While most volunteers deployed by the Estonian Refugee Council to UNHCR offices in the Balkans have been repatriated, two volunteers have remained at their duty stations in Albania and Bosnia and Herzegovina. They work from home full-time, abiding by the local rules implemented to stop the spread of COVID-19. They share their experience, challenges and lessons learned.
The onset of the emergency in BiH and Albania happened very suddenly. In Albania, within four days of the first case being confirmed, the government shut down all schools and also brought in strict movement restrictions for cars and pedestrians - enforced partly by the military. Meanwhile, BiH declared a state of emergency in the country- stringent measures were quickly applied to avoid the spreading of the disease and cope with the situation due to limited capacities in the country. Both countries stopped all commercial flights. In this fast-moving context, sending/hosting organisations, together with AV-s, had to very quickly figure out what the options were - even though the situation was changing by the minute.
A decision was taken that both UNHCR associates, Holly and Lily, were going to stay in their host countries. Firstly, because their home countries were dealing with medical crises of their own (especially North Italy, Lily’s home), and not less importantly, there was also a lot of work to do in supporting UNHCR's populations of concern during the emergency, and to leave everyone in the lurch would have been wrong.
Even though Holly has been working from her home in Tirana for seven weeks now, she is optimistic: “I am grateful for the fact that I still have the routine and a sense of purpose through my EUAV position. My sending and host organisations have been fantastic in supporting me throughout and making sure that I am alright, especially as I live alone. To have left would have added more uncertainty into what was already an uncertain situation, and I feel most useful here. No regrets!” To replace her social life with meaningful activities at home, she has dedicated time to old hobbies like painting and reading and has been keeping up her fitness through online workouts.
Building resilience by supporting each other
This is where the EUAV-s stick together: Lily, staying alone in Sarajevo, is organizing her days around her work tasks for UNHCR, participating in online meetings with colleagues and creative sessions to relax at the end of the day. But that is not all: “I always make sure that I am taking good care of my mental and physical health. Very quickly, I understood that I could experience this situation in two ways: negatively or positively. I chose the latter and made the best out of this situation.” She has come up with an idea of giving online yoga lessons. Two or three times a week, EUAV-s now meet for virtual yoga lessons. Holly appreciates this initiative: “That's been a great help in managing stress, as well as providing some much needed stretching and relief after working from home all day in an uncomfortable kitchen chair!”
Lily is content, for she has been able to build upon a long entertained idea: “I was able to share Lilyogaflow.com with other EUAV-s, my ex-EUAV flatmate who was repatriated and an EUAV friend who is now working in BiH for another programme. All this has been a great opportunity for me to develop a project around yoga that I have been dreaming of building for years. Sharing these journeys within a virtual space has helped us all to let go of common tensions and fears together. My interpretation of yoga includes sharing smiles and connecting globally.”
It has not been an easy time, but both Lily and Holly are optimistic: “Looking back, staying was the best choice to make. We have no regrets!”