#2 of 52 Things I Learned as a PCV

2. Don’t expect to be the change you want to see in the world. 

I thought strong and hard for what to write as #2 thing I learned. Well, here’s a wisdom that applies to any community development. Most Peace Corps Volunteers join thinking “I am going to change the world!”. People have said these words to me and I always smile and turn away. This is not, never been, and never will be my intention as Peace Corps Volunteer. If you are trying to fulfill Ghandi’s wise words as a PCV, I think you should consider another path.

As a PCV you are not changing THE world. You are making a change you want to see in YOUR world. The impact you are making as a PCV should be made by the community to become sustainable and effective. That is, I believe Peace Corps Volunteers should focus on inspiring their community members to create change they want to see in their world.

Sometimes, the need of the community aligns with the actual need; but the truth is that what we want as outsiders is seldom reflected on the perceived needs of the community… and that’s where the energy and resource gets wasted. This burns out so many volunteers by month 6. So… don’t do that.

I will get a bit technical. As PCVs, we are given few tools to assess the needs of our communities. I strongly encourage current and future PCVs to put more emphasis on Needs Assessment for a more fulfilling and successful service. I took first 3 months at my site to develop this fishbone chart with the need of the community. It took a while but I decided (from personal observations and informal interviews) that Lezha lacked proper Youth Engagement.

IMG_0492Unlike traditional fishbone, I used this to map out what aspect of my community I can help, what already exists, where are the resources, who are the key players, and how I can connect all the dots. It’s been a challenging success so far!

 

Success #1: My sitemate and I worked with an isolated community that wanted to bring a secondary education to their community. They needed infrastructure, human resources, and dedication. We held a community meeting, then BOOM! SUCCESS! We had our first high school class in this community this year.

 

DSC04108

Success #2: From previous community meeting, the community was able to organize themselves when the Prime Minister was visiting Lezhë. They petitioned and requested a new road, to which he responded positively. (Unfortunately, current developments do not look good. Hopefully residents do not lose hope yet!)

Success #3: Multifunctional community center opened! This center is a collaboration between multiple organizations. I was invited to join during the opening event, and it is still functioning! I went this week to teach my 10th grade class on domestic violence. What an asset to the community!

 

Success #4: My counterpart and I held a community development training at a high school. We taught service learning and how students can become assets to their community. I taught about project development, needs assessment, and sustainability. Currently, students are working against bullying in schools! They are going around different schools in the city and presenting how to combat bullying.

 

DSC06153

Success #5: Albanian Model United Nations. What a journey it was to work on AMUN. I had a pleasure of working with 6 dedicated high school students in representing Azerbaijan. It was truly a learning experience for all of us!

 

DSC06186

Success #6: Teacher trainings via English Lessons. Back in January, the Regional Director of Education asked me to teach English to teachers. Well, I wasn’t an English teacher, I said, but what the heck. Since then, I have weekly English lessons with teachers. We discuss new teaching methods, health and gender issues in classrooms all in English. Well, can you say “killing two birds with one stone”?

 

IMG_4661

Things in progress: I still have few projects I am working on. I won’t call them successes yet, but it is what my community wants and I am doing it to benefit the goal of my service: youth engagement in my community.

My advice to current and future PCVs: listen to your community. Listen to the people. Don’t jump into the cold water thinking you know exactly what to do. You don’t know your community until 3-6 months at site. Take time, drink coffee, meet people, make relationships. Begin a project that the community want, not what you want. Or at least, not yet. Don’t try to change the world, you don’t know their world. Be humble and inspire the community to change their own world.

Advertisements

#1 of 52 Things I Learned as a PCV

  1. Learning the language is one of the best ways to the hearts of Albanians

As soon as I accepted my invitation to become a Volunteer in Albania, I started learning Albanian. With some of my closest friends being Albanian, I picked up little language here and there, and learned some more online. Before I arrived, I knew basic greetings, days of the week, months, and numbers.

