Peace programme to be rolled out in the Western Balkans, has been running in Skopje since 2016. Building on the momentum and resounding successes of its implementation in the Municipality of Čair, the second generation of MotherSchools, currently underway, is seeing the Model travel to vulnerable communities in more rural parts of the country as well as to other countries in the region, including Kosovo and Montenegro.
In the Western Balkans, messages of religious militancy have resonated profoundly with vulnerable youth populations and gained considerable traction in isolated communities over the past decade. Countries with high concentrations of Albanian-speaking adolescents and young adults have been particularly susceptible to radicalisation. As evidenced by more recent waves of radicalisation, violent extremist groups have taken advantage of evolving voids in and pressures on identities that have been and continue to be shaped by struggles with the lingering legacies of violent conflict and a history of shifting geopolitical circumstance. North Macedonia has experienced numerous waves of radicalisation that can be traced back to the disintegration of Yugoslav Communism in the region. Despite being the only country to secede from former Yugoslavia peacefully, ethnic tensions in North Macedonia have been a cause of security concerns since the country gained independence in 1991. Institutionalised discrimination against ethnic Albanians and the subsequent retaliation by Albanians in the form of violent protest, as well as the effective segregation of educational institutions along ethno-linguistic lines, have led to the entrenchment of opposing ethnic, cultural, and religious identities and animosity between Macedonians and Albanians.
Macedonia boasts one of Europe’s highest per capita rate of individuals who left to fight in Iraq and Syria. Recruiters have immersed themselves in and paid particular attention to its complex social-political makeup to effectively target and radicalise vulnerable youth. In the words of a teacher who oversaw a Women without Borders (WwB) MotherSchools group in North Macedonia, ‘Mothers are very concerned and worried about their children, because every mother had a person or some people who also have experience with young or older people who went to Syria, and most of them are dead’. Yet the issue has continued to evolve. The recent influx of returnees threatens to introduce new toxic ideologies, exacerbate the issue in already affected areas, and bring violent extremism into other communities across the region.
Against this background, Women without Borders has been running MotherSchools North Macedonia since 2016, with a second generation now seeing the programme expand beyond Skopje. As the first Parenting for Peace programme to be launched in the region, it has paved the way for a number of new MotherSchools that are currently underway across the Western Balkans.
In 2016, Women without Borders launched MotherSchools North Macedonia in cooperation with Analytica as local implementing partner and with the support of the US Embassy in Skopje. With a focus on the Municipality of Čair in Skopje, WwB aimed to both heighten concerned mothers’ awareness of the threat posed by radicalisation and building their capacity to safeguard their families and communities against this threat. We trained a cohort of Teachers and Notetakers to lead the sessions and mobilised over thirty mothers to partake, including mothers of Albanian, Bosnian, North Macedonian, and Turkish origin. WwB’s rigorous monitoring and evaluation throughout highlighted the programme’s beneficial impact on the participants and teachers alike. The successful conclusion of this effort has built momentum to deepen this impact through further engagement within Čair, enabled the expansion of MotherSchools within Skopje and to nearby countries, and allowed for broader dissemination of the programme’s findings.
In 2018, Women without Borders initiated a new generation of MotherSchools North Macedonia in cooperation with local implementing partner ZIP Institute as part of WwB’s ongoing ‘MotherSchools 2020’ project, which is supported by the US Department of State and also includes WwB MotherSchools roll-outs in Montenegro, Kosovo, and Bangladesh. Due to the community demand and enthusiasm for the MotherSchools movement across North Macedonia, WwB and ZIP are now aiming convene groups beyond Skopje. While also rolling out the programme in the Čair’s city center neighborhoods of Serava, Dizhonska, Gazi Baba, WwB also seeks now to bring Parenting for Peace to Saraj, Studeničani, Tetovo, and Gostivar.
INSIGHTS, IMPACT, AND VOICES FROM THE FIRST GENERATION OF MOTHERSCHOOLS NORTH MACEDONIA GRADUATES
Throughout the first MotherSchools North Macedonia project, Women without Borders consistently collected qualitative data to develop a deeper understanding of the socio-political situation and context-specific factors impacting on degrees of radicalisation in Skopje, including: semi-structured exit and entry interviews with project participants (as part of the project’s monitoring plan); local stakeholder discussions; and weekly project management calls over the course of one year. The sample of findings and impact-related paragraphs presented below are based on our conversations with all project participants; mothers, teachers, and notetakers. This data was categorised through codes for qualitative data analysis, and the findings that emerged were analysed in order to generate a series of refined theories. The following two sections draw on the MotherSchools report to expand on the most prevalent responses from MotherSchools interviewees with respect to perceptions of radicalisation dynamics and the perceived impact of the programme. The final report, based on all data collected from the programme’s rigorous monitoring and evaluation process, has been used to: advance our knowledge of context-specific radicalisation dynamics over time; further hone our understanding of why and how mothers present the missing link in prevention strategies in vulnerable and affected communities; and ensure that MotherSchools continue to positively impact P/CVE policy and programming.
