As the dream of every young person living in Turkey, I also wanted to travel to Europe and even to live there for a while. When I couldn’t get what I wanted from the ERASMUS exams of my university, I started looking for other ways and I learned that you can work in volunteer projects in Europe and that all costs are covered, and I focused on these projects. The best part is that as a person who spent his university years organizing dozens of social responsibility projects, I would continue to do this thing I love and, also travel Europe. As soon as my graduation was finalized in the summer of 2019, I started to apply for projects with my CV and motivation letters. I contacted Pi Youth Association as a Sending Organisation. And I was lucky that I got accepted to a project in Zagreb, the capital of Croatia, within a month.
I did not have any experience abroad, except for a short Balkan tour with my friends and a trip to Greek Islands. It was the first time I was going to have a long-term (9 months) abroad experience and I was really excited about it. I got on a plane from Istanbul on October 12, 2019 and unaware of what awaits me and what kind of person I will return to my country after 9 months, I reached Zagreb with a 2-hour flight.
Jelena from my hosting organisation welcomed me at Zagreb Airport and took me to the house where I was going to stay. I was the first one to reach to the house. Other volunteers came within 2 days. We were 4 people, 2 Bosnians, 1 Croatian and 1 Turkish. Our house was a house consisting of 2 rooms and 1 kitchen, which was quite adequate for us and had all the materials we needed.
Organisation and Duties
The hosting organisation was a civil society organization that organizes donation focused works for children with cancer, just like LOSEV in Turkey. For this, we had a shop where we sold second-hand toys and handmade clothes, accessories and ornaments. Second-hand toys, which are no longer in use, from people and schools were obtained free of charge and sold from this shop at low prices if there were no cleaning and damage problems. Teddy bears, too bad to be reused, were cut and the cotton inside was used for handmade products. The income obtained was used entirely for the treatment costs of children with cancer. Our duty in this regard was to accept toy donations by waiting in a shift in the shop, sorting the incoming toys as good / bad, arranging the usable toys on the shelves according to classification, cutting the unusable toys and bagging their cotton, communicating with the customers and making sales. In addition, we would organize regular weekly visits to the homes of elderly and disabled people and do simple housework, grocery / pharmacy shopping. We would go out with them and show them around. In the first week of the project, everyone was held responsible for a social media network. I managed the organisation’s Instagram page. Also, writing a blog post every month was one of our tasks.
Although the main mission of the organisation is children with cancer, its work was not solely focused on it. We also had regular events with refugee children and primary schools. We were organizing educational and entertaining activities and workshops with children in certain schools every week. We have organized many activities aimed at focusing, teamwork and keeping away from the bad habits of our time. And frankly, this was the biggest reason why I applied for this project. What I have always believed is that if you want to make a change in the world, you should start with the kids. That’s why the thing I gave myself the most and enjoyed doing was the activities we did with the children.
Besides all this, each volunteer had to produce and actualize at least one personal project. I wrote a project called “Books don’t need charging” to encourage children to read books. Because in a study I conducted, Croatia was the last in Europe in the book reading ranking. I could not continue this project, which consists of three steps, when the schools were closed due to the pandemic after taking the first step. Instead, I created a video with 17 friends from 16 different countries. A video that has only one message, but everyone says it in their mother tongue: “A book person can change the world.” In addition, I prepared an “earthquake awareness presentation” because of the increasing number of severe earthquakes in Croatia with the knowledge and experience I gained from a search and rescue association where I volunteered for years due to the increasing severe earthquakes.
Actually, my project consists of 2 different periods. After about the first 6 months of Zagreb, due to the spread of COVID-19 and the unpredictable situation, I returned to Turkey. After my project was stopped for 1 month, I continued my work as a home office from home. This process was usually spent with social media management and intensive process of video editing. But finally, after the borders opened, I returned to Zagreb with the first flight. When I returned to Turkey, 1 month discontinued part of my project was added to the end of it.