20170728_252100.JPG20170724_140201.JPG

However, the real journey didn’t start until Day 1 in Albania. During orientation in capital city, Tirana, we were put into groups and taught basic Albanian. My thoughts were “who created this language? This is ridiculous… I will just find friends that speak fluent English“. Well, when I arrived at my host family’s house, they did not speak a bit of English. Just my luck, eh?

20170313_123400.JPG

But thankfully, our faithful and patient LCFs (Language and Culture Facilitators) taught us Albanian from the very beginning. I will brag that I picked up the language quickly, and that I learned I have a gift of language learning. Sweet! I even bought Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone in Albanian to read, but unfortunately, I have stopped after Chapter 1. 20170328_100800.JPG

Even though first few months were rough without proper language, I even gave a speech at the swearing-in ceremony in Shqip. What a crowning moment!!! That was honestly one of the best moments of my service: being able to represent my friends and colleagues in our journey.

18449569_2277349115823822_2588948024779345411_o

Fast forward some time, and it’s been over a year in Albania. I am able to communicate fluently with HCNs in Albanian. I can also now differentiate between the difficult alphabets: ‘l’ vs ‘ll’ and ‘ç’ and ‘q’ (sometimes). Despite the redundancy, small  conversations (even in dialect sometimes) with locals I meet during a hike, at the treg, or on a furgon, really makes my day shine even brighter. Those are the memories I cherish most.

The little Albanian I speak, regardless of its correctness, makes the locals very happy. As an overachiever, I think I should know more Albanian than I do now, but the HCNs I come in contact with are always proud that I speak such a difficult and demanding language. And trust me, I still learn new things every day! (I learned today an expression for “I wish the same for you” in Albanian exists as “in your head” WHAT?!)

As I shared in my previous post about language learning, this is not the first time I’ve been immersed in language, but this one has been the toughest. It has been a journey, and will continue for another year. Learning this language has really helped me speak to my colleagues, students, and be able to understand the bits and pieces of what is going on in my community.

As an outsider, no one feels the need to share news with me. So, I took it upon myself to read my local news everyday and learn new words. I follow local pages on Facebook and read posts by HCNs and comment in Shqip. I talk to local friends about happenings in our small city, as well as rest of Albania. Albanians love to talk about politics, even American politics. While I don’t get to share raki and ekspres with the older men, I still get to hear bits and pieces of it at a lokal. Having advanced language skills helped me learn more about my community both passively and actively, and has become one of the most important assets of a Peace Corps Volunteer.

3GOAL – A Peace Corps Experience

At the end of last month, I return back to NYC for one of my best friend’s wedding. I took the maximum allotted days of two weeks to see my friends and family, and I came across a chance to speak at a Career Week Event at Floral Park Memorial High School.

In preparation, I thought about what aspect of PC experience I can share with the young girls. The fact about living in a different country, traveling around Europe, being a strong and independent women all seemed great, but I realized they probably enough of that from the Internet. I am not the best role model for young females… at least not yet. So, I decided to share the lives of their counterparts in Albania. I interviewed some of my female students here in Lezha about their every day lives and hopes for the future.

We started the presentation with my journey to become a Peace Corps Volunteer; how I had heard about it during college, and decided to become a naturalized citizen to join PC; I got my Master’s to become a competitive candidate; why I chose Albania; how I learned my language; my experience living with host family that did not speak English; being a minority among Volunteers and in another country; and et cetera.

All of the students were so engaged and interested about Albanian culture and history. They were even more interested about serious issues of gender norms and brain drain, and at the same time, mesmerized by the English fluency of the girls in the video.

“I can’t even speak Spanish after all this time, and how many languages do they speak?” (after learning most young Albanians speak at least 2-3 languages)

The video depicted only few girls of Albania, all of which had dreams and were aware of gender norms. This really ignited something in the students of Floral Park and they became even more appreciative of what they have and what they can achieve for themselves and for girls around the world.

While I only shared my story for two hours (one more hour than I had originally planned), I sincerely hope that students had learned something valuable that can be beneficial in the future. Maybe none of them will become a Peace Corps Volunteer, maybe some will. Either way, my goal to share Albania to Americans was a success.