‘Mostly here, but maybe with all teenagers, parents don’t respect the adolescent. The mothers don’t evolve their parenting style. Parents don’t think that the adolescent has anything smart to say, so it makes the adolescent subjected even more to that kind of influence. Another problem is that mothers do not have a lot of self-worth and self-confidence because here is a traditional chauvinistic country. MotherSchools is the only programme about prevention; I haven’t seen others. We have some youth who has gone to ISIS. Some are there now; some come back’.
– MotherSchools Teacher, North Macedonia
INSIGHT I | The fear of potential marginalisation and the stigma associated with confronting the pervasive issue of extremism renders it a taboo topic that is shrouded in secrecy.
From the outset, an analysis of local radicalisation dynamics made clear that mothers view extremism as a prevalent issue that nevertheless remains a taboo topic in the community, and even within most families. A fear of retaliation, as it emerged, not only keeps locals from speaking out; it also discourages them from even considering joining other programmes that seek to address the issue of extremism. As one teacher put it, ‘In the first round [of two rounds of MotherSchools] mothers had a lot of concerns, and even I myself was scared—not only for myself, but also for the mothers. Would they tell anybody? What if anybody finds out? Would we be safe?’ The sensitive nature of the problem is accentuated by a deeply engrained culture of silence surrounding taboo topics in general, since in the ‘Albanian community there is a rule that you cannot speak about problems that the community has’. While a sense of shame and fear of potential repercussions keep many from speaking out, all of the mothers recognise the importance of breaking the silence and overcoming the stigma that affected mothers tend to face. The silence nevertheless has kept hidden a curiosity and desire to understand the issue: ‘It’s a taboo, and everyone wants to know those signs; but they are not able to … they don’t know where they can get information from and how to recognise the signs in their children’.
INSIGHT II | Few Participants put their trust in religious authorities, mistrust among friends and neighbours is widespread, and most mothers lack a degree of trust in themselves.
Mothers view religious institutions with a high degree of suspicion; some cited examples like that of a secondary school that convened Quran lessons (‘I was scared about my children participating since we do not know where the influences come from’), and others worry about the nature of religious leaders (‘people have no trust in the imams—the biggest fear comes from where the rituals come from, because we do not know which imams can recruit people’). The interviews also hint at a common atmosphere of distrust that transcends the public realm. Radicalisation and extremism are difficult to detect under a recruiter’s guise of ‘normalcy’: ‘The fear is in us—in our friends, in our neighbours—because you do not know who can influence you. Maybe they look like you, but they could have hidden motives [as to] why they speak to you. I have heard about cases—they [recruiters] are completely like us: they don’t wear the traditional robes but they have the ideologies’. Most surprisingly, some mothers expressed a lack of trust in themselves: ‘Sometimes we are too exhausted about everything in life. And someone can try to make us feel better, and, by doing that, influence us. In our society they are in a big number, and you do not know … their motives. You do not know why someone is talking to you, why … [they are] nice to you. There are a lot of question marks in life in Skopje’.
INSIGHT III | The general consensus is that: radicalisation is relatively common; mothers can identify specific extremist recruiters and their stomping grounds; and converts to Islam are especially vulnerable.
The majority of interviewees perceive the issue to be relatively advanced, with one purporting that ‘every family in [her community in] Skopje is facing one case of radicalisation’, and that few are spared ‘the fear that maybe something can happen’. Yet not all mothers are naïve to the covert tactics of recruiters and the places where they convene. In many cases, they even claim to be able to identify specific extremist recruiters: ‘People know the special mosques and preachers where radical ideologies are being communicated’. Parents make an effort to keep their children away from such places (‘when they hear that someone from the family gathers in that specific coffee space or mosque, they try to advise them’). They are inclined to view converts as the most likely candidates for recruitment. Those who themselves converted tend to have first-hand experiences with preying recruiters. ‘We as converts’, one mother explained, ‘get more attention from the different [radical] Islamic organisations. They all wanted us to be part of their activities, so we have to be more careful since we don’t have a Muslim family to explain the differences to us’. A number of interviewees also knew converts who had been approached by extremist individuals (‘I knew a convert …. When he converted, the radicals approached him immediately’).
