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čtvrtek 8. října 2015

A few words about my EVS in Russia

My European Voluntary Service at the youth NGO Opora started in February 2015 and lasted until September 2015 – and what a service it was! Not only did I experience a stereotypical Russian winter with snow on April 29, hiked around the stunning Lake Baikal and helped to protect its burning forests, ate tons of salads with mayonnaise (read “mayonnaise with some salad”) and absorbed the magical Mary nature colored by the autumn’s brush but I also lived and worked in a Russian provincial town where every foreigner has almost a celebrity-like status.

          Although Opora is a social organization working mostly with children in boarding school and with children from difficult social background, the project that I came to work on was called "The Fairlytail of Childhood". My plan was to conduct workshops and organize events to educate the local youth about the rule of law, human rights, intercultural learning, etc. I did conduct several workshops on human rights; however, overall these goals proved to be quite ambitious in the current economic, political and moral crises the country finds itself in. The ice is very thin for any NGO working in Russia and I did not want to create any kind of difficult situation for Opora if the authorities would misinterpret any of my projects as political; with all the consequences that might entail.

Volunteers of Opora welcoming Johan (French EVS volunteer) and me in their traditional Mari costumes.

Making this decision half-consciously half-intuitively, I refocused instead on different activities. I tough Czech language to kids who were preparing to study in Prague, prepared weekly meetings of Language Smoozy, which is Opora’s English discussion club, and also spent a lot of time studying Russian myself. With another EVS volunteer from Hungary, we organized the Traveler’s club; monthly lectures about cultures and lifestyle in different countries. Through this project, we wanted to support the intercultural learning in a city, where there are very few foreigners or tourist and the local population barely travels abroad. Considering that I was once asked if it is true that most Americans do not know how to read I believe we did some important job right there.

One of the workshops on human rights at the high school.
Moreover, in coordination with a local high school, I was given the opportunity to start the Active Citizen Project, where I worked with a group of students for several months. The goal of the Project was to give the students the skills and knowledge to engage peacefully and effectively with others in the sustainable development of their local communities, to prepare them to plan a social action and to increase their social responsibility and leadership skills. Russian school are still not very flexible in their teaching techniques and the students were thrilled to use non-formal educational methods for the first time in their lives. For me it was the first time I worked regularly with a group with different cultural background and mentality.

As I mentioned earlier, Opora works intensively with local boarding schools for orphans and children from disadvantaged background – some we visited monthly, with some we worked on weekly basis. This is quite a specific environment and I have to admit quite honestly that in the beginning this was challenging for me, as I never worked with such kids. However, over time and as new friendships were forged I have grown to enjoy it a lot! In fact, the most touching good-bye for me was with these friends.

Saving Tramplin from the rain with smiles on our faces! 
I am a city-kid; it means that I can learn quite easily how to navigate the subway systems it the largest cities on the planet but I have never dug a hole for a toilet or built anything with my own hands. And Opora made sure to change that! The organization’s largest event is the summer camp called Tramplin where kids from boarding school interact with kids from families while they have sport as well as creative program. At Tramplin we basically lived in a forest for three weeks – for ten days we had been building the basic camp infrastructure and then ten days the camp itself. I can assure you, these Mary forest do have a magical atmosphere! Becoming and being part of the technical group, getting to know the other volunteers over work done together, and building everything from the toilets (in the company of hundreds of mosquitos) to the tables and benches at the kitchen area (in rainy weather) literally opens you new dimensions, friendships and maybe even gives you whole new ways to realize yourself. Later on during the camp we, the international volunteers, had cultural programs with the kids and participated during their activities.

Kids at Tramplin.

Yoshkar-Ola. Yes, it does look like Italy. That
is because the head of the republic likes European
architecture and builds its copies in the city. 
Looking back at my EVS, I am very glad that I choose Opora and Yoshkar-Ola. The staff became not just my colleagues but also very good friends. At work, there was always someone ready to help or assist me, after work, we often met, hanged out together with the other local volunteers and even made many trips in the nature. It was a precious group of people who welcomed us with open arms and warm hearths!

At Opora, we were four European volunteer – a French, a Hungarian, an Italian and me. It was exactly as you could imagine - stereotypes met, former East and former West met even further east and we had tons of fun! After sharing our experience with each other and with other EVS volunteers from organization from all over Russian, I believe that Opora is one of the top organization in Russia to do your EVS. Especially in the matter of caring for its volunteers, including us into the social life of the group and the city, encouraging and helping us to learn Russian, and providing opportunities and the space to realize yourself. When they move to a new office, the environment and the atmosphere at the organization will be just perfect!

I believe that one can learn a lot especially from involuntary change or plans, improvisations or even failures; it opens our eyes as we become more sensitive to local realities in our search for a better approach. Although my initial expectation of my EVS at Opora did not come true, I believe that I managed to refocus my project quite well and I have a good feeling about the work I have done in Yoshkar-Ola. In the end, even the occasional bullying by the Immigration service proved to be just little road bumps to a successful and happy European Voluntary Service in Yoshkar-Ola.

Thank you Opora and thank you Opora’s volunteers to make this experience possible and so positive! 

Jan Severa

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