Ozark County Peace Corps volunteer describes living and teaching in North Macedonia – and rushing to evacuate
Editor’s note: This is the first in a two-part series outlining former Gainesville resident Sydnie Russian’s experience as a Peace Corps volunteer. The story’s conclusion in next week’s Times will describe her abrupt departure from North Macedonia as the Peace Corps evacuated all volunteers worldwide amid COVID-19 concerns.
Last month Sydnie Russian, a 2014 Gainesville High School grad, was living an exciting and rewarding life volunteering with the Peace Corps in North Macedonia, teaching students English and immersing herself in the local culture.
But then, within a few weeks’ time, her world was abruptly turned upside down.
She was suddenly evacuated from her new home in Europe, enduring several days’ repetition of canceled flights and lots of uncertainty, unsure when she’d make it back to the United States.
After finally securing the necessary flights home, she and her fellow Peace Corps volunteers all went into a mandatory 14-day quarantine. Sydnie recently completed her quarantine at her boyfriend’s home in Washington, Missouri.
“It’s like I’d been in a weird Twilight Zone version of America. I hadn’t seen my family or friends when I got home due to the mandatory quarantine. I shared coffee with my boyfriend’s mother with her sitting at the top of the stairs and me sitting at the bottom. The freedom and fast delivery of online services that I longed for before all of this began seem to still be 5,000 miles away,” she said.
Sydnie ended her mandatory quarantine symptom free on April 2 and was able come home to visit her mom, Audrey Russian, and grandmother, Patty Allen, both Gainesville residents, last weekend.
Joining the Peace Corps
It was while she was attending classes at Truman State University in Kirksville that Sydnie was introduced to the idea of volunteering with the Peace Corps.
“I studied abroad in Moscow, Russia, and got my first taste of immersing myself into a different culture,” Sydnie said. “While there, I started tutoring students in English in the evenings and decided that teaching English as a foreign language might be a good fit for me.”
After returning to Kirksville, Sydnie spoke with a Peace Corps recruiter and expressed interest in volunteering with the program.
She graduated from Truman State in May 2018 with a major in Russian language and culture and a minor in teaching English as a foreign language. She applied to the Peace Corps program in North Macedonia, the country located directly above Greece in Europe, and was accepted for a tour of 27 months’ service.
“Peace Corps offers many benefits, gaining teaching experience, creating new professional networks, non-competitive eligibility for many government jobs, access to the prestigious Coverdell Fellowship for graduate programs and travel days, just to name a few,” she said. “Overall, it just seemed like the right choice for me as a way to hit pause on life and really evaluate what I wanted to do as my next step after graduating from college.”
Sydnie said she chose North Macedonia for her service because she thought learning the Macedonian language might come easily to her, as it is a slavic language, the same language family as Russian, which she already knew.
Pre-service training, living with Albanians
Four months after her college graduation, Sydnie joined 54 other Peace Corps volunteers to fly to North Macedonia and begin their service.
“North Macedonia is a very diverse country with many ethnicities living there,” Syndie said. “I was chosen to do the dual language program, which meant that I was trained in both the Macedonian and Albanian language.”
Sydnie immediately began her three-month pre-service training (PST) in her new country, a requirement of the Peace Corps program. She and the others in her cohort conducted their pre-service training in the medium-sized city of Terce in northwest Macedonia.
“My first host family was an older Albanian couple who didn’t speak a word of English. Their youngest daughter spoke some English, but she lived with her in-laws, so my first few weeks of PST were very challenging. I learned a lot could be said through your hands,” Sydnie said. “Through classes and lots of cups of coffee with my host mom, Vjollca, I slowly gained confidence in my language skills in Albanian.”
Sydnie went through rigorous Peace Corps training to become an English teacher, learning both languages simultaneously while also learning technical and medical training.
“Because I lived with Albanians, I primarily used my Albanian language, and my Macedonian fell behind. So my initial plan of slavic language ease completely backfired,” Sydnie said. “I don’t regret this, because I loved getting to live with Albanians and experience a completely different culture from my own.”
Sydnie said she also felt united with her fellow Peace Corps volunteers who “didn’t know a single word of Macedonian before moving there.”
A social culture
After she completed her pre-service training, Sydnie was assigned to teach English to about 100 Albanian and Macedonian students ranging from first grade through ninth grade at a school in the city of Neprosheten.
Sydnie taught at the school for about 28 hours per week and worked on several other extra-curricular activities, including a spelling bee club and preparing students for English competitions.
“For the first six months of my Peace Corps service in Neprosheten, my service was more family focused rather than work focused,” Sydnie said. “I lived with an amazing host family….”
Sydnie’s host family included the mom, Bukurije, her husband, Reshat, and their three children, 11-year-old son Krenar, 9-year-old daughter Kaltrina and 5-year-old son Korab.
Sydnie said she was fascinated by the family members’ names, as well as the names of many others in the region.
Her host mother’s name, Bukurjie, means beauty in Albanian, and her siblings’ names also had meaning. Krenar means pride, Kaltrina, means blue and Korab is a mountain in the area.
“I find a very beautiful aspect of the Albanian culture that all names have to have meaning. For instance, a very popular name is based off the word for star, ‘yll.’ I had about 10 students with some form of the name… Yllza, Yllzana, Yllka, Ylli, Yllpiana.”
