Every year, during pre-service training (PST), new trainees travel to different cities all across the country to visit current volunteers and experience real volunteer life. PST is an intensive experience where practically every minute of every day is planned out for new trainees. Last year, I visited a volunteer in Rreshen for my volunteer visit. I remember being so excited for the future and had a blast taking some time away from the strenuous schedule of PST. We drank American coffee, went on hikes, explored castles, and had our first taste of independence in Albania. Since I enjoyed my experience so much last year, I wanted to pay-it-forward and host trainees in my home this year.
This past weekend, three new Group 17 trainees came to visit me and my site-mate. Quinn and Jefferson are English education trainees that shadowed Kate and Olivia is a health education trainee that shadowed me. We spent the weekend having plenty of coffees, exploring my site and Durres, taking pictures, binging on American food (Girl Scout cookies and tacos – can it get much better?!), and having nightly movie marathons with my new projector. It was so much fun meeting new Americans and showing them some of the basics. Then on Monday, the trainees had the opportunity to shadow us at work. My counterpart and I planned to do a lesson on the harmful effects of smoking and implement the lesson with a jeopardy game that I created. This lesson went over very well thanks to my new projector; big thanks to everyone back home that helped donate money. Having the projector completely changed the entire lesson. The students were extremely engaged and interested. Some of them seemed shocked to find out some of the different chemicals that are found inside cigarettes. It was, hands-down, the best health lesson that we have implemented thus far! I am glad that Olivia was able to witness the success.
Now, my time in Peace Corps Albania has officially reached over the half-way mark. I am going into my second year serving as a health education volunteer and life finally feels like it is going smoothly. I have integrated into my community, built better relationships with my counterparts and coworkers, speak the local language enough to get by in most situations, and ultimately feel good about my service thus far. Having the trainees here really reminded me of how far I have come since I first arrived in Albania in March of 2012. I can’t wait for my second year in country and I can’t wait to get to know the other awesome Americans in group 17 that I will be spending this next year volunteering with!
Several weeks ago our Outdoor Ambassadors youth group decided to hold our first fundraiser. We wanted to begin raising money to do different projects in the community like garbage cleanups, community gardens, planting trees, and painting trash cans to beautify the city. The students felt other people in the community would be interested in a movie, so the club voted to play the second film in the Hunger Games series.
During the initial planning phases of the fundraiser many things went awry. Luckily, since working in Albania, I have become accustomed to working last minute conditions. In order to have the fundraiser, there were several steps we had to take in order to have the activity. First, we had to get permission from the Mayor and the Culture Center to hold the activity without a venue fee. The students wrote a short proposal for the mayor outlining what kind of projects we will use the money for and then the mayor agreed to let us use the venue. It took several days for us to receive permission and this made many of the students nervous because we did not want to start promoting the activity before receiving the proper go-ahead. We finally received permission to have the fundraiser two days before the event.
After that, I spoke with some of my community connections to find us a projector and the other necessities for the fundraiser. The students found the movie with Shqip subtitles online and did all the promotion. Much of the promotion was done through social media. The students created a Facebook event and endorsed the event in different Facebook groups. We made two big posters and hung them up in town, but sadly the posters were torn down within a day. The club also made fliers and hung them up last-minute. I am not sure if it was that helpful to hang the fliers an hour before the event, but it definitely didn’t hurt either.
The students were very hesitant throughout the planning stages of this project and were constantly arguing about small details. They wanted to cancel the event because of all the last-minute planning, but I put my foot down and forced them to continue on with the event. In the end, the event was absolutely amazing and a BIG success. It was definitely worth all the drama beforehand. I set my expectations low for the event because I didn’t know what to expect, but the students blew me expectations out of the water. In the end, the club raised over $200 and over 100 members of the community came out to support the event.
Even though the event was a success in my books, it is noteworthy to mention that the participant’s behavior during the event was absolutely horrid. Many students were talking loudly during the whole film. People were shining their phone lights all over the theater. There were several incidences of profanity directed towards me. Students continued to try to smoke inside the theater (which is common in Albania – people smoke everyone, including inside schools). And someone ended up unplugging the projector during the middle of the film.
The event made me realize how patient I have become since working here. None of the incidences above even fazed me. I was just so pleased that the students put in all the hard work and in the end had something to be proud of. Nothing like this has ever been done, by students in my community, before. After the event, all the students were smiling from ear and ear and I was genuinely so impressed and proud of them for pulling it together despite all the difficulties. This fundraiser has been the highlight of my service thus far and I am looking forward to having more events, such as this, in the future. These students are the voice of the future and give me hope for this wonderful country.
