A lesson on love, kindness and perseverance: A diary of our days in Albania
We arrived in Tirana, the little-known capital of Albania, without knowing much about the 3 million-people country the 14 of us were about to see for the first time. Having been chosen to participate on the first Charity Experience Academy organized by trivago, we were all aware that this was going to be a very intense trip, but the specifics of what we were going to do were still unknown. As we drove into the city, it was clear we were now under a different Europe.
Instead of the super developed and well-organised nations we are used to connecting the old continent with, the busy streets of Albania quickly reminded me of a South American or Asian country. In my mind, it also resembled Turkey, something that is probably due to the fact that the Ottoman Empire controlled the area for several centuries. Tirana has been growing and developing quickly over the last few years, and the hipster cafes and lively bars spread out across the posh neighbourhoods speak to the recent economic boom of the city. But the many decades of occupations and wars have left its toll on the country and its population, something we were about to learn as we dived into our activities as volunteers.
We drove through the beautiful, green mountainous countryside to reach the rural town of Cërrik, where the hard-working teachers of the Caritas NGO, which is sponsored by funds donated by the German government, greeted us warmly. They explained that the very simple – but brand new – centre we were seeing was dedicated to helping children and teenagers from the Roma and Egyptian communities develop their skills and abilities in a very impoverished area in the country.
The task is not an easy one: here, teachers’ salaries can be as low as 300 euros a month, and they are fighting against incredibly tough scenarios, such as teenage weddings, which are still quite common, domestic violence, sexual abuse, alcoholism and high unemployment rates. The lack of jobs drives the women in the community to seek work on hashish fields to be able to feed their children. The newly built centre secures that these kids will eat at least one meal a day and enjoy better learning opportunities. But more than that, it also allows them to have fun, make friends, and work towards building brighter futures. Playing is an important socialising component here, and, surrounded by dozens of smiles and by extremely energetic young minds, we danced, played soccer and ping-pong, drew, and simply exchanged an enormous amount of smiles, hugs and tenderness. The day was a tough, yet beautiful reminder, that our ability to connect, as humans, despite language or cultural barriers, is, no doubt, our greatest asset.
The next morning, we headed to the outskirts of Tirana to get to know the work of a different branch of the Caritas NGO in Albania. We were welcomed by curious and smart teenagers, eager to practice their ever-growing English skills. Our task here was a challenging one: we were invited to help clean the riverbanks, completely filled with all kinds of trash.
From endless forms of plastic to backpacks, clothes, shoes, and even an old television set, the amount of garbage that we found buried on the mud by the river was simply mind-blowing. There is no proper trash collection in this area, the NGO staff explained, and although they try hard to educate the population on how important it is to not pollute the environment, there is still a long way to go. It was not, however, the dim image of the filthy riverbank that stuck with us after we had left, but the kindness and openness of the people who had received us, their sweet nature and hopeful minds, and their relentless efforts to improve their living conditions despite a lack of official means.
The only animal shelter in the country, a private-run institution, was our last stop as volunteers in Albania. Over 160 dogs, cats, horses and donkeys, mostly rescued from the streets or from abusive owners, are looked after by a fearless and dedicated woman and her 4-people team, and we were incredibly excited to be able to lend a hand for a few hours, interacting with the loving animals for a while – and yes, there were plenty of unbelievably cute puppies involved!
Thanks to a flawless schedule prepared by our host Manuel Delgado and a dedicated local guide, in between our main activities we still had time to experience the superb local cuisine and to get to know Tirana’s natural beauties by hopping on the city’s famous cable car, visiting a lovely park and exploring an art installation located inside of a bunker, where we learned a lot about Albania’s war-filled history, which explains many of the difficulties the country faces today.
As a group, we could not have bonded more: everybody joined this experience with an open heart, and left the country with a bigger understanding of the struggles that one of the poorest nations in Europe faces. As we boarded the plane back to our very privileged realities, we knew that something had changed in our hearts. We went to Albania to donate our time to much-needed causes, but the truth is that we were given much more than we could ever give. The brave, inspiring souls that we met in these 4 days showed us that love, kindness and perseverance will always prevail, no matter what – we just need to put it into practice.
If you would like to learn more about the amazing projects mentioned above and to find out how to help them raise funds to continue filling the world with love and hope, please reach out to Manuel Delgado, and check out Caritas Albania and Tierhlife Tirana.