Learning the ins and outs of a small town in Bosnia and Herzegovina

For a total of six years, my wife and I lived and worked in Sarajevo, the capital city of Bosnia and Herzegovina. Bosnia may be a small and somewhat remote country, but the capital is fairly cosmopolitan, with a high number of foreign residents, foreign firms, and plenty of options for entertainment and hospitality. As remote locations go, it is fairly accommodating to foreigners.

Sarajevo at night
Sarajevo at night

In 2015, we moved from the center of Sarajevo to the smaller southern city of Mostar. Mostar is many things, but it is much smaller than Sarajevo, and for us it was our first experience not living in a capital city. Thus began our introduction to small-town life, in Herzegovina, almost 2 years ago. This post will explore some of the peculiarities of carrying out our job in a small town, and how it is different from our experiences in past locations.

Some demographic details about Mostar

According to the 2013 census, Mostar has a population of 105.797, with a majority self-identifying as Catholic, a large minority as Bosnian Muslims, and a very small percentage (>5%) identifying as Serb Orthodox. The number of Protestant Christians is very small, possibly around 100 adults, split between 2 evangelical churches in the city.

The old town of Mostar, Bosnia and Herzegovina
The old town of Mostar, Bosnia and Herzegovina

Compared to metro Sarajevo’s half-million-plus residents, Mostar can seem quite small to a foreigner. Knowledge of the local language was a luxury in Sarajevo; here, it is a daily necessity. Neighborhoods are smaller and more exclusive; most¬†people do not often encounter foreigners — especially ones living in the city permanently.

Small towns offer a completely new environment for charity work

One of the most obvious differences we have encountered, compared to our experiences in the capital, is the interconnectedness of the entire place. The woman working on your application for a work permit may be the wife of the head postman, and the sister-in-law of the owner of the corner bakery. She may also be the college roommate of the dean of students at the university where you spend your time. In other words, while it is true that everyone is connected in some way, these connections are much easier to see in a smaller town like the one where we live.

The importance of a good reputation.

In the midst of such connections, reputation is incredibly important, and it is imperative that new groups spend considerable time building a good reputation immediately upon arrival. While people in the big city will not remember what you did last year, your undertakings in a small town can follow you indefinitely.

Two years and a ton of sweat and tears.

Some things take longer in a small town, and — if you are to be successful — you must accept that fact. In the end, when a good reputation has been built, and a community has been developed, it will hopefully be stronger because of the good will you have built, which would not have been possible in a large city.

What are we doing to build a reputation?

Big events.¬†Our group has taken to organizing one large event each semester that will benefit students academically and professionally. We have organized¬†“EQ Seminar” twice in 2016, and each time it was attended by over 100 students — making it one of the largest extracurricular events of its type in the city.

Small educational programs.¬†We teach English in small groups, focusing on conversational proficiency — a skill that is sought after¬†in a city like ours.¬†We hope that serving in this way will contribute to our reputation as people who add value to the community.


A small town emphasizes the pre-existing connections between its members, making a good reputation more important. We hope to learn and grow in our new environment, and contribute to the progress and enrichment of the community. Doing so, we believe, will be the most effective way to make an lasting impact.

Do you live in a small town? What are the differences that you have noticed between small towns and bit cities? Leave your answers in the comments below.

How a minister used Facebook to get 100 people to show up for an event. TWICE.

Usually, when it comes to getting people to show up to an event, one thinks of things like fliers, posters, word-of-mouth, and telephone calls.

However, in our last year¬†here in Mostar, we’ve had 2 events attended by 100+ people, an English course with about 50 people, and we’ve hung 0 posters, handed out 0 fliers, and spent less than $40 in advertizing. How did we do it?¬†We used social media. This is the story of what we did.

We are not social media experts.

I am a minister. I still was able to use Facebook to get 50 students to come to an English class, and over 200 students to come to two seminars in the space of 12 months —¬†with no pre-existing following. In other words, on October 1, 2015 (roughly 1 year ago), we had a Facebook page with about 30 likes and no friends in our city.

