„Where are you from?“ the taxi driver asks me. „Germany is perfect; I love Germany,“ he then responds—in German. He is not the first person to tell me about his relatives that have “made it” and now live in Germany, either. When he realizes I am not just a tourist but a volunteer, he is stunned as to why I would choose to spend my time in North Macedonia. Almost immediately, he starts listing all the beautiful places I must visit and the foods I should try in an ongoing rave full of affection for his homeland.
My name is Frieda, and I am nineteen years old. Like a lot of people my age, I am still figuring out what I want in life and craving new experiences and ways to challenge myself after being in high school for thirteen years. I strongly believe that the climate crisis is the most pressing issue of our time and have always tried to find ways to engage myself in the fight against it. Becoming a volunteer in Go Green, an NGO in Skopje, North Macedonia, that focuses on environmental education, seemed like a perfect fit. Although I could not quite silence the thoughts in my head that told me my work was probably going to be shallow. What if all I was going to do for nine months is telling people that are probably less privileged than me to start recycling?
I got to Skopje by bus and was exhausted after the 27-hour-long trip. The new impressions of a city that was hot, noisy, and polluted overwhelmed me, as did shaking a trillion hands and trying to match all the new names to their faces. The welcoming by the volunteers with whom I would live together and the staff of Go Green was very warm and heartfelt.
In my second week, I met the president of Go Green and a teacher from a high school in a kafana, a traditional Macedonian restaurant. While eating different roasted vegetables and cheeses, we discussed a collaboration between the school and Go Green, mixed with some private things. The project consists of three workshops that I should do thrice each, three field visits, and a final event.
Another thing I learned the same day was that I am the youth coordinator of Go Green. Go Green is member-based; there are a lot of young people wanting to be a part of activities. Around 15 of them have proven to be active and show up at every meeting we do. Right now, we are planning a clothing swap event.
Then there are the podcasts. I started developing ideas for my first two episodes that I will soon record in a professional studio.
One of the podcasts is inspired by another trip I got to go on because of Go Green. We do so-called „Bio Blitzes“ where we introduce teenagers to an app called „iNaturalist“ with which you can take pictures of plants and animals. An AI will identify them, and the data collected is important for research on biodiversity. Because of these events, I have been to all parts of the country already and seen a lot of principal’s offices from the inside. Once, when we were close to the Greek border, I was taking pictures of a beautiful lake called “Doiran”. A woman from another NGO told me about how it is actually unsafe to swim in this lake. „People still do, you know, this area depends on the tourism,“ she told me. „Humans are polluting the lake, and once a priest baptized a baby in it to fight the bad publicity and show that God approves of the lake.“ Now for the podcast, I will be talking to one expert for the three biggest Macedonian lakes each.
The second one is more personal. While doing reading on environmental issues all the time and talking to people that don’t necessarily share my views, anxiety, anger, and frustration started to build up in me. For the podcast, I have asked environmentally interested acquaintances from Lanzarote, the US, France, and Germany to talk about their mental health and the situation in the place they live in. I hope the podcast can help other people.
Oftentimes, I felt that people that were supposed to collaborate with me did not understand my way of thinking. My first meeting with a project partner that I did alone taught me a lot of things about myself. Now I am working on not thinking too much about small annoyances and being very, very direct with other people.
I am proud of how my first workshop that I have now done three times went. In one moment I was alone in a room with 25 teenagers that mostly did not want to be there. The technology for my presentation did not work properly, and the students were starting to be very loud. I was very calm and somehow managed to gain their respect. Afterward, when we did an activity that I had prepared (building a self-sustaining ecosystem in a jar), they kindly apologized for their behavior in the beginning and tested my Macedonian.
Recently the president of Go Green said to me, „Frieda, you are probably the most caring and engaged person in Go Green!“ I am not sure how serious this was, but it made me happy and I can finally say I have found my place in the organization.
The excitement of being in a new place with new people gave me so much energy in my first weeks. I said yes to everything and built strong connections with other volunteers. Finding Macedonian friends is another story. Through Go Green, I meet young people all the time, I joined hip-hop classes and an English-speaking book club—still, the other volunteers, especially the German ones, are what makes me feel completely at home. I also realized that the whole volunteering experience is not about selflessly helping others. The person that profits the most is definitely me, so I am grateful for this country and its people for having me 🙂
Frieda verbringt ihren Freiwilligendienst bei Go Green, ihr Projekt wird ko-finanziert von der Europäischen Union.