Kampi Pa Emer

These past few weeks have been some of the busiest weeks of my service thus far. My roles on all the committees I serve on have come to fruition and it’s summer, which means it is the season of camps. Like I mentioned in my last post, I recently planned and implemented a girls empowerment camp in my city. After that camp, it was time for another camp! Back to back camps?! Some may think I am crazy, but I will take whatever work comes my way.

Last year I heard about Kampi Pa Emer from other volunteers, but was unable to attend because of previous commitments. After seeing last year’s success I knew that it was something I wanted to be a part of this year. Kampi Pa Emer is an annual summer camp in Librazhd which seeks to bring together Roma children and Albanian children to build bridges between the two communities. The camp was founded in 2008 by an Albanian from Librazhd and her husband, who is a returned Peace Corps volunteer from Albania. They met during his service 5 years ago – super cute!

I had the opportunity to volunteer for the first three days of camp, but the camp went the entire duration of the week. We had three current Peace Corps Albania volunteers, two returned Peace Corps Albania volunteers, two Peace Corps Macedonia volunteers, and four Albanians serving on the staff. We worked together to schedule the program everyday and implement the entire camp. It was a blast! This camp also embodies the idea of sustainability because it is run by Albanians and Peace Corps volunteers come in to support with activities and lessons. The camp is funded through donors in America, local donors, and through World Vision. World Vision provided the campers with breakfast and lunch for the first three days of camp this year. Kampi Pa Emer is actually in the process of applying for NGO status and should hopefully begin implementing other camps in other cities across the country.

The camp was full of fun activities for the children including: stretching, meditation, hula-hooping, soccer, arts and crafts, games, skateboarding, and much more. On my final day, the camp-director and I implemented an awesome GLOW: Girls Leading Our World lesson about self-esteem and empowering others. It was really heart-warming and a special experience for me, the director, and the girls. The whole lesson was also done in Shqip, so I felt pretty accomplished that I was able to co-lead a lesson in the local language.

This was another great experience in one of the best summers of my life. I love Albania. If you’d like to learn more about Kampi Pa Emer and donate money to make next year’s camp a success, please check out the Facebook page. Also, check out this amazing slideshow video another volunteer made. It really is quite powerful.

The best medicine is laughter.

The best medicine is laughter.

Leading the GLOW discussion.

Leading the GLOW discussion.

All the GLOW girls.

All the GLOW girls.

Hula-hooping with some of the girls

Hula-hooping with some of the girls

These kids were beyond adorable.

These kids were beyond adorable.

Love all around. Some of the sweetest kiddos in the world.

Love all around. Some of the sweetest kiddos in the world.

Heads, shoulders, knees, and toes.

Heads, shoulders, knees, and toes.

Drawing the sign for our group photo with the other counselors.

Drawing the sign for our group photo with the other counselors.

The whole crew.

The whole crew.

All the wonderful counselors who made this camp a possibility.

All the wonderful counselors who made this camp a possibility.

 

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How Running Helped with Integration

During Peace Corps pre-service intensive training volunteers were taught about how to effectively integrate into the community while being culturally sensitive and maintaining our own unique individualism. For me, integrating into the community was extremely important and I didn’t want to do things that were outside of something that an average Albanian woman my age would do. Acting within the norm of an average Albanian girl definitely took away some of the privileges that I was once privy to in the states. For example, in my site it is rare to see a woman walking outside alone after a certain time of day, most cafes and restaurants are “off-limits” to women and are only frequented by men (there are only 3 coffee shops in my city that most of my Albanian friends and colleagues consider appropriate for women), and many women are not given the same amount of respect as men in many different areas of life. This was definitely difficult for me to adjust to at first because I consider myself a feminist and don’t want to feel put in a box because of my gender. At first, I took this desire to integrate to the extreme. I did not leave my apartment during the evening/night hours. Most women spend their days indoors, whether that be inside the home cooking and cleaning or inside their offices. I also did not eat lunch or drink coffee at bars or restaurants frequented only by men, and I completely ignored most men that would acknowledge me in one way or the other. I hated this. Back home I made choices and didn’t have to think about the way that others in my community viewed those choices, but here it’s another story because everyone knows everyone. And everyone knows everyone’s business.

