The EU Aid Volunteers Initiative brings professionals and organizations together from different countries, providing practical support to humanitarian aid projects and contributing to strengthening local capacity and resilience in disaster-affected communities. Adra Slovakia is the sending organisation of three EU Aid Volunteers in Albania. What exactly does this mean? In a nutshell, besides dealing with some project paper work and related financial administration, we monitor their deployment on a monthly basis. We call together every month and discuss how the activities they did progress and what was achieved. It is our obligation to carefully listen to them, to inquire about their well-being and help them to deal with their concerns. Our responsibility is to keep them safe and support them from distance, as good as possible.
As everywhere all over the world, the outbreak of the pandemic turned over our daily lives and brought about many challenges. In the case of our volunteers, the first dilemma we faced together was to make a decision for or against repatriation. All of our volunteers originate from countries that are heavily affected by the pandemic. Laura is from Italy, Arantxa from Spain and Cyriakus from Germany.
All of them needed to take many considerations into account in order to make a decision. How long will the situation last? What is the chance to come back to our activities? Can I trust the locals, the authorities that they will secure me even if I am a foreigner? What about my friends and family? How will they deal with this virus? Should I go home and support them? Or could my repatriation be a risk for them?
Since Albania put some strict measures in the beginning and the situation in their home countries was much worse, all of them decided to stay and hope that the situation will come to normal in close future.
How is the situation dealt with in Albania?
In March and early April, we asked Laura, Arantxa and Cyriakus for small statements.
Cyriakus Bräutigam, the project assistant at Adra Albania:
“After the first positive-tested cases were made public in March, the Albanian government immediately took comprehensive measures to flatten the curve. Since then, we can observe that (for somewhat obvious reasons) the approach applied in the Italian red zones is copy-pasted. A state of emergency has been declared and violations of curfews and bans on gatherings are punished with substantial fines. It seems reasonable, bearing in mind that the Albanian health system is woefully ill-equipped to cope with the pandemic. From an epidemiological point of view, however, it remains unclear how exactly the bulletproof military vehicles equipped with MGs parked at the checkpoints are contributing to improving the situation. In any case, it fits the political narrative of being at war with the enemy Covid19. Concerning ADRA’s work during the first few weeks, all of our projects were put on hold and it was virtually impossible to directly access our target groups. The German Foreign Ministry offered me to repatriate but I decided to stay; a decision I considered thoroughly and don’t regret. I am not a burden for anyone here and feel committed to find ways on how to continue our projects and to support our target group: People who (after the earthquake) are now affected by yet another emergency situation.”
Laura Naw, the project assistant at Adra Albania:
“The Albanian government adopted wide-ranging emergency legislation that imposes fines for violations of measures intended to combat the spread of the coronavirus. So, the government created an atmosphere of fear. Although the Albanian police fined many people and car drivers for violation of the COVID-19 restrictive measures, one day, the Albanian government waived all fines imposed. It has been awkward to read that news because the government is not sending a “healthy” message to those who had respected the curfew.
However, I assume that managing the situation in Albania has been pretty easy. Albania is a really small country and underdeveloped from a point of view of infrastructure. In fact, it doesn’t have any railroad track and it has only one airport. Tirana International Airport Nënë Tereza has been the sole international air gateway into Albania (named after Roman Catholic nun and missionary Mother Teresa). So, with all the measures taken like closing the borders, banning international flights, the journeys from one town to another town, using private cars and public transportation gave the chance to manage the situation in a pretty good way. Currently, the rate of affected people is low and the fatalities, according to the last news, are 31.”
Arantxa Ferrer, the physiotherapist at the community centre of NCCS (National Centre for Community Services)
“In Albania, the authorities started to think about imposing a strict lockdown since the first two people were infected. The measures seemed very confusing and chaotic to me. I think they tried to act very fast as the poor health system would quickly reach its capacity limits in case of a far-reaching spread of the epidemic. The government was “copying” the measures of neighbouring countries, but with much fewer active cases of COVID-19.
Moreover, the government promised to build a COVID-hospital in 30 days (they just finished now, but it isn’t still operative). They established a window of “free movement” from 6:00 to 13:00 and from 16:00 to 18:00. After some changes in the schedule, they decided to give one hour per person and family to go out per day. Besides the strict measures and the fear that we can smell in the politician’s words, I feel that the police in the streets were not really trying to repress as much as possible. Also, it wasn’t really clear what they could punish and how since the measures were continuously changing and announced by live videos in the social networks of the prime minister.”
A new flatmate moved in, welcome Corona!
The first weeks of strict lockdown and curfew prevented the volunteers from carrying out their jobs. Especially Arancha, who is a physiotherapist and basically needs direct contact with the clients, couldn’t do anything. Laura and Cyriakus partially could do their work remotely, e.g. project writing. However, all of them suddenly needed to stay at home alone. Some would say there is nothing more to say. The contrary is the case.