Of course, like most of us, I went with dreams such as sitting on the grass in front of the Eiffel tower, posing as if I was holding the Pisa tower with my hand, breathing the medieval air of Prague, finding myself in the Game of Thrones series in Dubrovnik. That’s why I divided my project into periods and created routes for myself. First of all, I went to Slovenia with a Spanish friend. Then I planned my first long tour during Christmas. I visited my cousin in Ulm, Germany, and then travelled to France / Strasburg, Switzerland / Zurich, Germany / Munich, Austria / Vienna respectively. Europe should definitely be visited during the Christmas period. Everywhere is very coluorful and vivid. In the following months we travelled with my Spanish friend to Czech Republic / Prague and Poland / Krakow. These two cities are unique places where you will feel yourself in the middle ages.
As I finished Central Europe with all these travels and was planning to travel to Scandinavian countries for the spring months, the pandemic broke out and all my travel plans fell through. At that moment I realized that I had not seen anywhere in the country I was in yet. We bought a joint tent from the decathlon with my friends and started to travel the coastal cities and islands of Croatia by setting up camps. Croatia is a country with excellent nature, history, and beaches. It is a country with forested areas, waterfalls where you will feel yourself in paradise, and – I say this as a person from Antalya, a person who is living in the Aegean – much more beautiful beaches than ours.
Friendships and Social Life
At the beginning of the project, we had no circle other than 4 friends living in the same house. (I can say 4 people but because of the conflict we had with one of our roommates later, only two of us stayed as friends.) The national agency in Croatia organized a 5-day training at a facility in a small town in Croatia, to inform volunteers about these projects and their rights, and to integrate them, including volunteers from the surrounding countries. We made very good friendships with the participation of nearly 30 volunteers of different nationalities. And frankly, I realized that this was an enriching experience. Lots of people from different cultures and geographies, from Brazil to Russia. There is no limit to what you can learn from each other. You will be ashamed of your prejudices, and you will destroy the prejudices of others. This 5-day organization was where the deep-rooted friendships we will establish begin.
While we were looking at each other’s faces to see if we should go somewhere as only 2 people before, we suddenly started to walk around and spend time with 10-15 people. In one pub, there were Quiz competitions on certain evenings of the week, teams of 3-4 people would form and compete. All of the teams competing in the pub suddenly started to be our friend group. So even if we lost, we were winning. After a while, neither the pandemic remained in our minds nor the borders of the closed country. If you have people with whom you have a good time, you may prefer to sit and chat with them even if you can go somewhere else.
Croatia was a country where social life was cheap. It is a country where you can often come across free events, concerts, sit and spend time in cafe bars without worrying about the money in your pocket, with colourful and fun people and environments.
Being Turkish in Croatia and Croatian People
At first, I had serious concerns about Croatia, some worries that arose because of our Balkan tour 2 years ago, a Croatian policeman kept us at the border for minutes just because we were Turkish. However, when I went there, I realized that on the contrary, it is a very nice privilege to be Turkish there. When the locals learn that you are Turkish, they start to say as many Turkish words they know (these are generally simple words such as “Fenerbahçe, Galatasaray and Beşiktaş” for men and “hello, good evening, welcome” for women.) One day, a Croatian woman in her 50s who learned that I was Turkish even wanted to take a photo with me. Another example is that the woman that works in pastry shop in the neighbourhood where I live started to greet me with Turkish words, and even the day my project ended, she prepared travel food for me and didn’t ask for a fee.
Anywhere, whenever I need help with something, I have found help many times from people I never knew before. I didn’t even ask for help from many of them. They can come to you and ask questions like “do you need something, are you looking for a place”. So the people are very friendly and helpful. I’ve seen 15 countries in my life. But if you were to ask me where I want to live I would say Croatia. I have never felt like a stranger and always felt at home.
I can also characterize Zagreb as “Europe’s safest city”. Whether you are a man or a woman, it doesn’t matter. You can safely walk on any street you want at any time of the night.
I can say that it was the best year I have ever spent in my life which was spent for this project. It was a project in which I made very good friends, contributed a lot to myself, and shaped my future ideas. I fell in love with the city and its people. So much so that it became a country where I want to find a job and live in the future.
We introduced ourselves and our culture as best we could. We’ve made a lot of people eager to come to Turkey. We cooked Turkish food, played the song “Erik Dalı” and danced, even drank raki. Our circle of friends learned about Turkish culture rather than Croatian culture. We travelled when we had money and time, we got to know different cultures.
Our volunteer from AGH-196 Croatia Project
Pi Youth Association