Vtami Sobowk “So Good”

May 4, 2011 at 10:07 pm (Uncategorized)

As we are coming to an end, I have some questions.

I firmly believe in Friere’s concept of praxis, where social change occurs through equality between reflection and action.

Throughout my time in Timisoara, I have done just this – through a participatory action research perspective, I have tried my very best to develop an observatory lens which I also engage in open conversation and participate entirely in the daily lives of the refugees.

I have joined in the overwhelming joy of winning a vicious game of volleyball, the challenges of learning English slang, the tragedy of family members left behind, and the hope of a new life to come.

Questions along the way to ponder:

Does humanity have a natural-born resiliency inside, where you have to just firmly believe and it will happen?

Is love entirely about sacrifice for the other?

How does one become fully engaged while still keeping the others’ needs at the forefront?

Is claiming you have no knowledge the most knowledgeable of all?

Is love culturally founded or culturally bound?

As you ponder these questions, or simply breeze over them, I would encourage you to continue to ask questions. Through challenges, critical thinking, examining, and reflecting, we grow.

I would also challenge you to ask me questions. Ask me about my journey, ask me about my stories, ask me about these beautiful people.

As often as most traveling adventures, the amount I have learned from these people is more than I could ever return the favor. The rewards of joining them in an Easter dinner, listening to their glorious voices in faithful praise, uplifting the limited resources I have to aid them in their journey to the States, and ultimately seeing the true value of community… all of these rewards are priceless and incomprehensible.

But stories need words, and I’d love to try.


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Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of ‘Happiness’

April 26, 2011 at 11:11 pm (Uncategorized)

I find myself at loss for words.

All good autobiographies or nonfictional pieces usually start with this phrase. Unfortunately, I simply cannot find other words to substitute.

The happiness found within the borders of the UNHCR, what the local taxi drivers call “the refugee home,” in Timisoara, Romania, is none like I have ever known before.

After spending many years unjustly in prison, in horrible and inhumane conditions, and upon arrival at a nice, first-world, globally-funded institute, one would immediately ask for aid. Perhaps ask for clothes? Ask for food? Ask for better blankets? Ask for more trips to the city? Ask for immediate departure to their resettlement country? Ask for a more rapid transition?


There is absolutely no entitlement complex among any of these individuals.

I was previously enlightened to the fact that within the United States, we have an entitlement of happiness. This becomes this issue, this disease, that I myself have also bought into, that many cultures do not even think about. The fact that I deserve to be happy in this world – that I deserve happiness.

The commercialism of “I need this to be happy” or “this isn’t fair” has swept the US and its various countries only to instill this understanding that happiness should be and will be immediately awarded to me.

… among these are  Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness…

Never have I heard “this isn’t fair.”

Although their circumstance is not fair, not just, not humane, not validated in any way, these people wake up every morning with a smile on their face, hopeful of the future of their new lives in America, of their families lives back home, of their global community at large.

Think about it.

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True Beauty

April 22, 2011 at 6:53 am (Uncategorized)

“How do you stay looking so young?”

“It is oh so very simple! You just smile.”

Although this may seem like a quite common, perhaps even cliché, response within the context of Oprah’s last closing remarks or the introduction to a “Tuesdays with Morie” type-of book. But not for someone who has faced persecution, family death, discontent, little acceptance, displacement and tragedy.

These were, however, the words of one of the refugees at the UNHCR, one of the most beautiful women I know.

This week 30 Eritreans fleeing Lybia were bombarded by a full set of photographers, journalists, and varying media representatives, covering the UNHCR camp with a bunch of ignorance, indifference and cigarette buds.

After facing years of such hardships, these refugees made their way to Romania to be transitioned into other countries that would assist and transition the Eritreans to a better life abroad, away from political and social persecution. The mannerism in which the story was conveyed across news releases (Google’s example) was absolutely appalling; representatives of different media sources left the press conference in order to interview different refugees. The insensitivity of this process, insisting on specific details was not in order to ‘unveil the truth,’ but simply to get an entertaining story.

I would encourage the members of the media and those across Timisoara to come to the UNHCR emergency center and play an intense game of soccer, sit down in the grass and discuss Eritrean culture, and learn how to play a new card game.

Only then will you find the true stories; only then will you discover true beauty in humanity.

