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TV show helps Macedonia mend

A children's program about young friends from diverse ethnic groups starts its final season this month.

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When teenager Boyan Velevski got to school last month, he found 1,000 of his schoolmates on strike out front.

The problem: Ethnic-Albanian students wanted to attend classes at his specialized computer-technology high school. But the ethnic-Macedonian students protested, voicing fear of the Albanians.

In this country, where interethnic violence almost sparked a civil war two years ago, school integration is a touchy subject.

"There is still a lot of fear and kids fighting each other in the street, and for what?" Boyan says. "The Albanians just want to learn about computers like us, but I couldn't stop what happened. I'm only one person."

Boyan may feel lonely given the problems his country faces, but he has already had an enormous impact on Macedonian society. Most of Macedonia knows him as "Ice," (pronounced "EE-tse") a character in this country's most popular children's television show about a group of kids from different ethnic groups and the magical apartment house where they live together. The series, called Nashe Maalo (meaning Our Neighborhood), is Macedonia's, and the Balkan region's, only multiethnic TV program. Ratings show that 95 percent of children in Macedonia have watched it.

Boyan couldn't stop the unrest last month that blocked Albanian students from entering several schools. But with a dozen other kids in the Nashe Maalo series, he is trying to change Macedonia's future.

"Our show is teaching kids to understand and accept other nationalities," he says. "Older people are already very frustrated and prejudiced, but I hope we can change the next generation so these terrible things won't happen again."

Playing Ice, a good-natured neighborhood hooligan on the show, Boyan has made fast friends with young people from other ethnic groups, including Albanians, Turks, Roma, and Serbs. He has become one of Macedonia's top young actors and also one of the country's most visible peacemakers. This fall he stars in an episode where he overcomes tensions between the Macedonian and Turkish communities to put on a puppet show in the Old Turkish Quarter of Skopje.

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