My face is everywhere!

12. Sharing stories… and inspiring others

We all have stories… where we are from, where we are headed, experiences we have gone through, and how they shape the way we think and interact with each other.

In May, I shared this story about sharing Albania with some girls during my trip back home. This story ended up being featured on official Peace Corps page. As I repeatedly mentioned on my I enjoyed my 3GOAL experience and everything from it. I loved talking about this particular two hours with my Albanian friends and colleagues. They were intrigued, especially after seeing the post on Peace Corps website.

Few weeks later, I received another email asking me to write another story based on specific words I had spoken on the previous post:

“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.”

At first, I was hesitant. My journey was personal… my struggle to become a Peace Corps has been with my family and culturally, we are very private. I did not want to depict my parents as those that stopped me from chasing my dreams rather than those that supported my decisions. Nevertheless, I did it anyway.

I drafted a story of my journey: reasons I decided to become a PCV, my circumstances at the time, and the life goal I have set to myself. It was a short one, and I felt exposed. But, I simultaneously, I felt refreshed and reassured of my every day work as a Peace Corps Volunteer.

July, when I wrote the story, was a rough month for me. It was my mid-service point, a point where there is known to be a “terrible slump”. Writing story not only gave me refreshing perspective… but it also enabled me to push forward and do my best in the circumstances I have. The small cheers and appreciation I received from my Albanian friends, colleagues, Peace Corps staff, and fellow PCVs really helped me move forward. In the end, it’s not the big projects I will leave as legacy, but the love and passion I have had for Albania and its people.

Read the story posted on the Peace Corps official page.

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And this past Sunday, I received a Facebook message from a stranger. She was a prospective PCV, who decided to join Peace Corps because of my story. She wanted to thank me and told me that “[my] story cemented [her] decision to apply for Peace Corps”, especially because my journey was similar to what she is currently going through. I am truly in awe at the power of storytelling.

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Beauty of Northern Albania

11. Albanian nature is one of the most incredible.

Few weekends ago, two PCVs and I went up to a small village called Theth in Northern Albania. What many travel books calls as “Accursed Albanian Alps“, the mountain range is so beautiful that it looks like a photoshop backdrop. We did not do participate in the famous Theth-Valbona hike (that will come later for me), but we enjoyed a relaxing weekend at a guesthouse, small hikes to a waterfall and Syri i Kalter (blue eye), and a music festival at night.

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Unintended damages of International Development

10. International Development can damage a community.

You see a picture of a young boy, in ragged clothes, living in slums, no shoes. He is dirty and hair is a mess – he has not gotten a haircut in weeks. His mother is 20 years old, barely a woman. She was raped at 14 and now has 3 kids with her husband who drinks and abuses her every night. Husband does not earn any money. The young mom is hopeless and powerless to send her boy to school.

You have never met this boy. But you see him. You see his struggles. And you – and many others – may pledge to donate to an international development organization to help this young boy to go to school.

If you donate, you might have helped, but you also created some collateral damage. 

It’s pleasing to the donors to see theoretical frameworks fulfilled. I observed few things about international agencies during my short experience as a public health professional in the offices of US and on the field in Albania. Donors and program management staff are so embedded in fulfilling a log framework that “in theory” is a foolproof method to improve a distant community. Management and other staff are also adamantly focused on quantitative data from local staff with minimal cultural sensitivity. Local staff, as a result, are overworked and underpaid, and usually jaded from the work they have to do, since the focus of the work has shifted over the course of a project.

The family from my example above may receive foreign assistance to send their boy to school. Mom may even receive health care for her young kids and herself; but even in the most carefully planned program, there will be unintended damages.

The biggest collateral damage is the one that creates this belief that “foreign aid” is money. It can take shapes of a project, a training, or basic assistance, that is gifted to a beneficiary at no cost. Without the buy-in from the beneficiary, however, this usually does not ensure sustainability. In result, beneficiaries and communities become reliant and dependent on foreign aid, that one day can come to an end and threaten their livelihood.