52 Things I’ve Learned as a PCV

May 12, 2017 is when I swore in as part of 20th group of Peace Corps Volunteer in Albania. To celebrate completion of my one year, and to countdown until I officially COS (Close of Service), I would like to share one thing I learned as a PCV living in Albania every week – a total of 52.

Homecoming

Few weekends ago, three other PCVs and  I visited the village in which we completed our training. We arrived 10 months ago, not knowing Shqip, not understanding the culture, and not knowing what will happen to us for next two years. We returned to the small village of Pajovë with smiles and stories from our sites.

We walked down the familiar village road with donkeys and chickens in the cold. It was Saturday morning, so as usual, the women were working in the fields and children were playing outside. Some saw us from afar, and let the others know we were coming home. We had tried to call few times, but it was difficult to get in touch with my host family. I had numbers for all four families of Pajovë ‘Farmville’, so they knew ahead of time that there will be visitors.

Unlike my first walk down this road (weird, because I never walked down this road alone), this homecoming was different. Having more knowledge of Albanian language is one, but the other, was the fact that I have been a PCV for 8 months, and have something to share with my first host family: I had stories from other parts of Albania, my students and neighbors, pictures of my house, work, and neighborhood, and mostly, the food I made and eat everyday.

Shanna and I were first greeted by host mothers from two other PCVs’ families, both of whom have paid a visit since we left in May; making our visit the third and last visit of the group. We chatted away for half an hour, until we were asked to go inside for drinks.

DSC05997.JPG

PCV Shanna and host mothers of Pajovë

When we entered, my host mother was busy preparing food. The baby I saw lying down and bundled up 8 months ago, was now walking and running. The familiar smell of meat stew and bread filled the house. As we entered and sat down, girls of the neighborhood followed us in for company. I assumed they missed our presence; they played volleyball outside until sundown, and they chatted in English and Shqip.

 

DSC06002.JPG

We tried to get her to smile, but it was still a novel idea.

We were told we were drinking beverages (no raki! Thank goodness!), but we were offered a whole meal for lunch. This reminded me of my first meal with this family. There was so much, but the family was apologetic they didn’t have time to make more.

DSC06022.JPG

So much food!

We couldn’t complete our visit without another coffee and photo time. More chatting and talking about “When will you come back?” The trip was too short. I wanted to stay and chat more, but we had to ask for another time in the Summer. We were promised a wedding in the Summer, and a proper feast of food and Albanian dances. Now they know that I can dance (see my posts for Swearing-In Ceremony and Macedonian Wedding), there was no escaping the invite. I guess there will be another wedding post soon!

DSC06050.JPG

Me and my host ‘mother’, her daughter, and nieces.

 

Day of Skenderbej

Gjergj Kastrioti “Skenderbej” is a national hero of Albania. His statue can be found in many Albanian cities, including ethnically Albanian cities in Kosovo and Macedonia. He was a military man and a national hero that united different tribes of Albania during Ottoman invasion, known throughout history as the League of Lezhe. Many historical documents refers to his military skills to that of Alexander the Great.

In Albania, we celebrate the life of a historical figure on their day of death. So on January 17, 2018, the entire city of Lezha was decked out in Albanian flags, there were people in traditional clothing, schools came on field trips to Lezha, and most importantly, my school (properly named Gjergj Kastrioti) celebrated the 550th year of Skenderbej’s death with a musical concert.

Here are some pictures from the event:

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Refreshed

I was greeted by a string of greetings on first day back to school. “Gëzuar!” “Viti mbarë!” “Të priftë e mbarë!”, wishing me a happy new year and a good luck for the year.

I spent the end of year traveling and refreshing the scenery that I’ve become accustomed to. While I would have enjoyed a holiday spent with my host families and Albanian friends, I was long overdue for a vacation. Despite living in a different country, my unusual need to escape every six months had not been met. So I traveled to Italy, Hungary, and Austria to meet with old friends, make new ones, and learn new things.

But this post isn’t about my travels; I can write in lengths about the ancients streets of Rome, livelihood of Budapest, or historical Vienna, but I want to focus this post on my journey back to Albania, my second home. (You can visit my travel buddy, Laurelin’s blog and read our amazing journey!)

