In Belgrade, a Specific Solution to a Complex Problem

The Ensemble seeks to connect and inform all people who are committed to ensemble music education for youth empowerment and social change.

In Belgrade, a Specific Solution to a Complex Problem

Patrick Scafidi, Executive Editor, The Ensemble, in conversation with Dijana Opačić, Program Coordinator, Music Art Project


Students from Branko Pešić School perform in July ’21. One hundred and sixty young people from five towns participated.

How do we serve our students and their communities when their needs do not align with our expertise?

Among the many questions practitioners in our field ask, this one can be especially difficult to answer (and thus especially worth asking). For many youth music programs, the Covid pandemic has brought the question to the fore, giving us a chance to reassess our efforts and try to adjust accordingly. And for some, this kind of reassessment has been not only a quest but a necessity: community art can only be as healthy as the community making it. Music of Hope, a youth music program run by the Music Art Project (MAP) in Belgrade, Serbia, is one such organization. And we can learn something from their innovative solution to a familiar and urgent problem.

Operating out of Branko Pešić Elementary School since 2018, Music of Hope serves a community of students from disparate backgrounds, including a nearly 80% Romany population. Some of those students are asylum seekers; others are unaccompanied and separated minors. Some are both. For these students, home is either an informal settlement or the Asylum Centre Krnjaca, a remote district of Belgrade. Their families, having endured all the trauma and difficulty of arduous resettlement, arrive to face economic hardship and social exclusion. And those challenges continue at school, where students speaking Roma, Albanian, Serbian, Farsi, and Arabic often struggle to interact and connect with one another. Consequences range from cultural antagonism to outright segregation.

Music of Hope youth choir and orchestra concert, Kolarac Hall, Belgrade, July 2021.

Through a collaborative “Orchestra and Choir of Hope,” children from Branko Pešić get to perform with peers from two music schools with whom MAP cooperates. But Music of Hope leaders realized the students had multiple needs—they were hungry, both emotionally and literally. So they pivoted, with an initiative they called “Snacks for a Music Company.” Aimed at providing both sustenance and community, “Snacks” brought students at Branko Pešić together for meals and snacks before their music learning sessions.

Over four months, 102 unique donors contributed to the fund, raising about 410,000 dinars (3,483 euros). That was enough to sustain the dietary program for an entire semester, helping roughly 200 participating children enjoy the multiple benefits of a shared meal. In addition to these donors, Music of Hope was able to engage two companies: Serbian bakery chain Hleb i Kifle, who agreed to provide pastries baked every day in the school’s kitchen, and MK Group, a Serbian holding company that donated apples to the school for more balanced meals. With those larger donors in the fold, the school was able to extend the program and provide snacks for an entire school year.

As MAP puts it, “We believe that sharing snacks together is one of the best ways to build peer community and code children break down barriers to communication.” And for the students who do not receive regular meals outside of school, the benefits are not only social but chemical. Full and energized, they are readier to learn and engage.

The benefits were immediate. “I feel better at school than at home,” says student Andelna. “There’s my music band, there are our instruments, and since we get snacks, we can we stay much longer after class, to play, sing and sing, we have fun… [Now] a dozen new kids now want to enroll in music; they ask to try our instruments when they hear us practice. It feels good to see that you are a role model for someone; then you try even harder and have the desire to give your best yourself.”

Any reader will know these solutions are never so simple as they appear in a short article—especially the “finding donors” part. But it’s important to note the throughline here from meeting basic needs to personal health to community health. Music of Hope’s food drive reminds us that the path toward that end is not always straightforward.