Interview by Olivia Goldman
|Ajla Karajko, BC ’14|
When I first saw that a Barnard student was running in a college woman competition in Glamour, I can’t say I was completely surprised. But, feeling my Barnard pride bubbling up (as well as a natural sense of competition against the other colleges), I initially contacted Ajla Karajko BC ’14 to try to help out, if only just to help Barnard win. But soon after she invited me into her Hewitt single, having just landed in New York a few days ago without a cell phone and only to discover her luggage was lost, I soon found out that Ajla was much more intriguing and inspiring than her participation in the competition or even her biography on Glamour‘s website even began to let on.
How did you get involved in this Glamour competition?
Dean James Runsdorf, the junior class dean, sent an email to our class about it a couple months ago. I clicked on the link, opened it, and I did some research. I thought that I had a good chance, so I just applied.
Do you think you got picked for the competition because of your Bead the Difference project?
Well, there are actually a few different projects. Glamour is looking at your grades and the activities you’re involved in on campus and outside of campus. So Bead the Difference is only one of the activities I did outside of campus.
I started it in summer of 2011 with the help of Cambridge and Oxford Homeless Society. They donated some money to me and my friend and we used the money to organize this month-long program for girls in Bosnia and Herzegovina. They’re all 14- to 17-year-old girls who are coming from lower income families. We organized workshops with them, where I taught them how to make jewelry, how to design it and create it, and then later I helped them organize events where they could sell it, and make some money to purchase school supplies for themselves. The plan was to continue this every summer, but last summer I won a grant for Davis Projects for Peace grant. I won $10,000 which I used to build a school playground, again in Bosnia, so I didn’t have time to organize Bead the Difference that summer. But I’m planning to organize it again in summer 2013.
What was it like growing up in Bosnia?
I was born just before the war started. My family was really lucky—I was there the whole time, but we didn’t have any big incidents. We had a bomb that hit into our apartment, but nothing happened to any of us. And then when I was 17, I moved to Italy to finish my junior and senior year of high school. I went to a school called United World College of the Adriatic, which is one of the thirteen schools in the world that’s a United World School. It has a very special program and it uses IB, so after that I applied to schools in the U.S. and that’s how I got here.
How did you get the opportunity to go to school in Italy?
As I said, there are thirteen of these schools in the world, and every year they choose one or two students, sometimes even three, from different countries. They are all different, but this one in Italy had 200 students from 89 countries, and I was one of two people from Bosnia. You cannot pay to go there, but once they accept you, they accept you as like an ambassador of your country and you get a full scholarship for everything. I did the IB program, but we had different project weeks where we would spend one week each semester somewhere else doing some projects, and we had a lot of travel breaks. It was really special.
What motivates you to go back and help in Bosnia? Now that you’ve left, you could just stay in America and focus on your life here.
Well, that’s what most people say. I never really liked that, so I guess I just don’t want to be like one of them. And I really love my country. It is much poorer than here, but I feel people are much nicer. Like, we don’t have homeless people. We have people who are very poor, but no one is on the streets. As soon as I, for example, see someone on the street, I will call that person in and I will help her or him. It’s just very different people, and the spirit they have, and that’s what I really like.
Do you want to eventually live in Bosnia again?
Yeah, I think so. I would definitely want to have some job that would help. Working in the American embassy in Bosnia would be perfect, because it would allow me to travel back here. I really love New York and I love travelling also, so I would still have a chance to travel a lot, but I would be living in Bosnia.
Where did you study abroad?
I was in Denmark last semester, in Copenhagen. I love Denmark, and Copenhagen is just beautiful.
What are you studying?
Economics, and I’m minoring in Italian because I didn’t want to forget it. I learned in Italy, and if I don’t use it, I’m going to forget it completely.
Well, Glamour only says a couple things about me on their website, and I think they’re mentioning Amnesty International, because I worked there last year, and I am starting my internship there tomorrow, in these clothes, at the UN [laughs]. But, I had to send them, like, everything I’ve done since I was born. The reason they chose me I think, is because the things I’ve done are very different. I don’t want to brag, or anything, but it can help you. I used to go to a lot of math and physics competitions before, and I was one of the five best in physics and mathematics in my country. I skiied professionally for thirteen years, and I was on the national team of Bosnia. I was supposed to go to the Olympics in Vancouver in 2010, but I had an injury, so I never went. I published a poetry book which is there [points to shelf]. I was 12. I have a new one ready, but I just never spent enough time in Bosnia to publish it, because it’s in Bosnian and it would be weird if I published it here. I also have a brown belt in karate. Just a lot of different things. So I think that’s why they liked me.
