Holocaust Memorial Day: Bosnian Muslim who fled to Newcastle as a boy to speak to Parliament

Smajo Bešo was a child when he arrived in Newcastle with his family in the 1990s. Credit: ITV News Tyne Tees

A man who escaped Bosnia as a boy has been invited to parliament to spread his message about how quickly hateful language can lead to violence.

In the June of 1994, nine-year-old Smajo Bešo and his family fled a conflict that would claim the lives of an estimated 100,000 people - including the genocide of perhaps 8,000 Bosnian Muslims like the Bešos.

During his short life to that point he had witnessed his village being destroyed in a fire storm and his father taken away to a prison camp.

He had seen first-hand how hatred and alienation can intensify to the point of atrocity.

Mr Bešo is now a lecturer at Newcastle University, in the city in which he arrived as a refugee as a boy.

In 2022 he was awarded an Order of the British Empire (OBE) for establishing the Bosnian Genocide Education Trust.

He and other volunteers go into schools and are involved in other campaigns to raise awareness about what happened in his home country, with the hope of preventing it from happening again elsewhere.

Our reporter Chris Conway spoke with Mr Bešo ahead of his trip to Westminster.

At one event at a school in Hartlepool he told ITV News Tyne Tees: "It’s very easy to think that those things are just awful things that happen on TV to someone else - that they can’t happen to you.

"That’s exactly how we were in Bosnia in the 90s. Then, in what felt like overnight, there’s bombs and there’s explosions and the shock of not having water or electricity."

Ahead of Holocaust Memorial Day on Friday 27 January, Mr Bešo has been invited to present his experiences in front of Parliament. He will take part in a debate on Holocaust Memorial Day led by Sajid Javid on Thursday.

He said images from Ukraine prove the lessons of the Holocaust and Bosnia are as relevant as ever - and that society must reckon with its tendency towards violence.

"Although we say 'never again', that 'we've learnt and we want to do better', actually we as a human race never seem to learn", he said. "These things keep repeating themselves whether in Ukraine, in Syria, or other places across the world right now.

"That's why this work is so important - to teach students where hatred and othering and casual racism and prejudice can lead to."

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