Home, far away from home – ESC in Macedonia

Home, far away from home – ESC in Macedonia

It is astonishing how fast the unknown becomes known and a far away place becomes home. And how fast the time passes. In one moment I get picked up at the airport by two people I don’t know and, almost in an instant, I tell them goodbye as good friends. I went to Skopje, Macedonia with the European Solidarity Corps year.

European Voluntary Service – what is that?
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, bars and clubs of other European countries during their Erasmus semester. The ESC however, is less known. Which is a shame because there is an ever growing number of exciting projects.
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, arts etc.
The long term project of the Erasmus+ is the aforementioned ESC which can take between 2 and 12 months. And take place in any of the Erasmus+ Partner countries.
To make these projects available to all, they are supported financially be the EU. For short term projects travel costs and accommodation and food are supported. For long term projects there is an additional monthly pocket money. Projects are planned by NGOs in different countries and financed by the EU.
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 Macedonia with this programme and young people from there can use the programme in the same manner.

Back to Skopje – Encounters and Community
Back in a small room in an old socialist time building in the municipality of Kisela Voda, Skopje. It was only my second day in this city. I woke up and asked myself what for gods sake I was doing here. A new environment, people I don’t know and now I am supposed to carry crates and lay cables for an organisation I barely know.
In this way I was thrown into cold water 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? Where I did not even know most of the people.
At the end of the day however I went to bed with a cosy feeling of being welcome. To be 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 VOICES. 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 to the participants and a language barrier. After that week I was battered physically and mentally but I had also realised that I do enjoy giving classes and teach 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 has not always been easy, all these experiences have helped me grow in one way or the other.

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 could not be 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 gain perspective. For example as a volunteer I can get by in Skopje fairly well while the average salary there is at 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 strongly about my time in Skopje are the many encounters with the most diverse people. Some where singular and will only live on in memory 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 in the fridge. And, of course a head and a camera full of memories. In that sense I got to see my home with the eyes of the unknown. And that is something I am thankful for..

And how can I do that? – practicalities
You need a sending as well as a hosting organisation.
The sending organisation in your country of residency or citizenship has the task to take care of financial issues, organises the preparation and the de-briefing 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.
https://europa.eu/youth/solidarity_en
You can register there to be part of the Corps and start looking for projects. However registering is now requirement and you can also find projects with sending organisations and apply with them directly.

On Facebook there are many groups that share opportunities. Just search for keywords such as (ESC, Erasmus+, Volunteering Service Europe, etc.) It can also be a good idea to approach organisations directly and ask them if they have any projects:

My sending organisation was: naturkultur.eu/de/home-de/ (They also host, if you want to come to Germany.)
My host organisation: vcs.org.mk/

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.

Good to know – your rights as a volunteer.
You have the right to get 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.

Short and long ESC:
An ESC is for the maximum of 12 months. You can choose between a short (1-3 months) and a long ESC (4 – 12). You can also first do a short ESC and then a long one, but not the other way round. Or you do multiple short ESCs.

If you encounter the term European Voluntary Service or EVS, don‘t be confused it is simply the old name of the programme.

Mathis Gilsbach