Gwendolyn Schaefer, MAK19, Macedonia
“You serve in…Madagascar? Moldova? Montenegro? Wait, Macadamia?”
Ask any person where Macedonia is on the map, and they will likely name literally every other country that begins with a ‘M’ before they get to Macedonia. It’s not surprising, as the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM), located at the bottom of the Balkan Peninsula, it is the least famous of the former Yugoslav republics. This is due the fact that it emerged from the 1990s largely unscathed by conflict. It is a country whose name corresponds with an epic ancient civilization (yes, that Alexander the Great) yet it faces shifting demographics and a multicultural identity crisis today.
I took the roundabout way of reaching Macedonia, as I first served in Ukraine before being evacuated due to the revolution. The anxieties and fears of a first-time PCV were replaced by those of excitement and curiosity. I assumed that to a certain extent, Macedonia would be relatively similar to Ukraine, both in terms of my service and the countries’ socioeconomic landscapes. I would yet again be teaching English in a small-town high school in Eastern Europe, albeit in a slightly warmer climate, and would be learning a language in the same Slavic family. Despite the many similarities, I discovered upon beginning my service in Macedonia, there is one distinct thing that separates the two places—diversity.
Macedonia, like its surrounding neighbors, is trying to come to terms with its ethnic makeup, which is comprised of four major groups: Macedonians, Albanians, Roma, and Turks. With ethno-religious fault lines crisscrossing the country, I found myself placed in a delicate position as a PCV, playing a balancing act in conversations with Host Country Nationals (HCNs). While I live in a relatively homogenous town on the border with Bulgaria and therefore do not see a visible separation between the groups, as is the case in other parts of Macedonia, it was within my position as a teacher that I came face to face with the discussion surrounding multiculturalism and changing demographics.
Living in the US, I never thought twice about embracing other cultures. Being surrounded by people from other backgrounds was the daily norm, even in my home state of Kentucky. The American brand of multiculturalism, the famed melting pot, was a given, not a conscious thought. Suddenly, I was thrown into the fold with students and colleagues who had no idea about how to live with people different from them. Moreover, they were having trouble understanding the basic benefits of multiculturalism in Macedonia. When I first experienced these conversations, I was torn about what to do. Should I keep my mouth shut and politely smile? Or, should I use the moment as a subtle nudge towards tolerance? I have never been one for shoving my value system down someone else’s throat, but wasn’t this the moment for practicing Peace Corps Goal Two?
Eventually, I found myself gently preaching the American multicultural gospel. Sometimes it manifests itself in simply encouraging students to try Turkish food when they’re in Skopje, the capital. Other times, there are serious conversations in class about being inclusive and open-minded. The result? Some students have genuinely embraced the concept of diversity and are now practicing inclusive behavior.
Actively sharing American cultural values in Macedonia was never my intent when joining the Peace Corps. But, as is the Peace Corps way, strange things happen. I learned what American core values I hold most deeply and that sometimes, it is your job as a Peace Corps Volunteer to speak up. People do listen. Tolerance can be taught in the right educational setting. Working with my counterpart on issues surrounding inclusivity and the youth population has been the most rewarding challenge of my life. In the end, I count myself incredibly lucky to have experienced the rich cultural landscape of Macedonia and I cannot wait to see how it moves forward and grows.