In this interview, I talk about overcoming difficulties and how the lessons learned in Berlin during my volunteer experience will continue with me back here in Hungary.
I grew up in an orphanage in a small town in Hungary. My world was pretty small and isolated before beginning this volunteer service program with Phiren Amenca in July of 2012. Since that time, the boarders around my life have opened dramatically as I have experienced living in another culture and language. This experience was rich and rewarding, but at the same time it was full of barriers or difficulties to be overcome. Let me share some of those with you.
My first assignment was to help run summer children’s camps in northern Germany near the Baltic Sea. While doing all sorts of fun games and activities with the children was fun, I found it very stressful to have everything be in German.
Because I knew English, I wanted use this with my fellow camp workers to give my mind a break and because it was so much easier for me. But my fellow workers would only speak to me in German. This made me feel very isolated from the team of workers. I became sad and discouraged and wanted to return back to Hungary and quit the program. Instead, I reached out to an American missionary friend who lives in Hungary for help. He assured me that my feelings were normal and that he too experienced this difficulty when he moved to Hungary. With his assurance and encouragement I pressed on through the difficulty with the confidence that in time I would be able to communicate and feel a part of the team. Every day I spent my free time in my room studying German and learning new words and phrases. I’m so glad that I did not give up and quit.
Eventually I became good enough in German that I felt like a full member of the team and could communicate well with them.
At the end of the summer I began my next assignment in Berlin. My project was to work in a bike shop teaching Arabic and Turkish children how to repair bicycles after they got out of school for the day. The problem was that I didn’t know how to repair bicycles! The kids were actually better at this than I was! Soon after I started, the bicycle shop manager said he didn’t want me to work with him any longer and that I should leave. This was very discouraging and I thought that I might have to return to Hungary and become homeless again. Fortunately, the leader of the volunteer program connected with the bicycle shop was able to come up with a workable solution. He convinced the bicycle shop to agree to train me first so that I could in turn train the children in the afterschool program. This was not what they had in mind initially, but it worked out very well and resulted in a very positive experience for me, for the kids, and for the bicycle shop. From this experience I learned that good communication and creative problem solving are necessary to get over such hurdles.
A third challenge had to do with the 12 young German students that I was living with while in Berlin. We were all so different and disconnected. Some drank a lot and stayed out late which resulted in some conflict. Everyone pretty much did their own thing, but no one would take care of the common spaces such as the kitchen and TV room. This also created a messy environment conducive to arguments and conflict. Once our mentor recognized the problem, he provided a seminar for us to openly discuss the issues that we had with each other and allowed us to all understand each other’s perspective better and how we had been hurt or hurt others. Through this time we were able to resolve interpersonal conflicts and have positive attitudes towards each other. In the end we came together as good group of friends and today I realize how much I miss my housemates.
A fourth challenge which stretched me to my limits was in April of 2013. Because my German had progressed well and because I was Hungarian, I was asked to serve as a translator for a group of Hungarian bricklaying students who were volunteering to work at a camp in south Germany.
However, these students were not well prepared for this experience and would not do what they were told by the German leader at the camp. The students became very angry with me as well saying that I gave them too many orders and that I was bossy. However, all I was doing was simply communicating what the German camp director wanted done. Things became very tense and I felt like I was caught in the crossfire between two enemy camps. I was ready to quit and go back to Berlin, but once again good communication saved the day. With the encouragement of my leader from Berlin, I sat down with the camp leader and the students and facilitated an open and honest dialogue which resulted in a better understanding of expectations and needs. In the end the project was able to be finished with both the camp director and the students feeling good about the work.
I am amazed now as I look back to see how much I have grown personally in the last year. Being put in difficult cross-cultural situations with the added barrier of language issues proved to be a refining furnace for me. The lessons I have learned about open and clear communication, about not giving up, and about persevering through difficulties will stick with me as I move forward in life back here in Hungary.