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Millennium Challenge Corporation

April 21, 2011 at 9:16 am (Uncategorized)

In 2004, the United Nations established a defined list of Millennium Goals, in which they confronted the global powers with elements of human trafficking, poverty, women’s rights, HIV/AIDS and general social justice issues. Through these goals, the hope of the UN would be each country would address each of these issues in a practical way by 2015.

With this, the United States created the Millennium Challenge Corporation, which establishes its domain in 20 countries worldwide. This American corporation’s main objectives are to fight poverty and corruption, keeping the UN Millennium Goals in mind. They create this specifically through financial leverage so the government can begin to change and reform can start within the power of authority.

Our recent visit to the US Embassy in Moldova (for some of you at home: yes, Moldova is in fact a country, bordering Romania and Ukraine) shed much light to this project within a country that is the second largest recipient of foreign aid.

Around $300 million of US tax-payers are going straight into such projects. Currently the MCC is undergoing two threshold objectives: a road rehabilitation project and a transitional irrigation and agricultural project.

The two most impressive aspects to these projects (besides the high amount of foreign aid the US is investing into this country that honestly, many Americans have no idea even exists) are the effective use of funds and the involvement of the Moldovan citizens in social change.

The MCC has created the MCA-Moldova association, establishing somewhat of a “start-up company” made up of Moldovan citizens for such projects, monitored by the US. This seems to be a very effective investment, since the MCC is in authoritative guidance while the actual citizens of the country are learning elements of Western partnership, country ownership, effective business management, communicative success and the incorporation of their own cultural values. All of these understandings are complimented through this dual relationship, being accomplished through US funding and investment.

Through our time in Moldova, we were able to see where and how the projects were going to be established in order to timely reach the 2015 goal. Driving along the roads of Chisinau (Moldova’s central city), the positive effects of the road rehabilitation project were clearly evident.

I have found, through my professional work and academic research in the realm of nonprofits, that many times the passion of the individual or the organization has the possibility to outweigh the results of the work. Many times, the emotional ties to the cause itself can actually inhibit results for the cause.

Here, this is definitely not the case; months upon months have been assessed in order to successfully plan the appropriate projects and operations in order to achieve a high amount of economic rate of return. This was an incredibly refreshing perspective; sometimes we need to put aside our emotions and passionate connections and concentrate on how to effectively impact these people, with their own ideas, values and country in mind.

Our time in Moldova was incredibly enlightening to recognize the American impact on the lives of these citizens. Ultimately, we must all discover where our knowledge lies and how to best accomplish tasks for humanity’s greater good based on these recognitions. As I learned through my experience with the MCC, ‘The Beginner’ holds much power; understanding the areas you are in least knowledge and thereby asking for this knowledge is powerful.

As John most eloquently phrased it, “Some of the smartest people I know… they know what they don’t know.”

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April 20, 2011 at 7:06 pm (Uncategorized)

I would spend the afternoon with Dragos Racoveanu any day.

Try spending a 3-hour conversation in a small, Romanian town, at the bottom of Dracula’s Castle, sipping on local boiled wine, consuming (too rapidly, I might add) the most amazing Shepard’s pie of your life, followed closely by sweet cheese pie and home-made chocolate ice cream… talking to Dragos Racoveanu.

Our meal at the Restaurant Bran Parc in Bran, Brasov will definitely remain to be a highlight of our traveling adventures.

After starting in mechanical engineering and recognizing the challenges of nuclear involvement, Dragos developed his dream of creating an amazing, local, open restaurant with his son (now age 30). For him, the importance is looking beyond the atmosphere, music and food, but looking at the book-keeping, fulfilling relationships and having nothing to hide.

Dragos has recognized the good and wholeness in everything. Despite the local sentimentality of Gypsies in the area, Dragos proudly holds copper kettles made by these local individuals in his kitchen. He displays them at the opening of his restaurant with uplifted praise.

Along the way, he also discovered much about love, of which I will hold close to my heart and hope to share with you. Love isn’t about sacrificing everything for the other; it’s about celebrating each other’s individuality and passion – celebrating it together.

Wisdom at it’s finest.

It isn’t about the big restaurants, the famous sites, the overwhelming commercialism; it’s about the small restaurants, the real, genuine people of the country. That’s what culture is all about; true relationships and the sharing of beautiful life stories.

Thank you, Dragos, for showing me what it is like to follow your dreams.

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University Day

April 15, 2011 at 3:25 pm (Uncategorized)

“All wars come from the United States – this, we all know to be true.”

University learning doesn’t stop at George Fox University; nor does it stop at Gonzaga.

