A good friend of mine, Heather, who is still serving as a Peace Corps Volunteer in the same city I did, Bitola, Macedonia, posted a comment after reading my recent Valentine’s Day post . . .
“Patrice, this sounds really wonderful. Do you remember last Valentine’s Day? We spent it facilitating an exciting workshop for Roma women in Skopje, and it was such an empowering thing for all of us as well. Maybe a nice Valentine’s tradition is forming?”
The workshop was part of our work as Peace Corps Volunteers in Macedonia and one of my favorite Peace Corps memories. (Please note: In many parts of the world, the Romani people are known as Roma, and also unfortunately as “gypsies” or “travelers.” Terms which are often used in a derogatory manner.)
The focus of the weekend workshop was domestic abuse: identifying and addressing it. Heather and I were asked to participate on Saturday to provide more support for the women involved.
We decided to focus our sessions and activities on building self-esteem and helping the women realize their personal and collective value. My most vivid memories of the workshop are not what we taught them, but what I learned from them.
I learned about courage and the deep, rich bravery a mother or grandmother must develop to find a better life for her children while living in a tiny shack open to the elements on a dusty, dirty road ascending a garbage-covered hill, knowing her children’s educational and economic outlooks are as bleak as their neighborhood and physical and emotional abuse and cultural alienation are common.
I will never forget the message the Romani women shared with me that day: courage and happiness are choices. Somehow, they had found ways to be happy, if even for fleeting moments, and to bloom in an environment that did little, if anything, to encourage their growth.
The one exception to their negative neighborhood environment was Sumnal, one of the sponsors of the workshop and a local non-governmental organization (similar to a not-for-profit in the States). Sumnal offered classes, programs and much more; it was a safe and supportive place for the women and their children.
The Sumnal coordinator of the workshop, a young, intelligent and very professional Romani woman arranged a pre-planning meeting with Heather and me to make sure our presentations matched their needs and the spirit of their workshop. At her request, I explained what my plans were for my session. After listening intently to what I thought was really good information (mine), she leaned forward and said to me (in perfect English – I could not explain my plans in the Macedonian I knew and did not speak Romani at all):
“Patrice, I have absolutely no idea what you are talking about or why you think that it will work.” Her eyes met mine when she said, “We have never done anything like this before, I do not understand.”
I felt a bit deflated (understatement), paused, lowered my eyes and was mentally preparing my response, when she put her hand on mine and said,
“I do not understand, but I am going to trust you. It will be fine, I am sure.”
I was stunned. How many people, after just meeting someone, are open and confident enough to leap across a cultural divide as wide as ours was in that moment, and respond with such grace and trust?
I realized immediately it wasn’t me she trusted, but rather Jessica, her colleague and the wonderful Peace Corps volunteer she worked with, who had invited us to participate. She respected Jessica, and therefore, Jessica’s choices. It was Jessica, who had built the cultural bridge I was being allowed to cross.
Thankfully, the workshop was a huge success, and the women really enjoyed our sessions. After that amazing Valentine’s Day experience and the one I had this year “Exciting, healthy day”, I decided Heather was right, it is time to start a new tradition. I want to celebrate every Valentine’s Day working with and learning from other women.
To make sure that happens, if you or your not-for-profit organization would like to plan a Valentine’s Day workshop for women – especially women, who might not get to attend workshops very often, I am in. My services are free. I know my rewards will be priceless.
If you are interested, contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org, it is never too early to get started planning a good thing.
(I will repeat this offer annually. And, Heather you are always invited!)