This was a lot of work, and took a lot of time.

When I say that we promoted our events on Facebook, lots of people respond, “Oh, I don’t have time for that.” To that I would simply ask, “why do you believe you have time to shake hands with hundreds of people you don’t know, hang up posters that will probably be covered up tomorrow by¬†an ad for a concert, and hand out thousands of flyers that will end up all over the sidewalk?” Save the trees! Use social media!

How to think about Facebook

There are a couple of concepts that govern our thinking about Facebook events.

Think in terms of tribes.

When people waste time on Facebook (if they’re not just watching stupid cat videos), chances are they are reading or watching something posted by a page they follow. They do this because, in social media speak, because they have joined that page’s “tribe“.¬†We wanted to get people to join our tribe.

Surveying the landscape on Facebook, we could see that there were several tribes already existing in our city. There was the Student Union’s page, with their 2,000 followers, and various other student organizations, each with hundreds of followers.¬†We knew that our job, if we wanted to succeed, was to somehow connect ourselves to¬†these tribes. So we went straight to the top.

Our goal was to meet the tribe leaders.


If you meet tribe leaders and show them that your organization can be beneficial to their tribe, they will share your events and content with their followers. The currency of social media is the social share, and the way to earn shares is through building real relationships.

  • We found the¬†tribes by simply searching for things on Facebook related to our audience — in our case, university students.
  • We used the phone numbers posted on these Facebook pages to contact the¬†owners of these Facebook pages. We scheduled a meeting to tell them who we are and what we do for their students. We didn’t mention our events at first.

Get tribe leaders to promote your event for you.

Later on, when we were planning our events, we sent a nice Facebook message to these people, with a link to our Facebook event, asking them to share the event with their followers. They all obliged.

They RSVPed to our event, and then posted our event to the wall of their Facebook page. So instead of their tribe getting invited by us, they were invited by the leader of the tribe.

We created a Facebook event.

If you’re having a real event, you¬†must¬†create a Facebook event. Don’t try some other method — Facebook has “Events“. Use it.

We offered a reward that people need.

Usually, people need some kind of reward in order to generate excitement. In our case, we were organizing academic seminars, and we offered a certificate of participation, and mentioned it in the Facebook event description. Everyone wants something for their resume.

We used an additional sign-up form, off Facebook.


It’s hard to keep track of the guest list through Facebook, but you can specify a link to “buy tickets” on a Facebook event. So, since our event was free, we created an additional sign-up form and pointed the tickets link to our form. We used Google Forms. This way, we had a spreadsheet of all the people who were intent on coming.

We posted and shared content every day.

We knew that we were competing with everything else that people follow on Facebook, so we had to produce content that our new followers wanted to see, and we had to do it often. We figured out how to schedule posts, so that we could work more efficiently.

  • We shared articles from news websites that applied directly to our event’s¬†theme.
  • We shared biographical information about our event’s speakers.
  • We shared¬†quizes and polls related to our event’s theme.

We answered messages immediately.


Facebook tells people how quickly you usually answer messages, so we did our best to answer every single message, and answer it quickly. Posting content and answering messages quickly builds trust, and also helps to build a sense of anticipation among your tribe.

We used our website to promote the Facebook event.


Our local organization has a blog, and we posted an article on it, promoting our Facebook event. We sent the article around to a few other student groups, and managed to get a few people to share the article, so that more people could see what we were doing.

We hosted a great event!

With 200 students registered for our last seminar in October, we didn’t know exactly how many would show up. About 115 ended up coming, and we had a great day. The speakers did a great job, and the students were pleased.

The moral of the story is that anyone can do this, if they understand their audience. We are no longer in the age when having a successful event means passing out paper fliers, hanging posters, and walking up to people on the street. That age has passed away; a new age has come. Use social media and have a successful event!




