In the Jan/Feb issue of 2016, we featured Lake Mary High grad Hilary Richardson, a Peace Corps volunteer in Albania. Hilary is nearing the end of her two-year service, so we decided to catch up with her and reflect on her experience thus far.
In this Q&A, get to know Hilary and see what she’s been up to!
Give us an update on the work you’ve been doing with Albania’s municipality government as well as your involvement with teaching English and working on LGBTQ issues and awareness.
During 2016, I spent a large portion of my time working with a group of students for the Lushnje Youth Council. The group was requested by my municipal government. The purpose of the group is to give youth a voice in the community and for them to plan and implement community projects. With this amazing group of high school students, we completed many projects including environmental cleanup projects, a day of positive encouragement, an anti-bullying day presentation, and a community wide food and clothing drive to help families in need in our city.
We meet weekly to plan projects and also do life skills lessons. In regards to teaching English, I have been tutoring a local 9th grade student who is a very talented singer and well-known in Albania. It is a lot of fun and we often just practice speaking and reading song lyrics. In May of 2016, I along with many Peace Corps Volunteers and the US Ambassador to Albania participated in a Pride bicycle ride/march to help raise awareness to the LGBTQ community in Albania. It was an amazing event and really brought a lot of attention to the issues faced by the LGBTQ community in Albania.
Have you discovered a passion or pet project while in service with the Peace Corps? Tell me about your work with Girl Scouts in Albania.
In my time in Albania, I have realized how passionate I am about women’s issues and gender equality. It began when I became very aware of how women are viewed here in Albania. There have often been times where I have been the only woman in a meeting, café, or office. These experiences encouraged me and my colleague, Michelle, to pursue brining Girl Scouts to Albania. Since September 2015, we have been working diligently with the World Association of Girl Guides and Girl Scouts to build Albania into a member organization. We held a training for 14 Albanian women in August 2016 who then returned to their local communities to start troops. We have had a lot of success with the program and over 200 girls participating in the activities all over the country. We believe that Albania will be presented for official membership in the World Association of Girl Guides and Girl Scouts in the next few years.
Do you plan on coming back home? If so, when and and what are your plans for the future?
I complete my service in April and plan to take a small trip around to other Balkan countries before returning home. I plan to be back in Lake Mary in May I am currently in the process of looking for work in either local government/public sector institutions, international development, or gender relations field.
How have you been most impacted by living in an unfamiliar and foreign country?
Living in an unfamiliar and foreign country really opens your eyes to how Americans are viewed around the world. More often or not, I am asked about American stereotypes (we all eat fast food, we all have a lot of money, etc) and if they are true or not. It also makes you aware of how Americans are portrayed in the media – a lot of the young girls I work with think high school is just like how it is in the Vampire Diaries or Mean Girls. The biggest impact though, was learning how invested foreign people are in American politics. Almost every time I speak with an Albanian person, the election comes up as well as what I think of the candidates and who I want to win. It’s very interesting to hear their opinions as well.
What is the biggest cultural difference you’ve experienced between people from Albania and Americans?
This is a tough question. I think the biggest adjustment for me was how straight-forward Albanian people are. They are not afraid to comment if you are overweight, ask how much money you make, and ask many personal questions, especially about relationships. I have also experienced times when I lived in a small village where I would go down to the local park and then my host family would know I had been there because a cousin of theirs had seen me there. It took a lot of adjustment, but I have come to realize that they do these things because they are curious or because they care about you.
What have been your favorite experiences living in Albania and joining the Peace Corps?
My favorite experience about living in Albania was living on a farm in a small host village when I first arrived in country. I absolutely loved my host family and am still very close with them. Another favorite is being able to travel around the country and see the many different sites that other Peace Corps volunteers are in – many of which have centuries-old castles to explore. The landscape here has really encouraged me to become more outdoorsy as well, which has been awesome. Also, Peace Corps has introduced to so many different kinds of people both from America and Albania, who I know will be lifelong friends.
Can you share a few unique things about Albanian customs and traditions that most would not know about?
Albania has this old set of laws called the Kanun (can-noon) that were written back in the time of Illyrian tribes. It is simply a set of laws for people to live by, many of which are still practiced today, mainly in the north of Albania. Some interesting traditions that come from the Kanun are “besa” (bay-suh) honor and Gjakmarrja (gee-yak-marr-ee-a) also known as blood feuds. Besa is the high standard of honor that Albanians have and is shown mainly through their behaviors as hosts.
Albanians are amazing hosts to their guests and treat them as if they are part of the family. Oftentimes, if you spend the night at an Albanian person’s home, they will have you sleep in their bed while they might sleep on the floor. Gjakmarria is definitely a more ancient practice, but the latest data I have read in regards to the blood feuds says that there have been 1-2 murders a year due to these feuds. It is essentially all about revenge. If someone in your family is maimed or murdered, then it is your right to avenge that family member by going after the wrongdoer’s family. It is definitely one of the more fascinating aspects of Albanian culture and has become a popular subject for Albanian and other international films.
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