Sydnie said it took some adjustment from growing up in Ozark County to living with her new family in North Macedonia with three “siblings.”
“I am an only child, so suddenly I had three younger siblings, and I truly do view them as my family now,” she said. “But I had three younger siblings that I didn’t share a language with. It was overwhelming but also quite fun.”
Sydnie explained that Albanians and Macedonians have a very “collectivist” culture compared to American culture, which is more “individualist.”
“They all gathered in one room constantly for meals and coffee… and heat in the wintertime,” she said. “Time spent alone meant that something was very wrong with you, not that you just needed space or quiet. Lots of families live with multiple generations in one house or very close by.”
Sydnie said her host mother’s sister-in-law lived across the street and came to their home for coffee multiple times a day, every single day she was there.
“In both Albanian and Macedonian cultures, guests are very important. The largest form of social interaction is guest culture, where you go over to a family or friend’s home for multiple hours and follow an order of snacks and drinks, usually tea, roasted chestnuts, peanuts, chips, cookies and coffee, and talk and joke and enjoy life together. Going over to be a guest is much more fun than hosting, especially for the women. As an older daughter, I took over the spot of a young bride, or ‘nuse,’ and helped my host mom serve guests in the correct order.”
Ramadan, a highlight
Sydnie said “guesting” is especially frequent during the season of Ramadan.
“Most Albanians are Muslim, and during the ninth calendar month of the year, they fast from sunup to sundown. That means everyone from the age of about 12 who is healthy, not pregnant or elderly, cannot eat or drink anything, not even water, from about 4 a.m. to about 7:30 p.m.”
The Ramadan season varies from year to year, but last year when Sydnie participated, it was mostly during the month of May.
“I decided to join my host mother in fasting out of respect to her and my colleagues’ culture. I fasted for 20 out of the 30 days, and I can tell you it is not as difficult as it sounds,” she said. “You wake up early for the first meal, sufir, around 3 or 4 in the morning. We typically ate boiled eggs and crepes with some of the best cheese I’ve ever tasted in my life that is from this region of the world. It’s kind of like feta... a soft, salty white cheese.”
Sydnie said she and her family would go back to sleep for a few hours, and then she would get up and continue with her normal routine to go to work.
“At work, most of my colleagues and students were also fasting, so our lunch breaks were low-energy and quieter. Fasting would last until the fourth Call to Prayer was sung by the local mosque…. The entire family and perhaps some guests would be gathered around the dinner table waiting for it to be sung. As soon as you heard the first beautiful note, you would break your fast by drinking water and eating a date.”
The meals her family served during Ramadan were large and delicious, Sydnie said.
“It was similar to a Christmas dinner. In fact, the entire month of Ramadan is very high-spirited and feels like our holiday season.”
Participating in Ramadan and learning about Islam through celebrating the Ramadan experience with her family, including early-morning conversations with her host mom about religion, was easily the highlight of Sydnie’s Peace Corps experience, she said.
“You cannot begin to know someone or their culture until you step into their shoes, and once you do, you find out that they have a more similar fit than you would first expect.”
Sydnie said that because family is so important to the Albanian culture, her friends, host family and colleagues always asked how her family was in America when they saw her.
Sydnie said she kept in contact with her family in the States through social medial and video calls while living in Europe.
“I also had the opportunity to surprise my family with a visit back home in Missouri in January. During the visit, I gave a presentation to the fourth grade class at [Gainesville Elementary School]… . I shared some of my experience and gave them letters that my students had written. Right before the evacuation, I received letters from Gainesville but was unable to share them with my classes.”
“My work in North Macedonia was very rewarding, yet very frustrating at times due to the education system. My village only had five classrooms, and during the first six months of my service, they still had chalkboards, rather than electronic smart boards. The school has 10 computers, but they are not connected to the internet and do not work half the time,” Sydnie said. “I had to learn how to teach without technology.”
Sydnie was tasked with finding ways to share more student-focused work and communicative teaching methods with the two Albanian teachers at the school.
“My two English-teacher counterparts, Valbona and Sahide, are both very strong Albanian women whom I respect so much. I have learned so much from both of them,” Sydnie said. “They were very warm and welcomed me into their families. They were almost like my third and fourth host mothers, and I am truly grateful to have gotten to work beside them,” she said.
Despite the technical difficulties, Sydnie soon found her rhythm and began to excel in the classroom.
“While there were lots of challenges, there were also many successes, including helping one of my blossoming ninth grade girls write poetry in English and watching her publish her own book of Albanian poetry. I also enjoyed preparing students for the National Spelling Bee that would have been held in the end of May and hosting ‘travel’ summer camp in July 2019 in which other volunteers from different sites came and helped me teach my students about a new country each day for a week through games, art and dance,” Sydnie said.
“I was really looking forward to coordinating the Regional Spelling Bee in Tetovo at the end of March, which would have included 400 students, and organizing the 2020 summer ‘travel camps’ for the entire nation. I felt like the ‘job’ part of my service as truly just beginning,” she said.
But just as life in North Macedonia began to fall into place for Sydnie, the country had its first positive COVID-19 test from a woman who had traveled back into the country after visiting Italy.
The positive test result, received by Macedonian officials on Feb. 26, started a whirlwind three weeks that upended Sydnie’s life and abruptly ended her Peace Corps service.
To be continued next week...