On June 5, 2015, 38 American Peace Corps volunteers boarded a plane for Kosovo, the newest country in Europe and the youngest country with an average age of 29 years.
Though we all came as TEFL teachers and community developers, I came becauseI wanted to empower the disempowered nationals of Kosovo. I came to help break the cycle of Balkan bloodshed and intolerance. I came to help unify Kosovo’s youngest generation around a new identity and to help youth become national and world leaders in the coming years.
But I also came for me. I came to get to the bottom of myself and see what I was made of and to reach beyond myself towards my full potential and see what I could create as part of the first wave of Peace Corps Kosovo.
For my first 3 months, I stayed in Southern Kosovo for language and cultural training with an Albanian host family. My host father was a builder and had 5 young daughters. He didn’t say much that first day as I was getting to know my sisters and meeting all the relatives. He just kept staring at me. Later that night, he took me and his 2 oldest daughters to a café and told me stories of the war and how American soldiers had come to Kosovo and saved his family. “I never thought that one day I would have an American under my roof.” He told me. With tears in his eyes. “The moment you hugged my wife and daughters today was the happiest moment of my life.”
It was at that moment I realized, whatever the reasons I had come or thought I had come, to this man, I was an American whose family had saved his family, and now he was repaying the debt. Looking back, I think it was one of the most humbling moments of my life.
My permanent site was a small village in the mountains that had been completely burned down during the war. My new family of 9 was extremely poor and began demanding more money shortly after I moved in. I gave them 10 extra euros each month for rent but a few months later they began stealing from me. They stopped feeding me and would lock all the food up and leave for the day or the weekend. I couldn’t tell anyone in my village. I knew that a lot of people would have helped me if they had known, but telling people I was being mistreated would significantly impact my service. The constant stress and isolation were brutal that first year.
I thought a lot about quitting; I thought a lot about not quitting. Some people might call it stubbornness that kept me there; I call it fear. I knew in my heart that if I let this situation get the best of me and quit, I would lose respect for myself, and to me, that was more terrifying than 2 years of isolation and stress. So I stayed in my village and quietly began looking for another host family.
The first winter was bitterly cold; everything in my room froze. I would wake up seeing my breath in the air and frost in my room. I bought a small heater but the power was unreliable and electricity was so expensive that I could barely use it. I took hot water bottles to bed and piled on the blankets and sweatshirts. School was a 20 minute walk down the mountain and across a small brook. There was a narrow wooden plank for a bridge to balance across but I never knew if it had been washed away or buried under the snow.
Sometimes my host mom would give me 2 boiled eggs for breakfast and I would use them as hand warmers on my walk. Though the school was poorly heated, there was a wood-burning stove in the teachers’ room and the promise of hot coffee by a warm stufa would get me down the mountain to school each morning.
The only building not burned down in the war was the school with no indoor plumbing, unreliable heating, and chalkboards and lights that didn’t work. English was not valued as a necessary skill in my community so most students didn’t speak English and were not interested in learning. That same year, Kosovo took its first PISA test and scored in the bottom 3 countries for worst education in the world. Everything from the teaching environment to the curriculum was problematic as I attempted to mentor the English teachers as well as teach.
“Good things happen slowly and bad things happen fast” was a Peace Corps motto that kept me motivated to keep working each day. I showed teachers how to create tests for each quarter to help make grades more objective and modeled student-centered teaching practices. Progress was slow, however, and some days non-existent. Each part of the educational system blamed the other for the failure that was Kosovo and both blamed the government and the world for not helping.
A few months in, I was able to create English courses and clubs for my students. These community projects were the saving grace of my service that first year because they were the only time I was completely in control and had a group of students motivated to learn. We played games. We took part in competitions and hosted fundraisers to buy school supplies and host a summer camp. I took them on various field trips and exposed them to as many new ideas and experiences as I could.
Many times there was no available room and we found ourselves meeting in an empty storage room or student’s houses but we made it through the winter and into summer. Many students walked long distances in the cold and dark to attend each course during the school year. But those were the risks of village life and we always found a way to meet and develop ourselves and our community.
…to continue reading my story…