Proper education for sustainability is crucial, but I have noticed in my experiences that when money is involved, education does not stand as a priority. I remember listening to a classmate in graduate school. We were discussing international program and economic development. The example was about malaria nets distributed to poor communities in a rural village in a Western Africa. She testified that “the nets were barely used for mosquito prevention. Yes, there are trainings on how to install them. And yes, people know malaria kills. But no. Nets are used to catch fish, because the priority is to feed oneself and his family”.

So, do you blame it on the beneficiary, who decided that feeding his family was worth more than risking malaria? Or, do you blame it on the local staff that didn’t provide adequate education? Or, do you blame the program management that did not create a culturally appropriate framework? Or, do you blame the donors that funded a ridiculous project?

Many international development agendas come with fine lines that satisfy donors and agency goals, which sometimes comes at the expenses of the livelihood, the future, the potential, the desires, and the needs of the community. I wholeheartedly believe that the most successful international program is the one that provides what the beneficiaries want, and to create a life that is worth living. So, rather than providing both a problem and a solution, organizations should listen to their communities and prioritize the needs of the community rather than those of donors.

Please feel free to comment and discuss this unpopular opinion. Here are some readings to learn more about the damage of some international development programs.

Unintended effects of development aid. TMJ Newby. 2010.
Nonprofit organizations becoming business-like: systematic review. F Maier, M Meyer, and M Steinbereithner. 2014.
Global health and development. (via Effective Altruism). J Whittlestone. 2017.

#9 of 52 Things I Learned as a PCV

9. Making unintentional difference in the community

Last week, there was the annual GLOW camp at Kallmet. This village has been served by previous volunteers from my city. 20 minutes away by car but isolated since public transportation is very infrequent.

Last year, we held a camp in middle of August in the heat of the summer. (Read the post here) However, without involvement of teachers, not many students showed up. This year, we asked the teachers to gather the students for GLOW. We had a better turn out, and as a second-year, I had more experience and had more realistic expectations on what will likely happen.

When I first arrived in the village they immediately asked me about the last female PCV that held a camp there three years ago. Girls came up to me with excitement, “Do you know her? She’s also from New York” “We had so much fun with her!!” “Can we also do the games she played with us?” “She was absolutely the best!!!” And this was not the first time I heard good things about this volunteer… and it’s been challenging to not compare myself to her and her successful projects.

But it’s not the projects though. It’s the person that makes the difference. This volunteer is a lovely person to be around. I connected with her when I returned to the States for few weeks back in April. She was still in love with Lezha and the people. She only had good things to say about the two years she spent here.

And that is important: It’s not the quality or the amount of funding a PCV brings to the town that should dictate his/her “success”, but the memories of PCVs that the students, neighbors, and colleagues will remember throughout their lives. I love my town, I love my friends and host family, and I will most likely cry a river when it is time for me to leave. I hope I can share optimism and hopefulness to the people I come in contact with despite the struggles I may face internally. Rather than struggling to make an intentional difference, I am hopeful and happy with leaving behind a simply unintentional change.

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#8 of 52 Things I Learned as a PCV

8. Sports = universal language 

Many say math is the universal language, but I disagree. Sports and its fandom bring people together despite language and cultural barriers.

In the past few weeks, Albania has been morphed in World Cup fandom. While Albanian team did not qualify for World Cup (although ethnic Albanian players are still making headlines on the Switzerland national team. Read the latest news here), Albanians can be found waving flags and jerseys of other countries around the world. Even the award-winning Skenderbeg Square in Tirana was transformed into World Cup watching headquarters.

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I knew World Cup is a big deal in Europe, and for Albanians, especially those that emigrated and came back, most of the countries are second-home to them. That’s why they can wear and wave these flags so proud. But even if most never left the country, you can see flags of Germany, Brazil, Argentina, Spain, Portugal, France, and so much more! (Until most of these teams were eliminated. This post was written prior to Germany going home). And I assume Greece and Italy was probably on the lists of supporting country as well if they had made the World Cup.