It was an usual feeling of freedom living from Tirana International Airport. I felt relief as I lifted off towards Italy, and it felt like I was fleeing from something. Was I chaining myself up to a volunteer work in Albania? If so, was this okay? Through my travels, I was being reintroduced to familiarity of high-paced, high-income, and a comfortable lifestyle. I slowly came to conclusion that I’ve been under a rock called Albania; or at the least, Albania is currently under a rock in the 21st Century.

A rock of cultural stagnancy, where youth is not recognized for their innovative and progressive ideas. A social oppression, where social “abnormality”, such as a divorcee or single mother, is being shamed behind the scenes. A rock of corruption that places economical restriction on its own potentials; lackluster ideas for the improvement of the country, and the redundancy of the people distrust government in all steps of the way. A society that is still imprisoned within communism ideals, without communist benefits, such as social services. The worst kind of social abuse: oppression from the people, to the people. 

Only a short flight away, people were enjoying higher standard of living in warm homes, enjoying various meals, thriving in tourism, cherishing punctuality, and creating harmonious future. As I was re-introduced into this lifestyle, I looked back at Albania and was refreshed with my role as a Peace Corps Volunteer.

There is absolutely no way an individual, or even a group of American PCVs and any amount of international aid, will change the course of Albanian future, she can only do that for herself. However, an individual can assist teachers, students, and other stakeholders to be equipped with the life outside of the rock. And despite many Albanians’ disbelief in my word, that is up to them to believe. I am aware of my worth and experiences, my role as a PCV to bring the world to these individuals that do not have the same opportunity as I do. This can be the beginning.

So, unlike my flight out of Albania, where I was overwhelmed with feeling of freedom, my return flight was full of possibility and anticipation, similar to how I felt arriving in Albania 10 months ago. This time, I had a better grasp of what I was faced with, who I can work with, and what I had to do. I couldn’t wait to go back to my town to see my family, friends, colleagues, students, and possibilities. I can only hope that refreshment can resonate through my work here in Albania for the remaining 15 months of my service.

 

World AIDS Day

December 1 is World AIDS Day.

As a Public Health professional, I take this day every year to talk about HIV/AIDS to everyone I meet. I ask about what they know, how they feel, and ask if they want to ask questions. I’ve met people in the States that had the wrong information regarding HIV/AIDS, and Albania was no different.

In Albania, there are roughly 1700 people living with HIV/AIDS (PLWHA), most of them male adults (source: UNAIDS). The incidence of HIV/AIDS in Albania is at 0.15 person per every 1000 persons, however, only 47% of PLWHA are aware that they are positive, this number can increase over time without proper prevention and treatment. Only 30 (or 1.7%) of PLWHA are receiving antiretroviral therapy (ART).

Prevalence of people at most risk: Men who have sex with men (MSM), 50%; injection drug users, 50%; and no data available for sex workers. This only reports percentages, which leads me to believe that there is a low sample size of these individuals due to high stigma.

Hence, the biggest problem besides prevention: stigma and lack of knowledge. The report from UNAIDS show that 64.1% answered NO to question “would you buy vegetable from individual with HIV/AIDS?”, and only 31.72% of youth aged 15-24 know the correct methods of prevention fo HIV/AIDS.

This is staggering. The problem with this is that people are aware of HIV/AIDS, but do not understand it. The problem is that underlying prejudice is blocking the dissemination of correct information. The problem is that stakeholders do not prioritize HIV/AIDS and other public health issues because of shame and stigma.

In a culture that values family, togetherness, and hospitality, topics such as HIV/AIDS is taboo, forbidden, and shameful. High-risk population is unlikely to get tested due to this stigma. But this is simple, here’s a handy chart from Avert.orghowstigmaleadstosickness-top20with20avert_1

All the things done by the society marginalizes an individual that most needs help. This can only take turn if young generation is properly educated to remain open-minded and become problem solvers for the future generation, before any sickness take over the population.