INSIGHT IV | Interviewees by and large contend that feelings of alienation and purposelessness are chief in attracting individuals to radicalisation but can be addressed through appropriate family structures.
A child’s increasing self-isolation points to the absence of self-fulfilment, which in turn makes radical groups more alluring. As most mothers agree, a lack of purpose among adolescents and young adults typically is fuelled by specific socio-economic factors. Often a lack of jobs and an excess of free time creates a void that makes them feel empty inside: ‘they have to feel something, to find a purpose, so these people come to them and give them a purpose and will say to them, “if you go there and fight, we will take care of your family, and, even if you die, we will take care of your family here”, so they think, “I’m not useful for anything here in my country, so at least I’ll go there and be useful for something and die in a holy war”’. Yet mothers are also convinced that certain family structures can counteract feelings of isolation and hopelessness (‘I think that there are many factors of radicalisation, and I used to think that the main is the global issues, but now I see that the most important [issue] is what you take [away] from home, and that the home and family can really influence this. Every person that is going into radicalisation is missing something. Maybe he is missing the environment or the family or the friends’). That the actual process of radicalisation varies from family to family suggests that approaches geared towards re-building structures in concerned or affected families need to take into account a number of identifiable variables: ‘Every mother is concerned about this because you do not know who will be affected. There is no pattern. Because it has no pattern, a kid from intellectual or kid from more basic background could be more affected’. Complexities and variables notwithstanding, in the broadest possible terms this means that while some children seek the structure and rules that hitherto they had been lacking at home, others seek a sense of liberation in extremism due to the authoritarian parenting style and often violent experiences that they have had to endure.
‘The MotherSchools was a programme in which I found myself. When I was working with my children I was basing my decision on what is wrong, right, good. But in MotherSchools I found a place where I got acknowledgment for what I did. So, in this it has been a space where I found myself, my place. I regard this as a place where women can find their confidence, truly acknowledge their skills, and build upon their skills—not only working with their own children but also with children of neighbours or in their community. I recommend the programme to everyone I know. First you are building confidence in yourself as a mother and learning from other mothers. At the end of the day, every mother has her own method; it’s her instinct. It’s a way for the mother to go outside of the house, not to be stuck between four walls, and to be aware of what is going on in her community. And to be able to act if I notice something going on with my child.’
– MotherSchools Participant, North Macedonia
Challenges notwithstanding, the community’s initial, traditionally-conservative response to the MotherSchools programme gradually gave way to a growing identification with its Parenting for Peace philosophy. ‘With the MotherSchools’, as one Teacher illuminated, ‘it is easier for a mother to go, because she can explain to her husband and relatives [that the programme is] about parenting. It would be difficult to say: “I am learning about extremist behaviour”. She would be stopped’. In building the necessary foundation for community trust, Women without Borders was able not only to acquire otherwise closely guarded insights, but also to apply these in order to contextualise the MotherSchools Curriculum, establish a baseline to work from, and ultimately record impact over time.
The Curriculum employs developmental psychology, self-confidence training, and theoretical sessions to define radicalisation and prevention at the individual, family, and community levels. The Sessions allow mothers to re-visit, re-evaluate, and re-shape their notion of parenting by learning about the psychological dynamics and stages of childhood and adolescence. In refining their communication skills in the family, the programme equips mothers to react to early warning signs of grievances that can lead to radicalisation. Mothers also learn how to introduce and develop alternative narratives that foster a positive youth culture and strengthen resilience. In so doing, MotherSchools empower women to demonstrate leadership and promote family and community tolerance, forgiveness, and cohesion. The Curriculum guides Participants through a process of gradual awareness-building in three successive stages: starting with the self, moving on to the family and community, and finally arriving at the individual’s role in security. Sessions include exercises that facilitate dialogue, information exchanges, and critical reflection using context-based techniques that apply to the Participants’ daily lives. Sessions are monitored, evaluated, and analysed through a rigorous process to document changing dynamics and ensure the programme’s effectiveness. The following section offers glimpses into the impact of MotherSchools Macedonia from the perspectives of the Participants, Teachers, and Notetakers.
