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Little did I know that going to a small country in the Balkans, which I didn’t know too much about, would be such a rewarding experience. I spontaneously decided to start a volunteering programme, always wanting to be part of the EVS family and to work for a cause that I am truly passionate about, empowering the Roma community through education. The project Say “YES” to change came across my searching and allowed me to apply the true definition of volunteering: “Be the change you want to see in the world”. Even if sounds like a big cliché, this experience has absolutely challenged my views and made me understand the importance of giving back some of the things that I was lucky to receive throughout my life such as education, experience or ideas, most of which we tend to take for granted.

During the initial phase of the project (at least for myself, even if it was the last for the rest of the people involved) I was a bit nervous, but mostly curious, not knowing what to expect or what exactly my responsibilities would be. Luckily, Viktorija, our coordinator, was very patient and experienced, walking me through everything I needed to know, offering her support and answering all my questions, which were a handful. Soon I met the children from the kindergarten, as we liked to call our center, which immediately melted my heart. Anxious as I was due to the language barrier that we were going to overcome, their curiosity and cuteness made it so much easier to develop the daily activities we had prepared for them. By the end of the project, they were even able to speak some words in English, as well as I was able to speak some very basic Macedonian, forgetting that none of us actually spoke the same language.

As much as I would like to think that the kids had a fun and educational experience with me being there, I can also say that I have learned a lot with and from them. Never working with children of such an early age before, I have learned how to adapt my methods to their according needs, involving lots of patience and creativity, to ultimately achieve excellent teamwork. Also, as we were spending more time together, it was a blessing to get to know them more, individually, and realize how special and capable every child is.

On top of our daily activities at the center, we had several other weekly tasks, allowing us to connect more with the local community. One of them, and probably my favorite, was to facilitate a Romani language course, spread throughout the three months I have spent in Bitola. While teaching this course, I have met some wonderful young people, interested to learn their mother language as sadly, it has been lost throughout most of the country. With this occasion, I have also learnt interesting facts about Roma culture and dialects in North Macedonia, while sharing my knowledge on the standardized Romani language, a language too little used, regardless of the dialect. At the end of the course, I was extremely pleased to assess the amount of information that my students received, making me feel very proud of them.

On the other hand, receiving Macedonian language lessons, I was surprised to easily understand the Cyrillic alphabet, in no time starting to read every little piece of text around me, like an enthusiastic child. Not only I was able to form basic sentences and show off when ordering a coffee in Macedonian, but I have also expanded my understanding regarding Slavic languages and how similar they are. Maybe I won’t need this language too much in the future, but learning new things it’s something I have always been a fan of.

This project could not have been finished without creating an event to celebrate the commitment of the Sumnal organization towards the Roma community. Therefore, in the last weeks of our time being there, with Fatma’s help, our president, we gathered a room full of people at the culture center, where we shared our stories, our people’s stories, as well as the amazing things that connected our project to the Roma community in Bitola. This one-day festival sparked a great deal of joy and emotion through the cultural representations that our colleagues and friends prepared for us, such as poetry and monologues.

After the festival, my personal contribution regarding a seminar on Antigypsism and online hate speech generated a series of interesting discussions on the topic, while raising awareness and informing about current trends and platforms that fuel this particular kind of racism. Apart from being nervous to facilitate my first two hour seminar, I was enormously happy to receive such feedback and involvement from my participants.  It was an absolute delight to see the Roma people coming together and debating aspects that concern all of us.

Spending three months in North Macedonia enabled me to discover a beautiful country with a very rich and complex history, form meaningful connections and learn how to adapt in new, challenging situations. This experience also reminded me how important it is to stand together with my community no matter where in the world it might be, towards the same goal, a better future for the Roma.