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Fri, 05/20/2011

Oregon Students Reflect on the American Exchange to Serbia

News | International Visitors

Earlier this spring, two Oregon students traveled to Serbia for a follow-on exchange to last fall’s Serbian Youth Leadership Program hosted by the World Affairs Council of Oregon. Josie Inez of LEP High School and Alex Liljenquist of Trillium Charter School are back from their two week program and are already exploring new ways to create positive change in their community. Reflecting on her travels, Josie shares with us her perspective on participating in this exchange and receiving the warm hospitality that allows mutual understanding to spread across oceans and borders.

Our group spent the first days visiting museums, learning about culture, war and genocide of recent history, the country’s complex past, and having dialogue with the program’s Serbian participants who had travelled to the United States. The overwhelming amount of information stuffed into our heads was exceeded only by the amount of food we were offered during two hour meals served in multiple courses, complete with laughing, singing and lots of conversation. As a group, we took thousands of photographs of the people, places, graffiti and architecture. Although it’s difficult to believe, this was only three days. After those first days, we split off into our various home-stay communities where we stayed for just under a week.

Although I went to a city called Zrenjanin, my family (host family, but it feels proper to not go back and fix it) lived about twenty minutes outside of town in a village named Elemir. I met my host sisters at the bus station on the first day and was driven to their house by their grandfather, whose birthday celebration I was later able to attend. Only two members of the family spoke fluent English, but they had spelled out “Welcome Joe” on their glass front door and I knew right away I was at home. Having lived in Portland all my life, staying in a town where you ran into your friends and half your relatives just walking into the local general store was a new experience indeed.

While in the home stay community, we were kept very busy—visiting schools (even though throughout much of Serbia teachers were on strike), town halls, and even factories. Each community had an action plan, and in Zrenjanin we were able to help as best we could while our peers collected donations for the city’s homeless in a food drive. In honesty, at first, it felt like we weren’t able to do very much. The water had made one girl in our group get sick, and we were struggling to work around the language barrier. However, as I stood around and made goofy faces to entertain babies while my Serbian friends did the talking, one of the other participants came over, and shady arrangements ensued. He and his host brother disappeared for the better half of the following hour and came back with a shopping cart full of food that we students had all pitched in to donate. There’s nothing like a little teamwork to make you feel warm and fuzzy inside.

Of course, one of the largest pieces of the home stay experience was being in somebody else’s home. I was as lucky as I can imagine anyone ever being because my host family ended up being a bunch of writers—which I enjoy doing, myself. There was an immediate bond that went beyond verbal communication, and I haven’t felt so welcome anywhere in my life.

Something else I didn’t anticipate was that our group leader was serious when, in response to a question about whether there was actually a way to communicate that you couldn’t eat another bite, he said: “Well, you could lose consciousness.” I quickly discovered just how serious he was. My host mother made three kinds of cakes in the five days I was in Elemia, one of which I labored with my host sister to translate into a recipe I could take home. When it came time to leave, my host sisters and mom cried, which was the most touching thing that had slammed itself against my retinas the entire trip, and I remained quiet during the bus ride to the Zrenjanin station to avoid getting teary-eyed myself.

After arriving in Belgrade, we spent three more days with the group as we brought our experience to a close, at least, in a manner of speaking. In a different manner of speaking, I haven’t really left Serbia. I left it in the way that a person leaves a love, or a good story—it stays with you forever, sometimes speaking to you in a whisper and sometimes in a pointed yell. Because of that, I still struggle with what to say and how to close a piece on an experience that feels as if it’s just beginning to unfold in my mind and life. I don’t generally come away from experiences abuzz with excitement, regardless of how inspired I am, but every recounting of the stories makes me thankful for every moment all over again. Another thing both of us Portland students definitely agreed on by the end of the trip was that despite the fact that we never expected to be “that guy” who went to Europe after high school, there was no doubt in our minds we would be going back.

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