July 16, 2009

Camp GLOW Revisited

"The toughest job you'll ever love." This is the Peace Corps slogan and I think it is 100% appropriate. While at times I find myself frustrated, sad, hopeless, and pessimistic, I still find at the same time I love my job. I love being here in Macedonia immersed in another culture and experiencing life so different from what I've known. I love being able to share and learn on a daily basis. I love finding out about myself-what I am capable of, what are my limitations. I have found that I have been tested in so many new ways here in Macedonia and I like the challenge. One area of my service, however, hasn't had the same level of difficulty; it has been a joy throughout from conception to implementation. That activity has been Camp GLOW.

For those of you who may not have read last year's post on Camp GLOW here is a summary: Camp GLOW, or Girls Leading Our World, is a week-long leadership camp for young ladies from across Macedonia. The mission of Camp GLOW is to develop the inherent potential found in the young women of Macedonia by providing them with the skills and knowledge necessary to become active leaders in their communities. This is done through experiential education that celebrates diversity, builds academic and social competencies, and promotes English language literacy, leadership, teamwork, problem solving, and creative expression. This year I served as the Program Coordinator and feel extremely fortunate to have been given this opportunity. Not only am I proud of the changes and improvements made to the program, I have learned so much from this long process, the other leaders and the campers.

Staff greeting campers as they exit the bus

This year's camp was held in beautiful Pelister National Park outside of Bitola in southern Macedonia. Eighty campers and 30 staff members (Peace Corps Volunteers trainers and alumnae counselors) were involved in this awesome program. One veteran staff member said this year's camp was, "by far the best Camp GLOW." I was beaming.

In addition to the variety of pertinent topics covered and grueling schedule, the camp was conducted entirely in English. High schoolers from around Macedonia representing the ethnic diversity and complexity of Macedonia came together in a common language and transcended the tensions prevalent within the country. I was so impressed with their English language abilities--the girls were able to coherently and eloquently discuss issues facing their country, such as human rights and democracy, nationalism and patriotism, women in society, women in leadership and goals for the future of Macedonia. These are difficult things to address even in one's native language, but the girls took them in stride.

Like last year, the final evening ended in an emotional candle lighting ceremony. The girls each had the opportunity to share something about the week--something they learned, something they will take home with them, something they were surprised about, anything. One of the common themes was that girls made friends with people outside their own ethnicity. Seeing how things went last year I wasn't really surprised, but I was extremely moved as they shared their experiences and stories. One girl, an Albanian from western Macedonia, said she had found her "twin sister" and could not believe she was an ethnic Macedonian.

Candle Lighting Ceremony

Moments like this give me great hope for the future of Macedonia. With young people being exposed to new ideas, open-mindedness and appreciation of diversity is just around the corner. I know first hand how camps and experiential education can have a profound and lasting impact on the lives of participants and I am more than confident when I say that this program has made a difference.

I am so proud and thankful to have been part of this program. Thank you to everyone who donated money and supplies for this program. You have made a difference in the lives of these girls. Thank you.

Be a Woman. Be Yourself. Camp GLOW

July 04, 2009

A Good Day For Patriotism

We head back to America in November, which suddenly doesn't seem so far away. Like countless PCVs before us, Jillian and I have begun openly sketching out our first week at home. Dark beer, fresh seafood, Starbuck's, driving a car...aaahhh, I can feel the steering wheel now.

Today, on America's birthday and on a day in which most of the nation's newspapers reserve their editorial space for ponderings on our Great Experiment so many decades and centuries later, I'd like to mention something else I'm looking forward to: American nationality. That is, citizenship decoupled from ethnicity. Almost two years in the Balkans has given me the upmost respect and appreciation for being a citizen of a country where the two are separate.

For example: when Macedonians turn 18 they are required to apply for an identity card, which looks a lot like your basic American driver's license. These cards have nothing to do with driving, but they serve essentially the same purpose in providing a legal form of ID. On the card, right below name and address, is a category called "Nationality." What that really means is ethnicity (or family origin) and despite the card's explicit pronunciation of Macedonian citizenship, these cards emphasize the festering sores in this society--yes, everyone is a citizen of this country, but more importantly, someone is Macedonian or Albanian or Turkish or Roma. And that becomes their defining characteristic. I suppose the owner of the pub in Kumanovo has an ID which reads "Irish." But what if he's an Irishman of Scandanavian descent?

These cards bother me because they get to the heart of the matter when discussing nationalism and the pain it has wrought on this part of the world for over a century. [This is a topic I discussed with some 10th graders during my student teaching, but being in the Balkans has opened my eyes wide to this.] When you tie nationality to ethnicity, aren't you really saying, Everyone has their own country. So why don't you live there? Serbia for Serbians. Albania for Albanians. Macedonia for Macedonians. Etc.

You can forget all that stuff with Greece and the name--if Macedonia is truly going to make it as a nation it will require an internal conciliation between the country's ethnic groups. [By Balkan standards, Macedonia is quite multi-ethnic: 64% Macedonian, 25% Albanian, 4% Turkish, 3% Roma.] Superficial alliances (in politics and business, e.g.) come and go, but what about a genuine love for country that unites all citizens? That means patriotism over nationalism and not the sort of "nationality" spelled out on an identity card.

A friend put it to me like this once: In western Macedonia you can routinely see Albanian homes flying Albanian flags (that is, the country of Albania) from their roofs and not a single Macedonian flag can be found. Meanwhile, in the east, history teachers simply skip over all chapters and sections in the textbook that discuss the Albanian population in Macedonia.

The world is a richer place when peoples from all over can mix and share cultural and intellectual ideas in a free, open environment. It has helped to make America--which isn't perfect, of course--what it is today: the standard bearer for multi-ethnic relations. For cultural richness. For a national pride rooted in ideas, not skin color or family heritage.

Happy Independence Day.