I had the privilege to witness two different AIDS Day events held by two 9-Year schools at my site. They prepared to draw, perform, act, and present various aspects of HIV/AIDS to an audience of political leaders, parents, students, teachers, and other invitees. I also gave lessons to 9th graders at my school, and ensured they had proper information for HIV/AIDS and other illnesses. I hope that I opened the floor for these youngsters to ask questions about taboo topics and change their mindset for healthier future of Albania.

Cross-border Trip – Ulcinj, Montenegro

Last weekend, I used one of my three allotted Cross-border Culture Day Trips to Ulcinj, Montenegro. I didn’t know much about the place, other than there are plenty of beaches to enjoy during the summer. I was nervous when I took off, ‘am I wasting one of my three vacation days?’. Yet, the tourist-less city surprised me and greeted me with surprise in each corner.

Despite being a part of EU, Ulcinj reminds me a lot of Albania. Albanian is spoken here (but heavy dialect that I did not quite understand), and Albanian food can be found in restaurants. Most signs on the stores Ulcinj is usually Croatian, Albanian, English. It was fascinating to me to visit this small beach town. However, since it was first week of November, most shops were closed and it felt like a ghost town in some parts of the town: souvenir shops were closed, beaches were emptied out, museums were unmanned, hotels were closed for the season, and no boats have left the marina. Yet, there were plenty of people taking a stroll and drinking coffee at a seaside lokal.

Here are some beautiful pictures from my short trip:

Feasting on Knowledge at TEDxTirana

This post originally appeared on PC Albania, Language and Culture Committee’s Winter Newsletter (See the fancy video here).

Learning useless trivia and about complex world issues and perspectives on cultural and social issues are some of my favorite intellectual dishes. On September 16, I had the pleasure of attending a dinner party of sorts in Tirana as part of a locally organized TEDxTalk event that included a delicious meal served by the future minds of Albania.

Speakers included artists, politicians, scholars of various fields and expertise, and foreigners that brought diverse flavors to the party. They prepared the Albanian youth to think about global issues at a local scale, and some local issues from the perspective of a foreigner.

For the past six months, I have noticed a gap in intellectual nutrients provided to Albanian youth. Most lack the ability to think critically, conjure ideas for a bigger cause, and the tools needed to develop ideas into reality.

As a Peace Corps Volunteer, I want to inspire youth to create these skillsets. I empathize with those who feel neglected, powerless, and distant from the developed Western World. I’ve heard young people accuse their own society of intellectual starvation, and many idolize the feast that may await them in the U.S. or elsewhere.

As I sat among Albanian university students and young professionals, countless success stories unfolded in an auditorium in Tirana. The speakers at TEDx attempted to dissemble Albanian youth’s disbelief—and it was a feast.

Delivered in both English and Albanian, the sessions encompassed a variety of flavors for the future of Albania’s youth. Rather than picking which dish to eat, audience got a sampler: an appetizer of gender issues, a hearty soup about Muslim discrimination, a freshly tossed salad about the refugee crisis in an art form, a savory entrée about nationalism from an Albanian-American and a former US federal prosecutor, an interesting side of musical evolution of post-communist Albania, and even a delightful desert in form of multimedia in politics.

Speakers encouraged the audience to think bigger, to take pride in Albanian history, to believe in themselves to create change, and to cease discrimination in order to build a country that they can be proud of. It was a banquet to be remembered.

Completely overwhelmed with the insight gained during this TEDx feast, we left the auditorium. As Peace Corps Volunteers, we are challenged to broaden the perspectives of Albanian youth culturally, socially, emotionally, mentally, and intellectually. This banquet was a reassurance that this enlightenment is in progress, and that Albanian youth are aware of the challenges faced by their own country. They are working to create a spark that will activate a nation for an intellectual revolution.

As we left the auditorium, I envisioned future feasts filled with delicious cuisine, especially of those Albanian dishes with Western flare, that would one day indicate an intellectual revolution of Albanian youth.

A special thank you to Robin H. for suggesting the post and making final edits. Visit tedxtirana.com to watch the talks.