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Sacramento Kings player Vlade Divac (inset photo) is more than a member of the NBA All-Star team and UN Goodwill Ambassador. To teenagers like Arsen and Islam, he is a hero and a symbol of peace.
Arsen, from Croatia, and Islam, from Bosnia and Herzegovina, share not only a love of basketball but also a common history with Vlade, a Serb. Their homelands, once part of Yugoslavia (click for map), have been ripped apart by ethnic violence since 1991. But the two boys and their idol recently had a unique opportunity to rediscover how to live and play together.
At Basketball without Borders, an innovative camp developed by the United Nations Drug Control Program (UNDCP) and the National Basketball Association (NBA), Arsen and Islam had a chance to become team-mates, room-mates and friends. They also had the ultimate experience of being coached by Vlade and eight other NBA players from the Balkans, including three-time European "Player of the Year" Toni Kukoc of the Atlanta Hawks, and Rasho Nesterovic of the Minnesota Timberwolves.
Fifty 12 to 14 year old boys from Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia and the Former Yugoslav Republic came to the three-day camp in Treviso, Italy this summer. They were placed in four multi-ethnic teams for basketball games and drills, as well as lessons to promote conflict-resolution, leadership and a drug-free life. "I share a room with Arsen, and a guy from Serbia and another from Macedonia," said Islam. "We just hang out like if we had always been together."
The camp was organized to promote sports as a way to overcome ethnic differences. Before the Balkan wars, Vlade was on the Yugoslav team with Toni, a Croat. Together they had brought home a world junior title in 1987 and the European championship in 1990. Basketball without Borders was the first time they had played on the same team since then.
"We can show these kids that it really doesn't matter what kind of religion or which region we are from," said Vlade. "The most important thing is that we should be proud of who we are and it doesn't matter the differences between us; it's all about life and we should respect each other and work together, play together and laugh together."
Basketball without Borders' camps cannot undo the last decade of violence in the Balkans. However, they can help teach the next generation that with mutual respect, co-operation and hard work, people from different ethnic backgrounds can share a future that is not clouded by hatred. UNDCP and the NBA are planning to host a similar event next year, perhaps with children and NBA players from long-time antagonists Greece and Turkey.
As for the two new friends -- Arsen and Islam -- they exchanged telephone numbers and addresses. According to Arsen, "we will definitely keep in touch."
FIND OUT MORE about the different ways the UN works to promote peace. Go to the links next to Vlade, Arsen and Islam.
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