Perks of volunteering from today’s perspective
Since I returned from my holiday, I miss Austria everyday. This is something I did not expect to feel. It has been two years since I finished my year of volunteering in the youth centre Park in in Hall in Tirol, and to be honest I rarely had a nostalgia about my great experience there. I truly enjoyed my project and living in Austrian Alps for a year, but I was as happy to return to Riga, Latvia. Despite the pandemic, my life after the project has been joyful and fulfilled – I have an amazing job, I have started to study again, and I am surrounded by great people. And during these unpredictable times I have realized how meaningful and beneficial the year of volunteering has been for my personal growth. While working in the youth centre abroad I learned an important thing that has helped me to stay calm and even enjoy the times of pandemic, it is going with the flow. Accepting the things the way they are. Not unnecessarily worrying about the things I cannot affect. Keeping a cool and open mind, and most importantly enjoying!
After returning to Latvia, I literally noticed my development because I felt more mature than my friends who have not done transnational volunteering. During my year in Austria I had to overcome several emotional challenges regarding the living abroad and it only did make me stronger, more confident, and more open-minded. A friend of mine from Albania who was an Erasmus student in Latvia once told me that I am more Western than other Latvians. This small remark stayed in mind, and I have thought about it quite a lot. I believe that volunteering in Austria added to the development of my European mindset.
A gap year of volunteering also added to my professional qualifications as I used the opportunities to learn by doing. In addition to European Solidarity Corps volunteering I did some more volunteering for an organisation Plattform Asyl in Innsbruck that works with refugee integration issues. During the work in a youth centre, I met many minor refugees and I got very interested in how the asylum and integration system works in Austria. Back then in Latvia there were few refugees, and I had a limited knowledge about the questions regarding their life, therefore I was curious to learn more. In Plattform Asyl I had a chance to help the amazing Kathrin Heis who was open to share her broad knowledge.
After working with refugees in person and getting to know about the institutional level in Austria, I was inspired to bring my new knowledge and understanding to Latvia. By fortuity when I came back to Latvia there was an open position for a social mentor within the project supported by the UN Refugee Agency and I got a chance to work in Latvian refugee integration system for five months until the pandemic. It was a great experience to compare both systems and contribute to refugee well-being in both Austria and Latvia which creates unique knowledge and understanding of integration issues in Europe.
Visiting Austria 2021
We had a plan with my colleagues from Park in that I will visit Tirol in the next summer after finishing my project but by then the pandemic had already made changes in our lives. Therefore, I postponed my trip and went to Austria this August. Before going back to Austria I was excited and wondering how I will feel being back to the places I have spent a whole year. I am not very good at keeping regular contact; thus I was thinking how I will be welcomed after two years. Will everything be different? Have the youngsters that I worked with grown a lot, do they even remember me?
But once I arrived, I felt like visiting my second home. Such an incredibly good and peaceful feeling! Seeing the familiar faces and streets, feeling the friendship and warmth – it felt like I was gone for a couple of months not almost two years. During just 10 days I met many people and visited many places, and absolutely would have liked to prolong my stay for a month. I especially appreciated the conversations with ex-volunteers and current volunteers. Everyone’s experience and path are different, but it is great to talk with people who understand and can relate to things and feelings only volunteers know.
And, of course, mountains! Living in such flat country as Latvia I did miss Austrian Alps, but I did not realize how much! I was sending photos to my friends and work colleagues in Latvia, and as one of them said: Lora, you are in a different reality now! And he was right. My life in Latvia and my life in Austria are two different realities. It is weird and awesome at the same time. After this holiday, I have realized how lucky I am to have those people and places Austria thanks to European Solidarity Corps. A part of my heart will always be in Tirol.
Lora Egle (European Solidarity Corps volunteer in Jugendhaus Park In October 2018 – September 2019)