2 months ago

Volunteering, travelling, and building lifelong friendships

Although gaining experiences outside of Kosovo is a rare commodity for the country’s youth, Anibar and the European Voluntary Service can establish connections that get us closer with peers from all over Europe.

By: Plator Gashi

Volunteering is one of the best ways to learn, enhance your work ethic, and contribute to social improvement. Last year, I was granted the opportunity to volunteer outside of Kosovo through the European Voluntary Service, EVS, a program supported by the European Commission that helps youth around the continent find issues they are passionate about and get together with people who think alike. My EVS experience was truly one of a kind. I am sure that this is a common sentiment among EVS volunteers, but I must say that I was genuinely surprised by how enriching the whole journey was.

In May2019, I learned that I was selected to be a resident volunteer artist in Poland with the Pocztówka Cultural Organization. At that time, I really didn’t  know what to expect. To be frank, I did not know what the European Volunteer Service was at the time, and the program was suggested to me by a friend. I was excited by the possibility of spending time in another country but, obviously, the visa barrier was a bottleneck that rendered me a bit wary of premature excitement. After a lot of effort by myself and the receiving organization, I was indeed granted the visa, albeit a week late. However, that did not really matter to me in the end as I was about to move to a completely different environment for two months. 

After spending a few hours in Warsaw, I went to the train station to make my way towards Podlasie, a sparsely populated region in eastern Poland, home to the awe-inspiring Bialowieza forest. There, I would meet an international team of volunteer artists from multiple countries, and build a performance together. After many hours in a couple of trains—surrounded by friendly people who obviously noticed that I had no idea where I was going—I made it to the Policzna train station, where I was picked up by the director of the organization. I felt immediate warmth, coupled by the overwhelming anticipation about what was awaiting me. 

 

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I will never forget how amazing it felt to be welcomed by the team that I ended up living with for two months. In spite of the fact that I was tired, I found myself surrounded—and hugged—by people who were anxiously expecting my late arrival. I felt home. It was very fitting, because we were supposed to center our performance around the concept of home, and it worked out well because we all made an effort to make each other feel like home. 

Our team was very diverse: we were from Kosovo, Montenegro, Ukraine, Belarus, Italy, and Poland. At no point did we feel spiteful towards each other because of our countries of origin—we hit it off because we were all curious to teach and learn, and that really tied us together. We respected each other, and we knew that the only way to build a meaningful artistic (music & theater) performance was to understand each other at a very personal level. 

I learned so much about the cultures and histories of the countries that the participants were from. I am really grateful to the EVS for cultivating a diverse environment that contributed immeasurably to each of our experiences. Once we got to know each other better, we realized that we had much more in common than we thought. I even started learning Ukrainian and Belarusian! 

Apart from connecting with each other, we are also connected with nature and communities around us. First, we lived in a small cottage by a lake, on the verge of the Bialowieza forest. We rehearsed outdoors and were inspired by the majestic surroundings. For a couple of weeks, we moved to a huge residence in central Poland—near another national park—before once again moving to Hajnówka, a town in the region of Podlasie. Travelling also helped us stay inspired by giving us more space to learn and incorporate it into our performance. 

However, we worked incredibly hard! We put in daily effort to build a unique performance about our conception of home by rearranging traditional songs from all around the world and writing our own theatre bits to go along with them. What was incredibly fulfilling was that we performed exclusively for the local communities—we knew that they rarely get to see such a crowd perform their art in front of them, so it really boosted our motivation.  Ultimately, it’s hard to describe how this experience affected me, but it was definitely one of the most valuable and intense periods of my life so far. There’s a few reasons why: 

First and foremost, being in a place that is hugely different from home invites you to think about your own identity, skills, and flaws. I was truly given a space to see who I am from closer by, and work on myself personally and professionally. 

Second, being around an inspiring, diverse group of people (such that EVS provides) will not only teach you so much about the world, but it will also give you so many ideas for projects that you can develop at home. Sharing thoughts, experiences, and practices with each other created a wonderful pool of knowledge that each of us benefited from. 

Last but not least, you can never underestimate how deeply travel can change you. This is especially critical for us Kosovars, knowing that there are so many difficulties for us to travel around casually, something that a big part of the world takes for granted. It is very sad that youngsters do not have this possibility, but considering the circumstances, EVS programs—like the one I participated in—offer wonderful possibilities to travel and learn. They can be genuinely life-changing. Everybody deserves to have access to new and enriching experiences abroad, and EVS is a great channel for it. 

I am also incredibly grateful to Anibar, who made this experience possible for me in terms of preparation, logistics, and coordination!  If you find a suitable volunteer program on EVS, do not let it slip! It will certainly be something that you will remember your whole life!