ESC GREEN FINGERS – spring volunteering team 2023 testimonies (part 2)

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From April 19 to June 4th, twelve volunteers from eight countries participated in the Green Fingers project, making up the spring volunteering team of the European Solidarity Corps

Volunteers Mireille (Egypt), Aurelie and Nathanael (France), Verena(Germany), Keivan (Italy), Hassan and Houda (Morocco), Ankica (North Macedonia), Csilla (Romania), Nadia (Serbia), Jose and Julia (Spain) carried out activities in primary schools in Zagreb and Vrbovac: gardening in the school gardens of partner primary schools, renovated the school lake into a Trnoslav garden, and cleaned tiles from grass and maintaining greenery area in primary school Davorin Trstenjak, organized and held an Intercultural evening, organized and held personal projects as part of the Garden Festival at Dobriša Cesarić elementary school, and held several workshops for students in two elementary schools (Zagreb and Vrbovec). The program provided different avenues for volunteers to embrace and try on different activities, from working on the immediate project tasks to enjoying hiking to Medvednica, watching birds in Maksimir (organized and implemented by NGO BIOM), and participating in educational activities to raise awareness of the importance of bees and planting honey plants for bees (organized by NGO BINGO).

  After completing my engineering studies, I desired a completely different experience instead of diving straight into the working world. I had contemplated volunteering for quite some time and had heard about the personal and societal benefits it brings. Consequently, I began actively searching for opportunities, and by chance, I stumbled upon the Green Fingers project. After thoroughly reading the infopack, my interest to participate was greatly piqued. Following a successful oral interview, Jasmina, our supervisor, informed me that I had been accepted. That day will forever hold a special place in my memory; I was overwhelmed with happiness and enthusiasm.

During my volunteering days in Zagreb, I had the opportunity to explore new experiences, such as gardening in schools and working with children, which left a profound impact on me. Additionally, my stay at the hostel allowed me to meet individuals from diverse nationalities, enabling me to broaden my horizons and gain a deeper understanding of different cultures around the world. The time I spent with my fellow volunteers was priceless; we shared laughter, joyful screams, and created unforgettable memories.

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I firmly believe that the OAZA organization successfully achieved its goal of combating stereotypes and encouraging individuals to embrace the world’s diversity.

Moreover, my stay in Zagreb gave me the chance to visit remarkable cities such as Samobor in Croatia, Ljubljana, and Bled in Slovenia. These experiences will forever remain etched in my mind. I would like to extend my warmest regards to Mile, Jasmina and Igor, the hostel owner.

                                               – Houda, Morocco

  All good things must come to an end. But let’s start from the beginning, shall we? How did I end up on a volunteering project in Croatia? 

I’ve always wanted to do an ESC project, however the ones who piqued my interest were always long-term (6-months to a year) which never worked with my schedule.

Then, one gloomy February day I was scrolling through the ESC app and there it was – Green Fingers Spring 2023 – gardening and education…

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…for a month and a half that spring…and in Zagreb – one of my favourite cities in the world. It was ideal – I had to apply. An application form, an interview and a few emails back and forth later – everything was set, I’m doing this ESC project in Zagreb!

Zagreb and its “there hasn’t been a spring like this in 20 years” weather

I arrived in Zagreb a few days before the beginning of our mobility, to acclimate and catch up with old friends. The city was charming and welcoming as ever, with little events in every corner for everyone’s taste. And I mean EVERYONE’S. During the mobility, we went to a few flea markets, six different festivals, three international nights, danced in numerous pubs, clubs and streets, swam in Jarun, which is apparently “faux pas” for people living in Zagreb, tried playing two (for me) new sports, the list goes on…The weather on the other hand, seemed to have confused April for November. It was merely 10 degrees Celsius and raining non-stop. I consoled myself “this is typical for early April, it will get better”…but, boy was I wrong! The rain followed us throughout the whole mobility, which, on the bright side, taught us to appreciate the few days of sunshine we got. And at the end of the day, if the company is right, everything else is trivial. But before I talk about the company, a few words about the reason we all got there.