The Tibiscus University of Timisoara is one of the central, private universities within the city of Timisoara, Romania.

Here, students of all backgrounds – political, socio-economic, age, race, country of origin – come together to be educated.

We had the prime opportunity to connect with such students in the Communications and Public Relations Department. Upon being placed before a class-filled room of a diverse group of about 30 students, intimidation of language and difference of culture and experience immediately ensued.

Despite the obvious differences, the communication between cultures, perspectives and understandings were extremely beneficial and enlightening.

Conversations arose of war, politics, cultural miscommunications, the importance of travel, and the distinguishing of a country and its people. Needless to say, it was extremely enlightening.

Immediately following our conversation, we were met by a friendly invitation to join some of the students to the local coffee shop.

I was overwhelmed by their generosity, hospitality and conversation. One student acknowledged the challenge of living in her country, recently trying to regain prosperity after its rise against communism; she was faced with an opposing pull between her desire to remain with her family while assisting in her country’s development and the desire to find her passions and goals elsewhere, observing and experiencing the cultures beyond her own.

It was like looking through a mirror.

My mirrored image was directly in front of me, smoking a local Slim, spoke a different language, and drove an extremely nicer car.

The conversation ensued as I became more and more interested. Together, we learned about each other’s culture, from an open, real and peer perspective; student to student; 23 year old to 23 year old.

Next summer: Canary Islands with Mariann, my mirrored image.

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Acid-based Community Development

April 14, 2011 at 4:58 pm (Uncategorized)

“Acid-based community development.” … ensued by laughter

Although I did butcher this theory, I did come to the recognition of ASSET-based community development within the community of the Centrul de Reeducare Buzias.

This specific community, a Romanian facility assisting in the transition of at-risk youth back into society, held this theory to the highest regards. Unlike many authorities that would otherwise dismiss these individuals as “corrupt” or “harmful” members of society, this specific institute not only houses the youth into livable, adjustable facilities, but promotes their education and literacy, participation in local events and activities, involvement in sports and the arts (photography, ceramics, theatre, etc), and physiological development.

At the Centrul de Reeducare Buzias, every individual has something to contribute.

So easily, we dismiss these individuals. The homeless, criminals, felons, uneducated – we diminish these members of society and place them in continual dismissal.

At this center, every child has benefit; every child has a future; every child has value. When asked what they were going to do with their lives upon release from the 18-month transitional center (of which many would call more of a home than their abuse-driven and purposeless ‘homes’ in central Romania), two young boys answered, “continue school and complete my goals.”

All hold value; all have something to contribute. It now becomes our responsibility to not only see it, but believe it.


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World Clocks

April 10, 2011 at 10:00 pm (Uncategorized)

Apple’s most clever ‘invention:’ the world clock app.

Our recent flaw: our inability to use it.

The more I find myself in cross-cultural situations, the more I discover the importance of open communication to gain insight and understanding.

Upon arriving in Budapest, Hungary in our flight across seas, we changed our clocks to the current time.

Since then, many unique things have happened in due course… one of our very first evenings in Romania was spent in the presence of a group of colleagues, refugees, asylum seekers, and trafficking victims at the local, partnering nonprofit. Upon arrival to dinner, which was wonderfully and beautifully prepared in traditional Romanian dishes covering the tablecloth, we found everyone to be waiting around and the food on the table to be quite cold…

As some of you may have realized, our arrival in Timisoara was met with several small challenges, including my increasing illness. At one particular point, it was necessary for me to go to the city’s local Emergency Room, visiting a recommended doctor (cardiologist specialist) for further direction (which was a cultural experience in itself). Our plan was to meet one particular individual from the nonprofit who would accompany me to the hospital at exactly 6 pm. Walking back from the UNHCR around 5:40, we knew we had plenty of time before our arrival at 6 pm. About 5 minutes from our apartments, we were met by the frantic individual who motioned to get into the car, indicating the fact that we were running late and had made one of the clients late for her doctor’s appointment…

We are very fortunate here to receive breakfast every morning; Romanian breakfasts usually entail a very hearty, meat-centered morning, accompanied (always) by a loaf of bread – that is correct, a loaf. Every morning at the Pensuina E’Lana, breakfast is served from 8 am – 10 am. The chipper and constantly smiling individuals that make and serve breakfast also attend to the daily duties of maintaining the complex upon finishing breakfast. Every morning, we would wake up at ‘9 am’ to make it down in time before the closing of breakfast. After one morning, we were informed (very kindly) by one of the members of the staff that breakfast needed to be eaten earlier in order to finish the completion of certain chores before the afternoon…

As it so happens, Timisoara, Romania has a one hr time difference to Budapest, Hungary. For the previous week and a half, our cultural incompetence and lack of awareness was the cause of many cultural faux pas.

