Author: Stevica Levajkovski

Intercultural cooperation between young leaders from 3 continents?
9 countries represented: Thailand, Laos, Myanmar, El Salvador, Honduras, Guatemala, Romania, Serbia and Macedonia.
Work, live, travel, have fun = all together !!!
9 months spent in Pestalozzi Children’s Foundation in Trogen, Switzerland.

Pestalozzi Children’s Foundation offers an intercultural “emPower” program for young adults coming from 3 different continents. All 17 students gather together in Switzerland to attend a 9 months training program and live together in one big house where they share everything.

Challenging enough for me, I took the risk to apply and I was lucky enough to be one of the selected. How did all this come out?

At that time, during 2007/2008, I was an active volunteer in the Center for Non-formal Education – Triagolnik. The organization started cooperating with the Swiss Foundation called: Pestalozzi Children’s Foundation. As a partner organization, Triagolnik got the opportunity to send 2 young people from Macedonia to take part in the “emPower” program.

I applied and I was chosen to go. With my long experience in youth work I had too many expectations about the entire study program. The fact that I was going to live in Switzerland for 9 months with all those different people, coming from such different backgrounds from mine, made me feel even more excited. The preparations took a long time, almost a year of attending interviews and taking English tests, visa procedures and papers being completed. Yet, the support from the Pestalozzi Foundation and the coordinator of “emPower” program, Mr. Samir Haskic, was excellent.

The time to depart arrived and since I had never in my life left home for such a long time,I had a strange feeling that this will be just another regular seminar alike those that last around one week. I was so wrong. It turned up to be something really difficult to put into words.

The plane landed on Swiss land. The Zurich airport in front of me, I headed into a strange small train with no driver. I immediately heard the cows with bells, yodeling voices and all the tourist attractions from the Zurich airport. Hmm… “Nicely done” – I said to myself. Impressed by the airport I went out with my colleague Driton (the second participant from Macedonia). The coordinator Samir Haskic was waiting for us in front of the airport and took us to Trogen, a village close to St. Gallen, in the house where we spent the rest of our stay in Switzerland.

As it was March 2009, of course there was a lot of snow and the stereotypical image I had about Switzerland previously, was only confirmed. Upon arrival at the Children’s Village of Pestalozzi in Trogen I couldn’t see much of the surrounding due to the snow. I spent most of my time at the so called emPower house 6; we were among the first participants to arrive. Besides us, there the Asian participants were also there: Law Eh and Win Aung from Myanmar, Att from Laos, Noi, Por and Jar from Thailand.

The whole excitement increased greatly when I saw all the diverse people. Slowly the communication between us started and I was honestly admitting that I have never heard of Laos and Myanmar before. I got the same statement from them regarding Macedonia. Only Thailand was a country I knew.

Later on the people from Central America arrived. It was easier to find a common language with them since they were all speaking Spanish, and as I explained to them, in the Balkan their language has its own popularity. In the end I met the rest of the people from South East Europe: Ramona and Natalija from Romania and Sladjana from Serbia.

17 people in one huge house. We started living together. The first month passed really fast and all of us were reserved and polite, taking care of everything which made it seem like paradise.

It was remarkably strange for me to notice all the differences in the behavior of people. Different habits, different cultures, different food, different way of organizing the day, different communication styles, different appearances and outfits. Sometimes it was interesting to see all that and to appreciate the differences, but as time was passing by, those differences began to create conflicts among us. I’ve never had as many doubts about things that seemed so obvious, but for the others were not as normal. There was a time when a question of right and wrong aroused. All of us had different attitudes towards things that were dependent upon within the house.

Food was not a problem yet, responsibilities and regulations were an issue. Paradise was gone. We were all asking ourselves how we will manage the remaining months. But as those conflicts became public and we started to speak about them we realized we have to do something about overcoming the obstacles.

Through argumentative discussions and fruitful debates we were seeking our rights, we were making compromises, we were arguing to tears – sometimes furious; at the end all came out to be a wonderful experience where we were learning to seek for possible solutions even in the most unpleasant situations.

The cultural differences were obvious. The misunderstandings were as common as the agreements when we were all together. From this perspective today, I can tell that I matured thanks to those struggles. I became independent, learned to do my food and laundry, took care of my finances etc. I also became more aware about many things that I previously never thought of.

Now I’ll let you know something more about the core elements of the “emPower” program. The program consists of 14 theoretical modules: 3 modules of full-time internship (practical work), 1 cultural excursion around Switzerland, 1 module for developing and writing diploma thesis (theoretical paper including the planning of an intercultural project) and practical implementation of the intercultural project in the partner organization after the students’ return in their countries. We had classes every working day from 9 am till 16:30 pm.

Individual learning objectives:
• The acquisition of general cognitive, emotional and behavioral competencies, necessary for working in an intercultural environment.
• Reflection on and Understanding of cultural diversity
• Self-reflection on personal communication patterns and awareness of how one’s behavior affects others. Improving communication skills.
• Understanding prejudices and mechanism of discrimination and how to avoid or overcome them.
• Understanding the basics in developmental psychology, specifically identity building in adolescence
• Basic understanding of culture theories, definitions of culture and cultural dimensions
• Understanding the political, social, historical and economic causes for migration; migration and integration policies in Switzerland and in the countries of the participating students.
• Improved competencies in handling conflicts, the ability to de-escalate and to be a mediating force.
• Competence in project management in an intercultural context.
• Transfer of newly acquired knowledge and skills to work situation in the partner organization.

During the practical work we were working with the staff members of Pestalozzi on the international youth exchanges (with participants from Belarus, Russia, Romania, Macedonia, Serbia and Switzerland) and the “Power Up Radio” – an internal radio station from Pestalozzi broadcasted in different parts of Switzerland and cooperating with many schools and common projects for children and youth.

With the different activities we visited many public institutions: Cantonal School of St. Gallen, Zurich University, International Red Cross Museum and United Nations in Geneva and the house of Albert Einstein in Bern. We went in the French, Italian and German speaking part of Switzerland, so many differences in one small country. We had a unique chance to meet all 7 ministers from the Swiss Federal Council. We presented our countries to them and asked them a few questions about the diversity that they are facing within Switzerland.

I can proudly say that through 9 months spent on issues, research and presentations I learned so much about my country and culture. I had a unique chance to compare the results with the rest of my colleagues and to realize that there are many similarities even though we live on different continents. Becoming aware about these sensitive intercultural issues made me think deeper about my role as a young leader who is involved in policy making in society. I started to love my country and my culture even more while I was living in the almost perfect Swiss society. It challenged me to bring new changes in my society and to work in order to improve some things. I understood how difficult it might be and what obstacles I can expect which motivated me to go on.

On December 5th 2009 I came back home in Skopje. I engaged myself even more intensely in youth work. I am now working in the Youth Association creACTive, Skopje as a youth worker and coordinator for the European Volunteering Service program (Action 2 from the Youth in Action Programme). In creACTive I am actively involved in one of the Youth Clubs located in Skopje. There I found space for transferring the knowledge I gained from the “emPower” program and I am trying, together with my colleagues, to give significant contribution towards the development of the young people that are visiting the youth club.

Let this be a call to all young enthusiasts out there to join us in creACTive and get similar experiences in future on various programs and projects. My colleagues and I will give maximum support for all active young leaders that want to make a change and to work on improvement of our society.

You can visit our web site and take part in some of the activities that are currently available for all youth in the Youth Club creACTive in Skopje: or in the youth Center creACTive in Kavadarci

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