Wow, you’re amazing! What do you do while you’re here at Barnard?
Well, I was abroad, so I guess I have culture shock again. Now, especially with my stuff being lost. But, as the first-year, I didn’t do much on campus. Well, I applied for SGA, but I wasn’t accepted as president, and then I had different projects to work on, so I just had to forget about SGA for a second. I worked with the UN on a program called Millenium Development goals with a few other ambassadors of the organization called One Young World, which is the world’s biggest youth organization. We’re working on this project because we think that Interfaith dialogue in collaboration for peace should be added on the list of UN development goals, which are there [points to poster on wall], but are in Italian.
The first [Millenium Development goal] is to reduce hunger and poverty, and then we think because a lot of countries are poor because of wars that have been happening in those countries, and a lot of those wars are caused by religious differences, we think that the UN working on helping people understand differences in religion would help reduce these other development goals.
My second-year, I was SGA as a student representative. So, I was working on that. I have a campus job and I had my internship at Amnesty international, so I didn’t have much time for other stuff.
When I was in Italy for those two years, that was kind of college for me. That was my first time without parents and the opportunity for all these activities, and I was involved in everything. At the point when I arrived here, I think I was just like, over campus activities. I think I’m more looking for something outside. Especially because it’s New York, and because I don’t know if I’m going to have a chance to stay here after I graduate or something. So I want to spend a lot of time outside campus.
I also volunteer with some poverty runs in central park, and different organizations. I’ll still see in this semester.
So how do you find time to do all these things?
As I said, I don’t really remember the war in Bosnia because I was a baby, but after the war, I was old enough to notice that I didn’t really have a chance to do whatever I wanted. For example, I’m coming from a small town—it’s in central Bosnia, like one hour from capital. From all the sports that there are in the world, we only had three sports to choose amongst. So I always wanted to ride horses, for example, but I never got a chance, because not even today, around twenty years after the war, is there a horse-riding club in my town. So, whatever opportunity there was, I just wanted to take it, and try it. There’s many that didn’t work, and these are only the ones that actually worked out. I guess it’s just that. Because I spent a lot of time doing nothing because I had nothing to do in my town after the war.
You’re not doing so well in the Glamour competition right now.
The whole winter break I was on a mountain, and I didn’t have internet connection, so when I saw the email that I was actually on the website and stuff, girls had already like 13% of the vote, and I had 0.87%. Then I sent it to some of my friends that I knew, and they did a lot of interviews about me in Bosnia, some online magazines and newspapers and everything, so then it increased. I was third at some point, and now I honestly don’t know what’s happening. The thing is, well, I’m the only one who’s not an American citizen. And if you just take, I don’t know, a girl from Chicago, which has ten, twenty times more people with regular internet access than the whole of Bosnia. And I feel like a lot of people look at this competition and think, “let’s have an American win this,” which I understand. I mean if it was in Bosnia, no one would want anyone else to win except for a Bosnian. So I think it could be that. And I mean, other girls did amazing projects. I really liked the Renaissance Now project, and the glasses one. She finds glasses in the U.S. and sends them to other countries. And then the Renaissance Now one is helping poor people in developing countries help start businesses I think.
But I’m not worried. I didn’t even expect this that much, so I’m really happy I got here. Not many people from Bosnia come to the U.S. because they are successful. A lot of people come here because they are poor and the U.S. provides some programs for helping out. So, I think that for everyone from home… like, I keep receiving all these messages and Facebook friend requests and everything, and I’m just proud about that. That’s enough for me.
So you can vote multiple times in one sitting, right?
Yeah, you can vote multiple times, but after some time it blocks you for an hour or two. I just preferred to use the time when I was home differently. For the first or second day [after I found out], there was this one place where there is internet, so my whole family went there, and we’re clicking, vote, vote, vote for the whole day, and then I realized, I have ten days home, I want to spend them with you, not on the internet.
Olivia Goldman is a junior at Barnard and Editor in Chief for The Nine Ways of Knowing. You can vote for Ajla in the Top Ten College Women Readers’ Choice competition here.
Images courtesy of Ajla Karajko.