Needless to say, yesterday was filled with a list of individuals to obtain our sincere apologizes and cultural insensitivity. Every person we encountered simply shrugged and communicated in some way that they knew the situation and it was not a problem.

Next time, Apple, I’m going to use the app.


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Lost Luggage

April 5, 2011 at 9:01 am (Uncategorized)

Missing luggage for six days is nothing.

If there’s one thing I’ve learned thus far, it is the importance of gratitude.

My lost luggage did not contain any vital legal documentation that offered my only form of identification, did not keep any certificates that granted me only a limited time of ‘safe’ cross-border travel, did not hold my only possessions…

This was the case, however, for a refugee we recently met, hoping to rejoin her family elsewhere.

Her gratitude with what little assistance the UNHCR could offer was obviously present through her smile. She sat calm, collective, familiar to adaptability, foreign to settlement, and extremely grateful.

Although this individual has the hope of reaching her family, many do not. Many Eritreans must face the rejection of dozens of countries, must be forced to imprisonment among various neighboring countries due to improper documentation, or even be immediately deported back to their country of origin, facing imprisonment, torture or death.

Yes, my lost luggage can wait another six days.


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Welcome to Timisoara

April 3, 2011 at 1:29 pm (Uncategorized)

The point of this blog isn’t necessarily to inform you of every single detail within experience, including you day by day and hour by hour into my experiences. But to provide you, my audience, with a glimpse into the insight and lives and culture that I am currently living. For you to see the day by day and hour by hour, I would instead encourage you to purchase a flight over to Timisoara, Romania, and experience it for yourself.

In the meantime, I will offer up this minuet glimpse.

Who was the author of the quote that read (somewhat along these lines) the road to self-discovery is a long one. Well, I would challenge that author and suggest that the road to Timisoara is much longer.

After two days of traveling, by obnoxious plane and bumpy van, we finally made it to Timisoara, Romania… without luggage. And of course, I am very, very sick. I went to bed the night before traveling feeling very sick and managed to make it to Urgent Care before I left, but unfortunately the flight fatigue, traveling, and the going since upon arrival has left me very sick.

It has only been 4 days, and I would venture to say within seconds that I would go through that experience millions of times over again to experience what I have already experienced here and met the people I have recently met over here.

In keeping record with my previous blog post, some of the most life-altering conversations happen over the dinner table; by the way, this holds the same value across the country.

Our adventures during the day were met with amazing conversation at night.

Our second night here was met with an introduction to the GTR, a local nonprofit that partners directly with the UNHCR and helps sex trafficking victims in their transition out of the industry and into better lives. Upon introduction earlier that day, Mariana (a middle-aged, grandma-like figure, who has the authoritative directivity of a member of the army, who runs the organization) invited us to dinner the following night with fellow colleagues and several victims of the mistreatment of social justice, particularly in Northern Africa (Libya, Tunisia, Algeria).

First the food: The presentation was beautiful – meats (breaded veal mostly), cheese and grapes, stuffed garlic mushrooms, deviled eggs (with some incredible mustard-like seasoning), and a dilled-like lentil soup. Everything was very traditional and very delicious.

The stories shared that night (sometimes translated through three different languages) were enlightening. People traveling throughout countries, receiving little help, no help at all, or automatically being thrown into prison; people without identity, due to conflicting countries and governments; people sold without knowledge or protest.

It was so much to process and so many tragedies that it was hard to take in, and still remains so much so that I can barely convey each story in writing.

What I was able to take in, and what I will hence share with you, is the relationships established between these individuals and Mariana. One particular Tunisian gentleman, eager to share his story (for many unfolding hours), conveyed his overwhelming gratitude, acknowledging that Mariana was the only person who would not only help him in his situation but would actually listen to his story among three or four different countries.

Upon her recognition that there is much to be done in the nonprofit realm, specifically in her area of work, she suggested one thing regarding work in humanitarian aid: It’s a choice, not a profession.

Going into the nonprofit field of work, I uphold this mentality for my future. Just as relationships are a choice, just as fighting back is a choice, just as raising awareness is a choice, just as coming to Timisoara was a choice.

Right now, I choose to listen.


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