Green Fingers and OAZA’s oasis

Since I arrived early in the morning, I had a few hours to kill before being able to check into the hostel. Jasmina, our lovely supervisor, took me to the OAZA’s office – and from the moment I entered it suddenly made sense why they called their organisation OAZA (the Croatian’s word for oasis) – it’s a green haven in the centre of the capital. Friendly environment and even friendlier people, good vibes, over 100 plants peeking from every corner, and the cherry on top – the rooftop. Another positive thing about the rain – if it weren’t raining almost all the time, I would’ve probably never left that rooftop. The first few days of the project were filled with typical “first days” activities – small talk, ice breakers, city tour, logistics, intro to the project, vegetarianism and ESC. At the end of the first week, we got to visit one of the school gardens and officially start with our gardening activities. Throughout the mobility we fixed a garden pond and successfully returned the fish to their renovated home (with zero casualties that is!), planted some beautiful flowers, and most of all, learned that 90% of gardening isn’t just planting new plants – but rather maintaining what’s already there. On one of the last days of activities, we helped organise a Garden festival in one of the schools – and it was bittersweet, both seeing the fruit of our labour from the past month and a half come to life, but at the same time realising it’s the end. To make it more dynamic, besides gardening, every now and then we’d also have other random activities – a few of my favourites being: birdwatching in Park Maksimir (where I saw my first wood nuthatch!), visiting a bee collective for Bee day (where we learned about the way bees live, planted some plants for the bees, and in return got free honey!), and our intercultural night. Untypical for projects like this one, the intercultural night was organised on the second week of the mobility, while we were still getting to know each other. Collectively preparing the food in the hostel that random Tuesday was one of the best spontaneous team building activities we could’ve done and that was the exact moment I started feeling like I was truly part of the group. 

The thing why I consider this project one of the best decisions of my life

I’ve been doing European projects since I was 15 – both as a participant, leader and organiser. And in these eight years of experience, I have never seen a more accepting, tolerant, peaceful, wholesome and loving group. As a more introverted person, I often feel unnoticed and left out in group settings, but not this time, not for a single moment. From day one everyone was so inviting and eager to involve others in their activities, simultaneously respecting their need for alone time. I’ll use two instances to capture how wholesome the group was. First, the emphasis people put on having a good time together over winning. Once we played pool, and even though some of us were extremely bad at it, we were encouraged to play, treated as equals and weren’t let to miss our turn just because we wouldn’t bring any value to the team. After years of being told “I’m bad at sports and should sit this one out” it was like a breath of fresh air to experience this. And I hope people realise the positive impact they leave by doing simple gestures like that and continue to do so. The second instance that truly shows the pure nature of our group is the fact that we practically “adopted” another two volunteers that were cleaning the hostel – a Dutch and an American. And even though they weren’t part of our gardening activities, they’d join us for our extracurriculars and be a “constant” we could return to at the end of a long day. So unofficially, I’d say there were 13 of us from ten different countries :)). Saving the best for last, I’d like to briefly mention the Croatian coast road trip we took for our last break. From the turbulent beginning and the bittersweet end to the mesmerising beaches and the spontaneous dance party at that street food festival we randomly stumbled upon…those five days will forever be a reminder for me that this life is worth living. 

Having said all that, I feel like the perception of Zagreb is forever destroyed for me, as Zagreb will never be as beautiful as it was during those two months of spring ‘23. :’)

What should you take from reading this?

If you are looking for a short-term ESC project and have even the slightest interest or curiosity in gardening and working with school children – do it. Some of the volunteers will most likely become lifelong friends, you will cross paths with some very interesting guests at the hostel, there won’t be a single dull moment gardening with Jasmina and Mile, you’ll get a lot of random snacks, both in the office and in the school gardens (1 love teta Kata <3), and of course – you’ll get to learn a thing or two about gardening and spend some time with very smart primary school children. Aaand worst case scenario – if you don’t like it (which I highly doubt) – it’s less than two months – you’ll survive. 