The phrase, “that won’t work,” is one of the most common sayings that I have run into while working in Albania. Albanians are regularly telling me that certain ideas I have won’t work for one reason or another. I can understand certain projects or activities being somewhat idealistic and unrealistic based on available resources here, but I hear this phrase constantly – even with simple ideas.
While working with my Albanian counterparts at the Directory of Public Health I have tried to implement several strategies to help promote health education more effectively in our community. My main push has been trying to execute games or activities into our health lectures. Usually, my counterparts decide the day of whether or not they feel like giving a lesson that day. This can be based on many different things including the weather (if it’s raining we for sure will not be giving a lesson), how well they slept, or a wide variety of other reasons/excuses. If they decide yes, the lesson usually consists of a 10-20 minute lecture on a topic. Typically, materials such as posters, Powerpoints, and games are not included into these lessons. If they are included, there are maybe five copies of a word document that several of the students can look at during the lecture. When I mention including games and activities, I am quickly shut down with the answer, “that won’t work.” What is the reasoning behind why things won’t work, you may wonder? To be honest, I am still not sure. I have explained several times how planning ahead with directors and teachers would allow us more time to spend with the students giving a quality lesson that they would learn from. Slowly, my counterparts are becoming more open to planning ahead, but even if we have a great plan and the rain comes then “that won’t work.”
Another example of the “that won’t work” phenomenon I have experienced working with the Outdoor Ambassadors youth group. My site-mate and I recently started a youth group working with students at the high school to promote leadership and environmentalism in the community. We are in the process of planning our first fundraiser to help raise money for future projects in the city. We decided to hold a movie night fundraiser in the theater of the culture center. Along the way we’ve come across a couple snags and several “that won’t work” moments, but we’re still chugging. Hopefully the event will be successful and we’ll be able to continue to have more fundraisers to beautify the city.
Many Peace Corps volunteers in other areas of the world face different challenges, but here in Albania we are faced with trying to change mentality. And trying to change mentality can be very tricky and discouraging. I am a firm believer that you cannot change others, they need to have the desire to change themselves.
Personally, it can be difficult for me to work here when people feel my ideas will not work. I came to Albania and to Peace Corps to help spread new ideas and to help develop capacity of those that I work with. I think the “that won’t work” trend is abundant here because people are resistant to change. It is apparent to me why many Albanians would be resistant to change after the fall of communism, but that doesn’t make it any easier to work within this system. There are many reasons why people are resistant to change and I think there are 6 main reasons why many Albanians I have met are hesitant to alter their behaviors.
- Uncertainty: Many are unsure how making changes will affect their lives. They don’t know what to expect when things begin changing because they have been working within a broken system for so long. People are uncertain of how implementing changes will affect their status within the community. They do not want to be seen as having a failed project.
- Competency: It is common for people to pay for their degrees here. That means that the doctor you’re visiting for an exam may not be skills. The teachers who are working with your kids may not be knowledgeable and they often lack creativity outside the daily workbook exercise. (Note: Even though some people pay for their degrees, I have met many competent, hard-working Albanians.)
- Mistrust: Many Albanians do not trust each other and do not want to work (or be friends with) people outside of their daily circles. My friend who is a doctor has experienced this firsthand on several occasions. In America, she would constantly rely on her coworkers to help out with certain cases in the hospital, but here doctors will not consult each other. Some doctors will travel over 45 minutes to consult with her instead of working together with other doctors in their offices. My friend feels part of this could be that they do not want others to realize their incompetence in the medical field.
- Changes to routine: Albania, much like the rest of the world, is a culture that relies on routine. Families wake up, women clean the house and cook breakfast, men go out to the coffee shops and have their morning espresso and raki with friends, men work outside the home – women inside the home, families eat meals together, young boys and men hang out in cafes and grungy internet shops, students attend school, people sit in their offices and sip Turkish coffee for hours while gossiping, etc, etc. Changes to this routine throw people off balance.
- More work: Another one of my good friends has mentioned that he feels his counterparts do not want to work with him because he equates more work. What is the point in doing more work if everything is going fine now? My coworkers are required to make a monthly plan, yet they rarely follow it.
- Workplace hierarchy: This is probably one of the main reasons why people are hesitant to change in Albania. Workplace hierarchy is extremely important and all the final decisions are in the director’s hands. This holds true for the health centers, schools, community centers, and all government organizations. Someone could have a really great idea, but if the director doesn’t agree then it just won’t happen. Many people are scared to even bring ideas to the director because of his position in the organization. There is a definite presence of fear when it comes to dealing with many directors here.