IMPACT I | Created a secure space where mothers developed trust, opened up, and joined together to build support networks and structures.
MotherSchools in Macedonia aimed to provide mothers with a space—safe from marginalisation by the community and prosecution by law enforcement—to overcome the stigma surrounding radicalisation, and to unlock their potential as our new security allies in the burgeoning MPVE realm. The opportunity to convene with other concerned or affected mothers was in and of itself a new concept to all who joined: ‘I know that in my society it is difficult to talk about your problems even with friends, because you know that one day your story may circulate in the community. But in the MotherSchools, you could talk about it; the atmosphere was so familiar and so safe’. This free forum and exchange of experiences allowed the mothers to build on each other’s strengths. Those who initially felt less confident to open up were inspired by the courage of some of their peers: ‘Some mothers were eager—couldn’t wait to share their stories. When the reserved ones saw them expressing themselves without holding back and [saw] Teachers listening carefully without judging, that gave them courage. They saw it’s not something terrible; when some mother shared an even scarier story, they would think, “If she can talk, why can’t I talk?”’ They worked together to develop strategies to address challenges that most would otherwise have to contend with alone, thus countering the isolation to which many had become accustomed. One of the Teachers equated the process of ‘expressing their struggles’ with ‘healing’. Over the course of the programme, the Participants increasingly ‘felt secure to talk in the MotherSchools about radicalisation’. All of the Teachers were ‘surprised that mothers who did not know each other were comfortable to express themselves in front of others they didn’t know’. They witnessed how the Participants ‘were really trying to share personal stories’ and now ‘are more prepared to talk about taboo topics’. The mothers spoke at length about how the MotherSchools helped them to build relationships based on trust and mutual understanding. ‘And now’, in the words of a Participant, ‘I know that if I cannot personally address the problem, I can call [name of Teacher] and I know that it will be treated in a confidential way’. In short, many felt that ‘the group became like a family’ and the MotherSchools doubled as a ‘support group’.
IMPACT II | Advanced mothers’ understanding of the early warning signs, deepened their sense of responsibility to safeguard their children, and empowered them to break their silence and discuss extremism at home.
All Participants were more confident that they now better understood how manifestations of radicalisation can be traced and detected before intervention and prevention strategies lose their effectiveness. Yet the programme went beyond lessons on and discussions of how recruiters identify and target an individual’s vulnerabilities by offering a false sense of belonging. Participants were guided through the process of developing a deeper sensitivity to behavioural changes. This helped to equip them with the skills required to act before recruiters have the chance to attune to and capitalise on common or context-specific grievances. They came to gain a deep appreciation for their potential to render manipulative methods ineffective in the most critical, early phases. Participants expressed a heightened sense of responsibility, noting that every ‘mother should be aware of what is going on in the life of her child—if her child is under pressure, the mother should be able to recognise this pressure and act on it’, and that no child should have to ‘hide from the mother if something is going on in their life’. When adequately supported, as the Participants found, mothers hold the potential to identify and respond to the early warning signs of radicalisation exhibited by their daughters and sons, or by others to whom they are connected in their communities. This new knowledge and confidence to speak about extremism convinced many to broach the subject at home for the first time: ‘I know how to raise issues around radicalisation. I don’t just say, “You don’t go there, you don’t do this”. I talk with them about certain cases’; ‘Now I can talk more about extremism, since I know how to speak about it. Before that I was stopped by fear and chose to say nothing’. ‘Now I am opening up topics [that] I have never opened up at home; now I know what my kids are thinking about, things we never talked about before’; ‘Through what I learned in the MotherSchools, I’ve liberated my children to talk with me about any issues, so they don’t need to look somewhere else’.
IMPACT III |. Developed Participants’ skills to form closer bonds with their children and built up their confidence to reassume their rightful role in the home.
The programme heightened the mothers’ awareness of their unique access and emotional proximity to their children. ‘It helped us’, as a mother explained, ‘to see that there is a time for the children when the main point in their life is their mother. And she can see the problems that the children have, and she sees what they are missing—whether it is emotional or in school—until they are teenagers. The mothers need to make a good structure at home; a refuge for the children’. They grew their confidence over time, and to thus increasingly realised that a unique connection to their children permits them to reassert their rightful role, most notably by investing time, listening, building trust, developing empathy, and providing an emotional anchor. Teachers found that the Sessions’ practical components made conceptual teachings more accessible: ‘I learned a lot from that exercise about empathetic listening. I was always searching for the best way of listening; I read several books and I never got it. But that exercise will always be with me—I have used it in the two groups, and it was very good, very practical, and very simple’. Listening appeared to resonate with Teachers on the one hand (‘Listening without judging and critiquing, that’s how they will get the most out of the child—without interrogating them, as most of them did before’), and mothers on the other hand (‘What I have learned is to listen to the kids without interruption, and I realised that the most important information comes out after the point where I would have interrupted them).