Despite the fact that the coronavirus took from us the work we like, the hobbies and friends we spent time with, at the same time it brought us something.
Laura, after having spent six months in Albania finally got to know her neighbours. She even hadn’t known their names before. Now, thanks to the coronavirus, her neighbours bring her lunches, breakfast. Moreover, respecting the necessary physical distance, they went hiking together recently and walking around the artificial lake of Tirana. Find out her story in her previous article.
The quarantine or self-isolation as we know it in Slovakia and additionally the curfew in Albania is a huge challenge for our mental health.
For instance, Cyriakus has set this regime to keep his mind fresh: “My tactic to cope with the situation is to create some kind of a daily routine: standing up and going to bed at the same time, doing push-ups, preparing food at fixed times, staying on the balcony as long as possible. With moderate success, I was trying to finally read all the books I never had the time for rather than watching shows on Netflix (For some reason, I could really identify with Kadare’s Girl in Exile). Fortunately, thanks to the technology of the 21st century, physical distance does not equal social distance, enabling me to talk with my family and friends on a regular basis.”
Arancha approached the new reality in a similar way: “I tried to keep active, making work out everyday, speaking a lot with my friends and family and studying by myself. Finally, I only stayed 3 weeks in quarantine and, after that, I started to volunteer with the municipality.
These days, when the whole world calms down, we could find a time to look back, to realize how vulnerable we are. Moreover, our volunteers who worked on a daily basis with vulnerable groups such as Egyptian and Roma community in Tirana or people with mental and physical disabilities who live in very poor conditions, realized much more how dangerous the pandemic for these groups are.
“I had hard moments during quarantine, living alone as my colleagues do. Anyway, it was pretty easy for us volunteers to comply with this measure. But I don’t want to imagine those who have to keep paying the rent, those who depend entirely on their business to bring food into their homes, or, as we can see a lot in the streets of Tirana, those who have to go out and try to get some coins for that same day“, Arancha shares her concerns.
Humanitarian volunteers in action. Literally.
Prior to their deployment as volunteers, Arantxa, Laura and Cyriakus received comprehensive training by the European Commission in Pisa and Vienna where emergency situations have been simulated. After the earthquake in November 2019, it is already the second time that they are able to apply the principles learned and move from theoretical knowledge to first-hand experience.
Once the measures were gradually scaled back, our volunteers took the opportunity to help. They joined any activities, which were focused on responding to this humanitarian crisis and mitigating the negative impact of COVID-19.
Cyriakus did not hide his joy that after weeks of complete isolation and a de facto standstill of ADRA’s activities, now some kind of routine slowly begins to return. “Being able to walk to the office every morning is a real blessing for my colleagues and me. I am relieved that in cooperation with the German Embassy we are finally able to regularly provide food and WASH-supplies to the Roma and Egyptian communities. Furthermore, we set up a helpline to provide psychosocial support for people suffering from PTSD (or just need someone to talk to),” he said.
Since Education is a common denominator in all of ADRA’s interventions, the most urgent issue to be addressed is to find ways to explore innovative solutions such as distance and e-learning. “This requires a great deal of creativity and unorthodox thinking. I am therefore all the more pleased that we have been able to use the time of isolation to develop some promising project proposals and to apply to open calls. I think we are on the right track and I am cautiously optimistic,” Cyriakus added.
NCCS, Arancha’s hosting organisation started to cooperate with the municipality in the project “Adopt a grandmother/grandfather”. From 9:00 to 13:30 they are preparing the food for people without good economical resources and going shopping for people who cannot go outside, basically the older than 65 or with any disability.
“I really enjoyed being engaged in the volunteering activities of the municipality. I have the opportunity to better understand what is going on in the society. Me and another volunteer were part of a local team, so I learned much more about the language and the culture,” said Arantxa
From bad situations, you can always learn something
On a final note, Arantxa stated: “I am somehow grateful for being here and seeing that the situation didn’t become worse. In addition, I had the opportunity to better learn Albanian with my new colleagues and to know a lot of hidden places of Tirana thanks to the work of food distribution.”
Laura said that she has been so lucky to have a garden during this lockdown: “Having a garden where to chill out helped my mental health and wellbeing. At the beginning of the lockdown, I planted two avocado seeds and four pots of basil. Caring for plants provided a sense of purpose and distraction and it’s rewarding mentally to see the basil thrive and the avocado puts roots. To sum up, personally, I learned new techniques for managing my stress so don’t drive myself crazy. So, I do agree with the statement that “from bad situations, you can always learn something.”
We can all agree on that