Home, far away from home – my experience with the European Solidarity Corps in North Macedonia

, by Mathis Gilsbach

Home, far away from home – my experience with the European Solidarity Corps in North Macedonia
Bridge Eye, Skopje, North Macedonia. Photo credit: Nikolovskii

It is astonishing how fast the unknown becomes known and a far away place becomes home - and how fast the time passes. One moment I was getting picked up at the airport by two people I didn’t know and, almost in an instant, we were parting as friends.

I went to Skopje, North-Macedonia with the European Solidarity Corps for a year. Here’s what the programme entails and what I learnt from it.

European Solidarity Corps – what is it?

The European Solidarity Corps is part of the Erasmus+ initiative of the European Commission.

Year after year many students go abroad to explore the universities and cultural of other European countries during their Erasmus semester. The ESC, however, is less known, despite the ever growing number of exciting projects.

Essentially, projects are planned by NGOs in different countries and financed by the EU. There are short term projects such as youth exchanges and training courses covering a range of topics such as environmental protection, tolerance, anti-racism, work skills, disabilities, children, sports and arts.

To make these projects available to all, they are supported financially by the EU. For short term projects travel costs and accommodation and food are provided. For long term projects there is an additional monthly allowance.

It is basically a network of organisations across Europe, sending youngsters across Europe. That is a little bit the difference to other voluntary service. I went to North-Macedonia with this programme and young people from there can use the programme in the same manner.

My experience in Skopje – Encounters and Community

My new living quarters were a small room in an old socialist-era building in the municipality of Kisela Voda, Skopje. It was only my second day in this city. I woke up and asked myself what on earth I was doing there. A new environment, people I didn’t know and I was supposed to be carrying crates and laying cables for an organisation I barely knew.

In this way I was thrown in at the deep end on my second day. The yearly NGO fair was taking place, organised by my host organisation, Volunteers Centre Skopje (VCS). Instead of cosy office work, the order of the day was to lift crates and talk to what felt like thousands and thousands of new people. In the morning I was in a bad mood and just wanted to go home. What was I doing here? Why did I have to set up this fair without even knowing the goal and benefit of it?

At the end of the day however I went to bed with a cosy feeling of being welcome, of being at the right place. I had met many wonderful people, all open and friendly and also my coordinators and colleagues had asked me regularly how I felt and if I needed anything.

This experience and many comparable, small, moments taught me to just go with the flow and jump into the moment, experience the unknown and to just see what happens. Mostly something good will happen. And if not, then it can hopefully be an opportunity to learn and grow.

Afraid of the unknown? - Leave that comfort zone!

The main project of my voluntary service was the youth magazine VOICE. Together with other volunteers I wrote articles and designed the layout. That was exciting because we got to manage the whole magazine and had a lot of room for our own ideas. Then, I took part in many other activities of VCS such as organising workshops and leisure activities for the local youth as well as individual projects such as a conversation club for learners of German.

The biggest challenge was a youth exchange in which I partook as an assistant of the trainer. Leading a few sessions myself I had to get used to the role of a trainer in front of a whole group of people. Then there was also an age difference and a language barrier between me and the participants. After that week I was battered physically and mentally but I had also realised that I do enjoy giving classes and teaching people.

That is the best thing about volunteering. You are constantly thrown into new and challenging situations which force you to improvise and find solutions. Even though it was not always easy, all these experiences helped me grow in some way.

Luckily I had few problems adapting to living in another culture and environment, except maybe for the crowded lines at Skopje airport. I met so many friendly people that I wasn’t bothered by some of the things that are not at all pleasant in Skopje, such as the smog and the trash in many street corners. On the other hand, issues such as pollution and trash did make me realise my privilege of living in a country where many things work quite well and smoothly. It was highly interesting to talk with locals about their daily life and to hear their perspectives. For example as a volunteer - with payed for accommodation and a decent pocket money - I can get by in Skopje fairly well. The average salary in North-Macedonia however is about 300€ which has to pay for all bills and rent and groceries. Living there for a few months as a volunteer is a very different thing to having to get by year by year.

What I will remember most about my time in Skopje are the many encounters with the most diverse people. Some were one-off encounters while others hopefully accompany me as friends for a long time. For these nine months the unknown became home and also my perspective on my life in Germany has shifted. I am much more relaxed with people having a more flexible understanding of time and punctuality and when things don‘t go as planned. I also acquired new eating habits. Since then I always have a glass of ajvar - a paste from bell pepper and eggplant - in the fridge. And, of course a head and a camera full of memories. In that sense I got to see my home with fresh eyes - that is something I am thankful for.

How can I take part?

You need a sending as well as a hosting organisation. The sending organisation in your country of residency or citizenship has to take care of financial issues, organises the preparation and the debriefing and to have your back if there are any problems on the way. The host organisation runs the project and takes care of accommodation and visa and local issues.

On these websites you can start looking for ESC projects. A good place to start is the website of the ESC. You can register there to be part of the Corps and start looking for projects. However registering on that website is not the only way of finding a project. Another option is to directly look for a sending organisations and apply with them.

On Facebook there are many groups that share opportunities. Just search for keywords such as ESC, Erasmus+, Volunteering Service Europe and so on.

It can also be a good idea to approach organisations directly and ask them if they have any projects. For example, my sending organisation was Natur Kultur E.V.. and they also host, if you want to come to Germany! My host organisation was Volunteers Centre Skopje.

Good to know – your rights as a volunteer

You have the right to have a mentor, a language course as well as an on-arrival and a midterm training. Those are supposed to be organised by the local agency responsible for the Erasmus+ programme (National Agency). They are also another contact point in case of problems with your host organisation. It is important to listen to your intuition when you select a programme. Ideally they provide a clear description of tasks and the role of the volunteer.

Overall, I can highly recommend the programme because it is the perfect way to explore another culture, challenge yourself and to live and celebrate European diversity.

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