Energy enters the room

Social inclusion helps a Sarajevo teen find success

By Keith S. Collins
Edna plays table tennis at school.
29 November 2018

Snap a picture of a late-October day in Sarajevo, Bosnia-Herzegovina. Aim your phone toward the bank of the Miljacka River and frame the brown and fading green blend of autumnal leaves. Now point it north toward a low building, the color of mint ice cream. This is Treca Gimnazija secondary school.

Through the school window, view a cluster of students in the hallway.  Seemingly ordinary.  A bit noisier than the other children walking by.  But what draws you in is something extraordinary.  It’s the energy at the center.

That energy is coming from a fifteen-year-old girl named Edna Sunjic.

She is quite accomplished, and this is part of the reason for her popularity. She won two gold medals in skiing last year, and she has won a bronze medal in swimming, both at international levels. She graduated at the top of her primary school class the year before entering Treca Gimnazija.

She also has Down Syndrome. That, however, seems entirely beside the point.

For Edna, 'Down Syndrome' is just a label, and a misleading one at that. Asked how she sees herself, she answers immediately, “I am a beautiful, wonderful, great girl.”

Her sister, Erna, agrees. “When I see her, I don’t see disability,” she says. “I see Edna.”

Erna’s boyfriend, Namik, puts it another way. “When Edna shows up, he says, energy enters the room.”

Edna playing guitar at home.
Edna playing guitar at home.
Bringing up a champion

From the beginning, Edna’s parents refused to accept that their daughter ‘s capacities are limited. Despite all the societal barriers, they gave her opportunities and she took them proudly and grew in confidence.

“Edna is a fighter,” says her mother Sabina. “She has never thought of herself as a child with disabilities. She doesn’t see obstacles.”

The main vehicle for her growing confidence has been sports.

When Edna was nine years old, her mother took her skiing for the first time. Roadblocks were numerous for a child with Down Syndrome, but little by little, with her mother by her side and plenty of rewards, the roadblocks fell.

In 2018, Edna won two gold medals at the Special Olympics in Austria.

“Once she’s not afraid, she’s fine,” Sabina says, “because her motivation makes everyone happy.”

How about Edna herself? “Is there anything you can’t do?” she is asked.

“I can’t swim,” she answers. Wait. She won a medal in a local swimming competition. But her mother explains: It was only bronze. She won’t be happy until she gets the gold.

Edna attending class at the Treca Gimnasija Secondary School.
Edna attending class at the Treca Gimnasija Secondary School.
“We will try.”

Senada Salihovic, Treca Gimnazija’s director, sits straight and proudly as she talks about Edna. Her school did what other schools were unwilling to do: They created an environment where Edna could succeed.

It wasn’t easy.

“I was terrified our programme would be too difficult for Edna,” she says. “But with the support of teachers and others, and good planning and discussions, the school was able to meet all her needs.”

Salihovic rearranged classes so that Edna was in the smallest-size class and, thereby, could get more attention from her teachers. Salihovic and her staff are constantly watching for obstacles, both physical obstacles and discrimination, that might impede Edna’s success.

“Our goal is to keep her smiling,” she says.

“Edna is excited about school,” her mother, Sabina, adds.  Sabina says she grew tired of other schools’ reactions of “We can’t” and “We don’t know.” At Treca Gimnazija, she heard, “We will try. We can figure it out.”

The importance of inclusive education

Edna is unique in the way every child is unique. But in her case, she has had an unusual experience for a child living with a disability in Bosnia Herzegovina:  she has been accepted and included in her community, school and larger society.

UNICEF works with schools, teachers, children and parents to help children with disabilities enjoy their lives fully. In a manner of speaking, the goal is to make them visible

Children with disabilities in Bosnia and Herzegovina are often invisible and not seen as making valuable contributions to society. Disabilities are seen as medical problems and children with disabilities as “sick.”

Unfortunately, many ordinary schools reject children with disabilities because of the additional ‘burden  and the distraction’ they believe they will cause. This rejection is often brought on by the assumption that children with disabilities cannot learn and achieve along with other children.

This assumption is wrong and further isolates children with disabilities and limits their futures. It also deprives other children of the opportunity to see the strong contributions their classmates who have disabilities can make.

To counteract this societal tendency to build barriers to full inclusion, UNICEF Bosnia and Herzegovina, with funding from the European Union, started a campaign to recognize individuals and institutions that adopted social inclusion.

Edna Sunjic is a shining example of what happens when the system works.