It’s easy to confuse the Albanian support to other countries negatively. Someone even told me “my country supports other countries, because we can’t never make it to World Cup”. I am very sad to hear this, but I also know this can fuel nationalism and pride in certain individuals. The individual that confided in me was distraught that he cannot support his own team during this international phenomenon. The moment he can wave his flag and shout after a goal for his team in the world cup would be so meaningful in the next few World Cups to come. Albania does not lack talent, there are talented footballers and other athletes, but they are just not highlighted properly. Because the culture does not merit the process but only the result. It is a culture that requires immediate attention.

As World Cup heat gets hotter, Albanians will continue to celebrate various teams’ wins and discuss the upsets and abnormalities in this World Cup… still hoping one day, Albania can show their Shqiponje proudly without getting fined by FIFA. This global event has truly become a conversation starter for a long-time football fan like me.

Here’s a bonus photo of me and my parents rooting for our team back in 2014.

#7 of 52 Things I Learned as a PCV

7. Focus on things that matter after 27 months.

This past week, I attended a week long conferences. It was three conferences crammed into one week, so while logistics and operations went smoothly, I had a difficult time adjusting to the bustle of Tirana, big group gatherings, and listening to long Peace Corps information sessions.

Out of these, there was a session dedicated to evaluating my own mental health. This was only the second day and most of us were already exhausted from traveling and excessive mingling. This session made me reflect on my primary concern and how I can adjust my attitude to fix the problem. I had written down “how do I stop stressing over things?” because while I know I can’t change behavior, the attitude, the norm, and the culture, it has been difficult to not let it affect my mental and emotional health.

So, I wrote down on my notebook: Focus on things that matter after 27 months

The next day, we headed to our venue for All Volunteers Conference. It is an annual event that brings together all PCVs across Albania. We had the opportunity to listen to various guest speakers including a politician, a writer, and international development specialists. My favorite part during this conference was the section “A tree that grew from Peace Corps”. Here, we listened to four Albanian women (and girls) and their memory of their first PCVs. They talked about the first time they met them and how PCVs were different from their “ideal image” of an American; they shared first time walking into PCVs homes, eating American food, and speaking about each other’s future. They talked about how PCVs encouraged them to make a change in their own lives.

While I sat there, I was so inspired by the young women that were so evidently accomplished and so empowered by PCVs. And I imagined, one day, my friends and students, after being accomplished doctors and teachers, might sit there sharing stories about their interactions with me. This served as a reassurance that my everyday interactions with Albanians was what matters during my service…. and not the negative interactions and comments I would normally hear.

BONUS: Check out Peace Corps Albania’s page about AVC and our beautiful Volunteer work in Tirana.

 

#6 of 52 Things I Learned as a PCV

6. I’ve become more passionate about the environment

Prior to Peace Corps, I did what a normal American person would do in terms of environment. I thought recycling and not littering were sufficient to get by. As urbanization takes place around the world, I’ve learned that I am damaging the environment a lot more than I believed.

Sure, not littering is one thing, but there are other methods to help the environment.

  • Reuse and recycle: My mason jars have now turned to multi-purpose items. They are Kimchi jars, candle holders, spice dispensers, my water glass, used to hold stationaries and/or utensils, and so much more!
  • Using reusable shopping bags: I bring one when I go grocery shopping. Folks are confused because they think I’m weird putting things in my bag then taking them out for check-out and putting it back in. But hopefully things will catch on. (Published just today, Albanian Prime Minister wants to ban all plastic bags “lawfully” in Albania). Also, I taught a lesson to my kids about reusable bags, which keeps me accountable for bringing reusable bag.
  • Second-hand clothes: Most of us are used to fast fashion and shopping regularly for new items at stores like H&M and Forever 21, who seem to have new items every day. Well, I’ve learned that clothes we throw away land in Albania and other low/middle-income countries around the world as second-hand clothing. But, if they are not wanted here… where do they go? Also, this is killing local textile businesses when they can thrive locally and globally. Watch this short clip on Facebook.
  • The Ocean: I am not a swimmer, so I have been very negligent of ocean health. But, living by the Adriatic allows my community to actively have weekly clean-ups at the beach. But… are clean-ups more effective than changing social behavior to not litter on the beach and into the water?

I have become more cognizant of my environment in Albania and around the world. Living in a bubble in America you always hear about “global environment issues” but it never hits home until you see it and recognize it yourself.