Not choosing to do things because of my gender was extremely frustrating and ended up hindering me from making connections with people in my community during the initial first half-year at site. After time I began to feel more comfortable with myself and began letting more Albanians into my life slowly. I started going out whenever I pleased, despite time of day. If I needed to buy some chicken for dinner and it’s dark outside, I’d still head to the corner store where the entire family that owns it now knows my name and refers to me as zemer or “heart”. I have found several restaurants usually packed full of men (no women) and go there weekly. I speak to the owners in my broken Shqip and they know my lunch order. I go outside with wet hair, which makes most Albanians gasp and tell me to get back inside to dry my hair because, ya know, if I have wet hair for one second I may catch a cold and get sick. Now I basically do whatever I would have done in America because I am who I am and the community members have learned to love me anyways, regardless of our inherent differences.

One of the biggest things that has helped me integrate and get my face out in the community has been running. I never ran in America. I hated running and winced at the idea of running more than a mile. For some reason though, having a bunch of extra time here to work on my physical health persuaded me into the “why not run a marathon” category of crazy. On November 16th I will be running in the Istanbul Marathon alongside several other Peace Corps volunteers and thousands of other runners from across the globe.

How does one go from hating running to deciding to run a full marathon. Well, let me tell you, I began by running a short loop in my community. At first I honestly couldn’t even run a block, but over time I made it up to a mile, then three miles, and most recently the first long run of my marathon training program was six miles. Running in my city has gotten my face out in the community and different people around town are consistently asking me if I am going to go for a run that night. It is so interesting when people who I don’t even know ask me about my running habits. They all seem to be very impressed and it doesn’t even matter that I am a woman. I have even received the thumbs up from women in the community dressed in full hajabs.

Running has opened up a dialogue with all different kinds of people here. The money-collector on the furgon, the ladies at work, the owner of the ice cream shop, the random lady down the street, and many others are curious about the crazy American girl (or English girl – no one seems to know whether I am American or English) that is whaling about town running like a crazy person. At least people are beginning to realize that I am here, which in turn could possibly open the door for me to meet more people that I could potentially work with for future projects. It’s also a great way to plug in health education in an informal setting and discuss with people the benefits of xhiros (evening strolls), running, and other forms of exercise. Hypertension is prevalent in Albania and taking small steps towards managing health would help this country immensely. My example opens the door for others in my city to start running too pa turp (without shame). It also allows me to work on Peace Corps Goal 2 which is “to help promote a better understanding of Americans on the part of the peoples served.” Running shows my community an important part of American culture.

Overall, breaking the gender norms and running in my community has been a win/win. Win for maintaining my physical and mental health and win for stepping outside of my comfort zone and making a name for myself in the city. Wish me luck on the marathon! I’m going to need it!

A beautiful sunset over one of the villages surrounding my city during an evening run.

A beautiful sunset over one of the villages surrounding my city during an evening run.

 

Group 16’s Lessons Learned First Year in Albania

On March 18th I left America with a group other Americans from across the country to volunteer in the 16th group of volunteers serving in Peace Corps Albania. Check out the video I created to celebrate our successes and lessons learned thus far in country. We have been here 484 days exactly and still have 7 more months until we begin heading back to America or other parts of the world for our next adventures. I am very happy to have learned so much about myself, this country, and life this past year. It has hands-down been the best experience of my life. You can check out the video here or click on the picture below. Enjoy. 🙂

BeFunky_albaniarah.jpg

GLOW Camp | Vajzat Drejtojne Boten

During the last week of June, Kate and I held the first ever summer day camp for girls in our site. Girls Leading Our World “GLOW” summer day camps are a new Peace Corps Albania initiative that is being piloted this summer at eleven different sites. Official camps are being held in Delvine, Durres, Gjirokaster, Kavaje, Leskovik, Lushnje, Orikum, Patos, Permet, Peshkopi, and Vau i Dejes. At these day camps the girls discuss different topics such as gender, self-esteem, body image, leadership, empowerment, health education, volunteerism, and much more! The girls also get to play sports, get creative with crafts, and have FUN! Our camp focused on working with girls in the high school. We had around 8-10 participants per day and most girls attended consistently during the entire week. This was our camp schedule that was based off of a 50+ page manual that I compiled together as a starter-kit for new volunteers hosting GLOW camps in their communities:

Monday June 23rd

  • Orientation
  • Yoga
  • Team building games
  • Self-esteem
  • Friendship bracelets
  • Painting picture frames

Tuesday June 24th

  • Yoga
  • Public Speaking
  • What is Beauty?
  • Blogilates – POP Pilates
  • Stereotypes
  • Vision Board Collages

Wednesday June 25th

Thursday June 26th

  • Partner Yoga
  • Managing Stress
  • Gender
  • Hula-hooping
  • Recycled picture frames

Friday June 27th

  • Excursion to the swimming pool

GLOW camp was the best thing that I have done with my service thus far within my own community. The camp was extremely enjoyable and educational for the girls (and me too)! The girls told us that this was one of the best weeks of their lives. We were able to have many deep discussions regarding important topics that are often considered turpshem (shameful) in Albanian society. It was amazing to hear how insightful these girls are regarding significant issues towards women in today’s society. Seeing the world through their lenses of being a young female in a conservative Muslim city was extremely interesting. Everyday there was something special about the camp. One highlight was during a discussion on stereotypes one student said, “Just because I am a girl does not mean I am your property.” Another girl told me, “I didn’t realize I was a creative person until you gave me the opportunity.” Teaching yoga classes was also really rewarding. It was a nice intro into the yoga class that I’ll begin teaching this summer and this next year. The sex education class was also another highlight for me. During this past year I have tried to convince my Albanian counterparts of the importance of giving sex education classes in the schools, but it has been a topic that we have yet to cover (even when it came up on the national health calendar provided by the Institute of Public Health). It was nice to have an open conversation with the girls about STDs, contraception, and making positive choices about when to engage in sexual activity. We even did a condom demonstration, which was the first time many of the girls had even seen a condom in person. I would like to continue to give more lessons like this throughout the next year of my service. Overall the week was an amazing experience and I finally felt like I was doing something meaningful (that I could visibly experience) for the girls and for my community. Seeing their smiles and excitement everyday made it all worth it.

Thanks again to everyone that helped donate materials, money, and supplies to this camp. I couldn’t have done it without your support. It was an extremely special and worthwhile experience for everyone involved. Special shout out to Lane and her family, my grandmother and aunt, Shawna, Vicki, my dad, my step-dad, and especially my mom. You are the best mom. I love you so much and we really appreciate all of your help.

The camp motto

Our camp motto was: “I am powerful and beautiful. I can change my life. I can change the world.”

The human knot team-building game.

The human knot team-building game.

Making self-esteem flowers.

Making self-esteem flowers.

Painting our picture grames

Painting our picture frames

Thanks everyone! We love our beautiful hand-painted frames.

Thanks everyone! We love our beautiful hand-painted frames.

Susan, another PCV, came to give a guest lesson on beauty.

Susan, another PCV, came to give a guest lesson on beauty.

Helping position some of the girls during yoga class.

Helping position some of the girls during yoga class.

Our beautiful vision boards.

Our beautiful vision boards.

Sexual education is important!

Sexual education is important!

Talking about different forms of contraception.

Talking about different forms of contraception.

An anti-trafficking NGO from Tirana came and gave a special presentation.

An anti-trafficking NGO from Tirana came and gave a special presentation.

The whole group

The whole group

Partner yoga.

Partner yoga.

Showing examples of gender in our society.

Showing examples of gender in our society.

Getting creative with recycled picture frames!

Getting creative with recycled picture frames!

Hula-hooping!

Hula-hooping!

One of my special students. I consider her to be one of my best friends in Albania.

One of my special students. I consider her to be one of my best friends in Albania.