Don’t Separate, Assimilate: Thoughts on Getting Your Kids in School as a Foreigner

To understand my situation, you should know a bit about children.

Kids are great. I have three of them. Many expats say that children are the single greatest way to break into the local community and meet people. If you can get your children into a school, then they automatically have friends in the neighborhood, they begin to learn the local language, and the whole process requires you to learn a lot about your environment that you otherwise would never know.

When I lived in the United States, we had the experience of meeting a few foreigners who used their children as translators. They had moved or come as refugees, and while they had no formal knowledge of English, their children were immediately enrolled in school and acclimated quickly.

The situation for us is different, I imagine, than it is for people coming to the United States. In general, foreigners in the United States must send their children to a public or private school (if they can afford it) — there is usually (usually!) no option for school in their native language. In their situation, some level of assimilation into U.S. majority culture is guaranteed through public or private education.

For people in our situation, however, there often are an array of options that offer alternatives to local public schools, and do not require any significant level of assimilation. In Sarajevo alone, where we lived for 5 years, there was an American international school, a French school, and a Turkish international school,  in a city of just 500,000. All of these schools offer an English-language curriculum, and most of the students are from foreign countries. We also knew a few families who chose to homeschool, and others who chose to place their children in Bosnian public schools. Regardless of the location, there is rarely a clear-cut frontrunner for childhood education, and most parents struggle to know which situation will be best for their children.

No Easy Decisions

It must be acknowledged that just underneath the surface are a multitude of difficult issues of assimilation, education standards, and demographics, none of which will be done justice in a simple blog. This issue has been studied extensively; a map from the NY Times offers a snapshot of the situation in the United States with public education and English-learners.

There are so many factors involved. Foreigners who move to a large city in the U.S. are more likely to have an option for education in their native tongue than those who move to a small city. However, these options would be private, and cost-prohibitive for refugees. For those who place their children in U.S. public schools, there are vast differences in school quality. But for a country with no national language, the United States has done a remarkable job in setting the expectation that everyone learn to communicate.¬†¬†A relatively high level of assimilation is guaranteed, just through education of one’s children.

The Last Thing On Their Mind

What I have observed is that people learn the language and assimilate into their new culture as much as they want to. And most U.S. Citizens simply do not want to.¬†Many Americans don’t think of themselves as partaking in a “culture” in the U.S.; perhaps the most obvious evidence to the contrary is how reluctant most of us are to assimilate into a new one when we move abroad.

There are many factors involved. The most important one seems to be the necessity of assimilation. When people come to the U.S., some assimilation is necessary for survival, depending on the country of origin. Yes, we have all driven through communities where it seems no one has learned English, but for people who come from Russia or Lebanon, for example, the chances of living in the United States, never learning English, never interacting with Americans, only interacting with fellow immigrants or expats, and never assimilating at all are fairly low.

But the words of the last sentence seem to describe the lives of many of us Americans who have become expats. We simply do not need to assimilate — we have our community, our schools, our cars, our jobs, all already planned out before we arrive, and most of us don’t venture outside this bubble. And even for those who chose their country of residence, living away from home is simply hard. We don’t feel we have the requisite energy required to invest in the local culture. For most of us, assimilation is the last thing on our minds.

We might as well keep going…

Assimilation also is a hard pill to swallow, especially for U.S. citizens. Why is that? Perhaps because it is hard to imagine taking on new things without losing something meaningful. Culture is meaningful: wrapped up in the memories of the culture and community in which one has matured is a significant slice of one’s self, and the idea of losing part of that self is often unthinkable, even for those who every day are wrapped up every day by a culture that is foreign to them.

In this whole discussion, it is obvious that there are a lot of questions but very few answers that are true for all people everywhere. Everyone must do what is best for their own family, their own locations, their own culture. But it is apparent that assimilation is a concept that is seen as negative by those who are foreigners, and is seen as a necessity by those who are natives.