Wired.com> After a full day of weaving carpets, a group of Bosnian women gather for a coffee break. They crowd around a table — sometimes crying, sometimes giggling like young girls — and read each other’s fortunes in the patterns of dregs in their cups.
To some Americans, a coffee break might seem like a trivial event, but to these women it serves as a kind of informal support group. Many are missing sons or husbands presumed to be among the 7,000 Muslim men killed by the Bosnian Serb army in the 1995 Srebrenica massacre, considered the worst mass killing since World War II.
Graduate student Marta Schaaf captures the scene in a weblog that chronicles her summer spent working with Bosfam, an advocacy organization that provides support to displaced women and refugees in Bosnia.
Bosfam offers assistance to about 300 women. Most are between 40 and 60 and have little formal education. The organization pays the women to weave rugs and knit clothing and provides space for them to meet.
The group is “helping them to reconceptualize their role in the family and in society,” Schaaf says. “In many cases they have lost that role as wives or mothers.”
Many of these women spend the bulk of their time wondering where their sons are and where their next meal is coming from.
“There are women crying almost every day,” she says.
Schaaf is one of eight summer interns affiliated with the Advocacy Project, a nonprofit organization in Washington that works with Non-Government Organizations, or NGOs, around the world.
Each intern, who assists advocacy groups in Bosnia, Nepal, Lebanon, Israel, Kosovo, Italy, Nigeria and the Czech Republic, has her own weblog.
The Advocacy Project is using the blogs to raise awareness about its work and to present an inside look at its projects.
“These blogs can provide a picture of what the tragedies that westerners see on the news mean to the people who live here,” Schaaf says. “Bosnia isn’t something that people talk about anymore, but there is still a lot of work to be done.”
Unlike most weblogs, which include updated links to sites from points all over the Web, the interns’ blogs function mainly as journals of their experiences and a window into the lives of the people with whom they are working.
While Schaaf writes about her experiences with the Bosnian women, her fellow interns are posting accounts of their work on the prevention of illegal trafficking of women and children in Nigeria, advocating for Roma (gypsies) in the Czech Republic, and social justice in Nepal.
A popular topic on the blogs is the wonder — and sometimes the shock — of living in a culture very different from their own.
Courtney Radsch, an intern at the Middle East Reporter and the Daily Star in Lebanon, writes that she was surprised to be unable to log on to Hotmail during a trip to Syria, finding the word “forbidden” on her screen.
Erica Williams, an African-American interning in Nigeria writes about her strange “mind trip” when she discovers that some Nigerians consider her to be white:
“I didn’t realize that I would be called Oyinbo by bus conductors, taxi drivers, drummers at parties and passersby,” she writes. “I didn’t foresee that children would stare and point at me or that a teenage girl would ask my host sister, ‘Why don’t you take her in a taxi? White people’s legs aren’t made for walking.’”
The Advocacy Project saw a spike in traffic when it first posted the blogs, and the project’s section where they are posted is the most popular area of the site, according to Teresa Crawford, technical director for the organization, who spearheaded the idea.
The blogs “make the projects a lot more accessible,” says Richard Blane, intern coordinator for the Advocacy Project.
“A lot of time this information gets contained within the organization that the intern is working for,” he says. “It may be that the information gets tied up in a report that only a few people read and it comes out two months after the project is finished.”
Weblogs are an excellent tool for nonprofit organizations, according to Ross Mayfield, CEO of Socialtext, which makes Web publishing tools for groups.
“Weblogs are the cheapest way for an individual or organization to communicate,” he says. “It’s a more natural, human voice than what someone could generate with a press release.”
Mayfield says blogs can also help nonprofits keep their donor base and supporters updated. Plus, “there’s a wide body of fairly influential and growing body of (weblog) readers that pay attention on a regular basis.”