It’s true what they say, that the battle is fought in the mind. Taking long runs through the mountains each day gave me the mental strength to persevere. I developed a habit of sneaking out to catch the sunrise each morning and be alone.
It was during these therapeutic runs that I could refocus and ask myself the big life questions that kept me serving.
Living in a village with no privacy and limited language skills allowed ample time to get to know myself those first few months. Running was my time to reflect and remind myself who I was and who I wanted to be at the end of my service. Running kept me sane; running kept me focused. It was the single best commitment I made that helped me succeed as a volunteer.
One day a few months into my service, I received an invitation to help mentor students at the high school in a nearby city. It was the main city where all the youth in the region attended secondary school. The project was to help create Kosovo’s first Model UN and it was the moment that I met an overwhelming number of youth who were thirsty for development opportunities. One project led to another and before long, I was creating leadership classes and lecturing at universities around Kosovo and even in Albania.
Creating development opportunities in the city which connected youth from villages and towns from all over Kosovo became an extremely satisfying experience that opened up my world. Living and teaching in a village gave me invaluable insight into the lack of opportunities in the village in comparison to the cities. I created projects after school to target the disempowered students in my village who had to leave early to get home and could not travel on weekends. I arranged rides and sometimes walked the hour back to the village when courses went long or busses were late.
Meanwhile, back in my village, I continued to integrate into my community and visit students’ homes to meet their families and share the traditional coffee that welcomes each guest into Albanian homes. My director mentioned a family at the bottom of the mountain who was extremely involved in the school and a great family.
From the moment I sat down to have coffee with them, I knew this was the family I had been searching for for almost a year. For over a month I found ways to connect with them and drop by for coffee visits. Finally one day, sitting in the backyard I timidly told the father I needed to find a new family to live with. “The other family was too far from the bus route and not safe to walk to alone.” I explained. The host dad sat sipping his coffee for a very long time before answering. “Why of course. Come.” And that was it. A year later, I gracefully walked out one door and in another.
My host sister was 12 years old when I moved in, and with 3 brothers, she was overjoyed to have a “big sister” in the family. We went on a bike ride that first day. It began to rain really hard and I crashed my bike on the slippery asphalt but I just laughed at the bruise and told her I didn’t mind. I was finally in a good place and I could feel the love of my new family. It had been such a long time since I’d felt so relaxed. Trying to describe the feeling that day, it felt like coming home.
With a new family, new projects and a new school year ahead, my second year of Peace Corps was the complete opposite of my first. I was surrounded by an entire village that wouldn’t let me walk down the street without inviting me in for coffee. My Albanian had grown to a high level and my fellow teachers loved going out each week with me for coffee and conversation. I had close friends all around the Balkans and Europe and every day was overflowing with friends and development projects.
Almost 2 years have gone by since that day I boarded a plane for Kosovo on a hot, summery day. People ask me “How was your Peace Corps experience?” So many thoughts run through my head as I try to sum up 2 incredible years of high highs and low lows. I think of all the youth I have impacted and developed. I remember all the people in my community that reached out to me and called me daughter, sister, friend. I see all the pictures of my Balkan experience and know I’m going to cry like a baby when I have to leave this place and these people.
I have been to the bottom of myself and seen what I am made of and I have reached beyond myself and created beautiful moments these last 2 years. I have become the resilient, grounded woman I wanted to become and I have lived life fully. They told me on my first day in Kosovo, “This is going to be the hardest job you’ll ever love.” and looking back, I couldn’t say it better.
…to catch the first part of my story…