EVS Diary

My EVS experience

I decided to apply for the European Voluntary Service (EVS) because I had been looking for a long-term meaningful stay in a foreign country. After some weeks of searching for the right project and contacting prospective receiving organisations I was about to spend one year in Athens, Greece.

Naturally, although I did not want to fixate myself on them, I had some expectations as to the unfolding of my experience, particularly the course of the EVS migration themed project I had been accepted to participate in.

Upon my arrival in Athens, I gradually started exploring the field. Given the broad range of the related topics, keeping up with the developments and events in the area of migration has been quite a handful.

Immediate familiarising myself with the local context proved to be a very good step as I also simultaneously realised that the implementation of my EVS project would take a different turn than I had anticipated. So, facing quite a disappointment on one hand and discovering an immerse spectrum of options for involvement in other places in Athens on the other hand made answering the question ‘Should I stay or should I go?’ easier.

Hence, the first big realisation was that the fate of one’s EVS is in the end (and also the beginning) in the volunteer’s hands. This does not absolve EVS competent people from their obligations, but the volunteer is not the one to bear the responsibility for those. What I want to say is that once you embrace the opportunity, do not let go of it too soon or too easily. If you come to a country as a volunteer for all the right reasons, there are ways to make the best out of the experience, even if the initial impressions are not good and the picture is looking bleak. Learning to leverage the undesired complications to make the best of the situation is an essential part of EVS.

Luckily for me, Athens offers many opportunities to volunteer in the field of migration, making being active easier once you acknowledge and make use of your own agency. The second big realisation came from the direct involvement in the topic of migration. Most of the people I have been interacting with have a migrant background. They are formally categorised by the system as asylum seekers, beneficiaries of international protection, or, if they are no longer in the former category, nor did they make it to the latter one, or they have never been in either of those, they are simply ‘just’ migrants. These categories are not merely a label, together with documentation particularities of each person they are tied to freedoms, rights and opportunities. Interactions with these people has been constantly reminding me of the fact that I am a ‘privileged’ migrant, whose presence (as a EU citizen) in Greece is legal and unquestioned, and who has an unimaginable freedom of movement and other possibilities. Consequently, one of the ever-present and cross-cutting personal tasks I set for myself were a healthy self-reflection and positioning to eliminate the system-fuelled unequal power dynamics.

So, for me, rethinking migration was a lot about the cognitively challenging process of coming to terms with the categories imposed by the system that to a great extent define the person’s fate and underpin interpersonal relations and daily encounters, while at the same time not limiting my perception of the person to that but giving equal importance to multiple other identities he or she has.

Another issue on the personal level, in line with the do-no-harm approach, has been trying not to fall into the trap of complacency and the false sense of security it brings about. Despite the relatively lengthy and intense experience, I believe that building one’s knowledge and expertise in this field is an ongoing process. It is important to say that living in Athens inherently means getting involved in the topic of migration. This was the third big realisation: no matter what the purpose of your stay in Athens (or for that matter in Greece) is, everyday life and its subtleties are often embedded in issues related to migration. Not being open to diversity, paradoxes, and certain level of personal mental discomfort resulting in sticking to your prior beliefs, representations and stereotypes, makes living in Athens a lot more difficult.

Of course, apart from the above mentioned points, my EVS experience has been far more multifaceted and enriching. This brings me to the final challenge which has accompanied me also during the writing of this article and which, I believe, is going to follow me further: How to best convey my experience to others to achieve understanding and positive mind-shifts on the part of my audience? How to overcom the limitations of the language(s) and their catalogue(s) of words? How to eliminate eventual memory distortions?

Having these in mind, I am already embracing myself for the face-to-face interrogations back home and hope for the best!

Mária Nicolaouová

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