My reasoning behind this blog post is not to put Albania or Albanians down. If anything, you all should know how much I love Albania by now. Yet, this is something that I face daily and it can be extremely frustrating. Even though things can be difficult it is important to maintain a positive outlook and continue trying. Don’t give up, ever. During moments of uncertainty I like to think of this quote:
“Forget all the reasons why it won’t work and believe the one reason why it will!”
As many of you may remember, this past summer I helped volunteer at Special Olympics Albania alongside many awesome Albanian volunteers. The Albanian volunteers and Peace Corps volunteers worked together to make the participants’ experience one to remember. Special Olympics Albania is starting a new initiative this spring called Project UNIFY.
What is Project UNIFY?
Project UNIFY is an initiative through Special Olympics that aims to bring together youth and people with intellectual disabilities through sports and education programs. All the participants come together and unify through sports and other projects. Everyone is equal on the game field. Project UNIFY works with students to develop skills as change agents in their communities to begin advocating for those with intellectual disabilities. The program works with schools to develop youth leadership, community collaborations, communications, professional development, unifying programming, and sustainable relationships. Through inclusive sports and programming friendships are formed amongst all participants creating an environment of respect, dignity, and advocacy for all.
Project UNIFY in Albania
The program has been around for seven years and is just coming to Albania. The pilot program in Albania is focusing on two schools in Tirana, the country capital. During Spring break last week, students from the high school were invited to a short 3-hour training to learn more about the program and benefits of participating in unified sporting events. The students learned about Project UNIFY, appropriate terminology when working with people with intellectual disabilities, and brainstormed ideas on how to include all people within community activities. Another Peace Corps volunteer and I were invited to share our volunteer experiences from this past summer with the students. We also helped facilitate some of the small group work during the training.
Later on in the year, these two pilot schools, alongside Peace Corps volunteers, will come together with people with intellectual disabilities for unified sporting games. I am hoping their will be a possibility to include the youth group at my site in some of these games. The sports that were offered during the last Special Olympics games included basketball, table tennis, bowling, and soccer. These same sports will also be part of the Project UNIFY programming. After the initial games, Project UNIFY aims to have students and their communities begin grass-roots games to continue the initiative in their neighborhoods.
To learn more about Special Olympics Albania visit their Facebook page.
Growing up as a Millennial, part of Generation Y, technology has almost always been a big part of my life. Once I hit middle school, I began spending copious amounts of time on AIM, Myspace, and other social media outlets. The constant connection to people through technology and social media continued into high school when I received my first Facebook in 2004. Facebook was originally only a social outlet for college students and then it opened up to high school networking. When I first joined Facebook, users had to be invited to join and you could not join without an invite from a current member. Oh how the times have changed! Technology and social media have been a central part of my life; I have almost had Facebook for half my life. That being said, I have always been connected to these sites, spending hours chatting with friends, posting photos, and catching up on the Newsfeed. I probably like Facebook and social media a bit more than your average person (or I can at least admit my time-consuming love). Sometimes social media is somewhat of an addiction, but it is what it is. I was initially worried when I applied to join the Peace Corps that I would not be able to stay in contact with my friends and family back home, but luckily I was sent to Albania – where internet connection is prevalent and there is an opportunity to get wireless internet set up in volunteer’s homes through the local internet providers.
After I finished Pre-service training in the village, I moved into my own apartment and had the opportunity to set up internet in my home. At first I decided to not have internet because I didn’t want to use it as a crutch for my boredom (which I definitely do at times – it’s inevitable). After a couple weeks without internet, I caved and set it up. It was definitely a good choice because a lot of Peace Corps communication is sent via email and since I am on several committees we also use email and the internet to do most of our communication. Being in Albania, two major social media outlets have completely changed my experience here for the better: WordPress and Facebook.