#5 of 52 Things I Learned as a PCV

5. I am actually an ambassador of (immigrant) American Dream

I come from an immigrant family. We moved to America when I was 10. I grew up in New York City after 9-11 attack. I didn’t know English, American culture, the “American Dream”, but I witnessed what it takes to chase that dream.

When we first moved, I barely saw my parents during the week. My mother worked two jobs, my father three; my brothers and I had to figure out ways to do our homework without a tutor (since we couldn’t pay for it); and since we did not have close family in New York, we were left to rely on strangers that sometimes took advantage of us. This is the unspoken part of the American Dream. 

… and I am an ambassador of the American Dream.

Many conversations with Albanians flow in such a way that I can talk about my upbringing. The struggles of immigrants in a new country where the language is different, everything is expensive, and people don’t understand you… but somehow… and amazingly… you fit in. That is the true America that I and millions of others love.

I am honored to be an American that speak about moving to America,  the America most immigrants are likely to live in and not the America in the movies nor the suburban upper-middle class America that some PCVs come from, but the glass-ceiling America that a minority immigrant girl had to grow up in. Despite the struggles, I love this America and I can share my honest firsthand experiences on how difficult it was for my parents to make the decision to raise us in such environment, but – fast forward a decade and a half – I can also share the rewards that blossomed from those challenges, in hopes to encourage the future of Albanian emigrants.

During the past year, I came to embrace my struggles as a child of immigrant parents, and came to realization that this also is an America that should be shared to the world. I am proud ambassador of the American Dream.

 

#4 of 52 Things I Learned as a PCV

4. Take that coffee and a chance on new people

Taking a coffee in between day and chatting is a social tool that has become basis of many work meetings, project proposal, brainstorming, etc. It’s an essential social tool, as it is an essential chemical tool in modernized Western world.

When I meet new folks in Albania, they always invite me for coffee. One of the first invitation was when I was hiking with a group of friends during PST. We were saying hello to village people, and they invited us in for coffee in the middle of the mountains. That was extremely kind, but we felt weird so we kindly declined the offer.

In America, we say “let’s get drinks sometimes”, although you never get drinks with these folks.  So, I had taken it the same way here in Albania… until I realized that I live in a smaller city so I eventually end up running into them again and we have to have coffee for an hour or two.

It is tiring, especially if it’s completely in Albanian. Depending on the day, after about 45 minutes, there is not much to talk about. We cover family, work, weather, travel plans, some current events, and other small conversations. This is how Albanians show care, love, and support. But this is also where most of work come to fruition. I connected with people this way, learned names of people and their position, and I have broadened my network through coffee.

Because you know you are going to be talking about the same thing, and that you will become a broken record, sometimes you just don’t want to do it; but, building relationships with locals require patience… and a cup of joe.

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#3 of 52 Things I Learned as a PCV

3. Fill your downtime with a hobby you always wanted to try.

Multiple times a day, I get asked by my Albanian friends and colleagues “A je merzit?” — if i am bored, annoyed, or a combination of feelings. A common greeting I assume, but to me it has been very thoughtful. Moving to a new country with no friends and family… I must be feeling a certain way. But I always answer to this question “jo, asnjehërë” — No, never.

I’ve experienced so much downtime, especially at the beginning of my service. Throughout the past year, I tried hiking, running, basketball, knitting, journaling, learning Spanish and Italian, coloring, extreme puzzles, baking, cooking, growing plants, photography, origami, reading, and obviously, blogging.

So. Many. Hobbies! 

On one hand, Peace Corps has shaped my professional life with the priceless experience of working with a different culture. It has improved my understanding of the world (that’s like so obvious I don’t even need to mention in the 52). The important thing I want to highlight here is that Peace Corps Service also shaped my personal life.

I started learning about things I never thought I will learn. For example, growing up as a city girl, I never thought I would enjoy hiking; and I did not think I would dislike knitting (it’s so nifty! I would never need to buy a scarf!! But I am not patient and it hurts my hand).

I have one more year and I look forward to adding to the list of things I have tried.