IMPACT IV | Provided the conceptual and practical training for mothers to adjust their parenting style and family structure to suit the needs of their respective sons and daughters.
An entirely new concept to most was that adolescents go through various stages and behavioural changes to which mothers need to adapt their parenting style. One of the Teachers remarked that the Participants ‘didn’t know this happens in stages like it does, and that the mother not performing her task in any [given] stage makes the child more sensitive to the process of radicalisation. So, the thing that was revealing for them is that they also play a part in that process’. The mothers recounted how they had reflected on their authoritarian—or in some cases overly lenient—style and amended it to ensure that they did not run the risk of alienating their children. ‘Before, because I was so authoritative, my child could never talk about taboos’, a former MotherSchools Participant explained. ‘Before I attended MotherSchools’, as another Participant noted, ‘I thought I had to be very authoritative with the kids … Now I have an ear for my children. For example, I don’t treat my fifteen-year-old as a little kid’. The understanding of the necessity to adapt to the specific needs of their children made the mothers reassess their previous approaches, which they soon put into practice in their homes: ‘I was always firm with my children but without explaining, so they would not listen. Now I explain in detail and try to convince them’; ‘When my child was aggressive, I responded with aggression. Now I learned that the solution is to stay calm’; ‘Now I am determined to spend time with my children … be engaged … join activities. I know I must be present’; ‘Now I do stuff the children like for fun so they will not see me as trying to control them too much’; ‘I don’t want them to be afraid of me; I understand they need affection as much as discipline’.
IMPACT V | Provided the Participants with the necessary self-confidence to move beyond the trusted MotherSchools space to bring the learnings into their communities.
As evidenced by the initiatives of mothers in their neighbourhoods and extended families, the programme succeeded in transcending the private realm and acquired a public character. A number of mothers shared the sentiment that parenting and activism go hand-in-hand: ‘The MotherSchools is not only about being active at home, but also about being active in the community’; ‘I realised we have things to do even outside the home—we should be more involved in the community’. The vast majority on their own accord brought the Parenting for Peace philosophy deeper into their homes and neighbourhoods: ‘we shared also our enthusiasm and learnings with our families and close relatives … and with other mothers who could not attend the MotherSchools’. While some had even recognised changes in their own approaches to parenting and levels of confidence ahead of their graduation (‘I realised that I became more self-confident even before the session on self-confidence started’), many of the mothers’ children alerted them to and positively reinforced this noticeable shift: ‘After finishing the MotherSchools, my kids, when they play with other kids, they say, “My mother attended MotherSchools—she knows a lot of things”’.
IMPACT VI | The MotherSchools Graduation Ceremony acted as a culmination and point of departure for Participants, enabling them to assume a public role and become authority figures on Parenting for Peace in their community.
This event presented the mothers as changemakers to community members from all sectors of society and provided many with the opportunity to speak for the first time publicly about the issue of extremism. Mothers expressed how they ‘feel more confident now after finishing the school’ and how ‘by talking and recommending it, I have influence in the community’. As graduates, the mothers felt they had the qualification to act and function as an authority figure on the subject: ‘I feel more confident, and when they don’t take me seriously, I say I have been to school for this’. The Ceremony also functioned as an outreach opportunity to engage and connect programme participants, their family members, and other community stakeholders. Despite an initial degree of scepticism regarding its value (‘I thought, “Do you really need it—will it not be enough to get classes and practice?”’), the Teachers took note of the improved self-confidence of the mothers: ‘For example, one of the mothers she has a problem at home—her husband is violent, he uses religion for his benefit. At first, she felt scared that there were so many people. But in the Ceremony, she felt more encouraged, and she took a photo and pasted it on Facebook. She was so scared. They feel they can be more assertive’. To some degree, the mothers experienced an awakening to their public role: ‘Something that is personal to me …. it was that women can play a role in security. That was big … it was something maybe I didn’t think of a lot before the training. Or, maybe if I did, I thought of women as politicians, as activists—but not regular mothers’.