WordPress: My Blog
At first my blog was just a small attempt of updating my friends and family back home about my life and adventures here in Albania. When I first began writing the blog it was very mundane and just followed my daily happenings in the community. It was hard to update my blog during pre-service training because I did not have consistent access to internet in the village while living with my host-family. After writing blogs mainly about my daily routine, I decided to describe “50 Unique Observations about Albania” based on my initial impressions of the country and my small travel experience abroad. A lot of my observations that seemed unique to Albania, can actually be seen in several parts of the Balkans. However, at the time I had only traveled outside of the United States to Mexican resorts with my family, so I didn’t really have much experience abroad under my belt. Sometime in the late summer that blog post went viral and received over 50,000 views in under a week. Super overwhelming, to say the least. At that time I was still in culture shock, having a hard time adjusting to living and working on my own in a completely different culture. There was nothing that I could do to stop the attention. People had gotten a hold of my blog and began sharing it on Facebook, and then their friends shared the link, and so on until I received thousands and thousands of views per day. Some people were mad; others found my posts inspirational and eye-opening. Can’t please them all. Since my blog went viral, I have used my presence on WordPress to educate people back in America about my experiences abroad, as well as Albanians within the country. Several publication companies, including the Tirana Times, a newspaper in the capital of Albania, have contacted me to publish pieces. Pink Pangea, an online community for women abroad, published the most recent piece regarding sexism in Albania. Now over six months later, I still continue to receive hundreds of views a day. Just the other week, I was stopped while traveling outside my community by a nice Albanian woman who is an English teacher in Tirana. She recently read my blog and was using it in her classroom as a discussion topic! Hopefully, sometime during my service I will be able to guest lecture in one of her classes.
My blog acts as an avenue for discussion about Albania today and how we can all work together to improve this beautiful country for the better. I am so happy that I decided to begin writing a blog because this experience will forever be a part of me, even if my bad-memory persists. I will always have this journal of my time here and for that I am grateful. I am also grateful to all the Albanians and people around the world that do read my blog and continue to praise me for my work and time spent here. All of your comments really do fuel my fire and help me feel better about the work that I’m doing here. I am glad that I can serve as an inspiration and fresh perspective.
After my blog went viral I decided to set up another Facebook account under my Albanian name Xhilli Xhastin (it is how you spell Jill Justine in Shqip). This Facebook account opened up so many new doors for me because it became a way for me to network with Albanians all across the country. Students from national Outdoor Ambassadors events, followers of my blog, other volunteers I met through Special Olympics, people in my community, and anyone who adds me is welcome to be my friend and get an inside look at some of my experiences in Albania.
Through this Facebook account I created a health promotion page called Këshilla për Shëndetin Shqipëri (Advices for Health in Albania). The page posts information according to annual health calendar distributed by the Ministry of Public Health. I post information in Albanian about health advice, community health events, and basic health information. My Albanian counterparts help me with the page through translation and identifying pertinent information. As of now, the page has 497 likes and I hope to have at least 1000 likes on this page before I finish my service. Hopefully, after I leave Albania, this page will become sustainable through the work of other health education volunteers in group 17 and their Albanian counterparts.
I am also in charge of several other Facebook pages including ATIP Albania, Outdoor Ambassadors Albania, and Outdoor Ambassadors Kavaje. These Facebook pages follow the work of Peace Corps volunteers and students in their community. The ATIP Albania page focuses on the anti-trafficking efforts in Albania through the Peace Corps anti-trafficking committee. The Outdoor Ambassadors Albania page highlights the work of environmental youth leadership groups across the country and the Outdoor Ambassadors Kavaje page shows what activities the youth group in my area is working on.
Having Facebook pages has been a wonderful way to promote my service in Albania, as well as a great way to promote the work of awesome Albanians and other organizations in this country. Along with Facebook pages, Facebook groups have been a wonderful way to communicate with students in my community. These groups allow for Peace Corps volunteers and students to discuss youth group initiatives, homework help, etc. We use a Facebook group to plan Outdoor Ambassadors projects and community work in my site. It is an easy way to communicate because a lot of the students have a Facebook app on their phones.
Facebook has been such a great way to keep in contact with Albanians and people back home. It has also introduced me to another aspect of Albanian culture, because Albanians LOVE Facebook. Observing how Albanians use social media and Facebook has really given me another insight into their culture and has allowed me to become better friends with people that I wouldn’t have been able to connect with otherwise. A big thing that I have noticed about how a lot of Albanians use Facebook is that they love to “like” everything. I will post a photo and within the hour it will usually have 20+ likes and some photos even have over 100 likes. Especially selfies, most Albanians love selfies. I enjoy using Facebook and having another account has vastly improved my service. My online persona is just as important, if not more so, than my persona within my own community.
So, if you haven’t already, please add me on Facebook and follow these Peace Corps pages. Peace Corps Albania is even hopping onto the social media buzz and we are the first Peace Corps country to have our own Facebook page. Social media is a powerful tool and using it to my advantage has been an integral part of my time here.