If you are a funder or any other type of supporter of this project – your support is greatly appreciated! We definitely need more funds and support for projects like this one, so many thanks for your initiative. Feel free to contact me for further elaboration.

PS. Everyone involved in organising this project should get a pay raise :))

                                                                                                                        – Ankica, North Macedonia

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 I was one of those lucky volunteers who participated in the ESC Green Fingers volunteering team project in Zagreb, Croatia in April-May and beginning of June 2023. For almost 2 months 11 volunteers from various European and non-European countries lived and volunteered together. Team volunteering projects are part of the European Solidarity Corps program and gives young people from 18 to 30 the opportunity to gain valuable skills while volunteering in a different country in the company of other people from various countries.

I decided to take part in the project because I wanted to do something useful, I wanted to experience living in Zagreb, I wanted to get to know new cultures and possibly gain new skills or develop the ones I had already and step out of my comfort zone. I can say that during my stay in Zagreb all of it had happened: I think it was useful working in the garden during the project, like reconstructing a little pond for fish, weeding, cleaning up the school garden and performing other little tasks. While working in the garden, I had the chance to have a look on how a fish pond is structured, I had the chance to try gardening tools which I haven’t used before, and it was amazing to spend time outside, to work outside.

Another thing we did was to hold workshops for school children, where they could learn something new or just have fun with foreign people. For example, I had the chance to hold a workshop on how to do some origami figures, which I enjoyed a lot and it gave me the chance to step out of my comfort zone. At some point we also participated in an event called Garden festival, where the volunteers were responsible for some activities for the kids, like bowling (made out of plastic bottles), wishing tree (made out of plastic bottles as well), and creating small insect hotels.

Getting to know new cultures has happened as well: not only that in the volunteers’ group there were people coming from non-European countries like Morocco or Egypt, but living in a hostel gave us the chance to meet people from other further places like the US, Australia. Living together with these people helped us to get to know each other’s cultures better, to dive deeper into our backgrounds. And in addition, we had the chance to organize a Intercultural night, where we not only learned facts about other cultures, but we had the chance to taste some of our foods which we prepared beforehand.

There were additional activities organized by our hosting organization, which made our stay more colorful: we had the chance to discover Zagreb’s surroundings when we went for a hike, there was the chance for us to join yoga sessions and recharge, and also we went to a FloraArt where we could see different types of plants. In addition to this, in our free time we had the chance to discover Zagreb, to join events, to go out. All in all, I can say that our stay in Zagreb has enriched our lives with various things, amongst which can be found the friendships we made, the experiences and conversations we had, the skills we gained.

                                                 – Csilla, Romania

 It was my first decision to sign up for the ESC project and go somewhere to volunteer.

I grew up in a small village near Novi Sad. I spent much of my life with my parents working in the garden. Gardening and working with children attracted me to apply for the Green Fingers project. Although slightly withdrawn, I decided on this experience in Zagreb. Arriving and meeting the team from OAZE was a great pleasure. In addition, the stay in Zagreb was very pleasant. A particular part that I liked was the vegetarian challenge. Namely, I have been a vegetarian practically since birth, so I had the opportunity to share my experiences with others. Another part I liked was working with children in schools. Since I went to a small school, working with children in a big city was a great experience. Although I did not have a personal project, it was a pleasant experience to help other volunteers with the implementation of their personal projects during the Garden festival.

In addition, my experience working in the garden significantly contributed to the acceptance of project activities and work in school gardens. Living in a hostel with other volunteers and guests broadened my horizons because I learned a lot about other cultures and nationalities.

I recommend every young person to decide on some form of volunteering because it gives great satisfaction on all levels.

                                                      – Nadia, Serbia

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  I volunteered for almost 2 months in Croatia in the city of Zagreb, in a project called Green Fingers, within the European Solidarity Corps.

My stay in Croatia has been very different from what I am used to in Spain, I live in a small city and taking the leap and moving to a city of almost 1 million people impacted me a bit at first. But it does not mean that I did not like it, The city has enchanted me for its historic Upper Town, The Lotrščak TowerBan Josip Jelačić Statue and the presidential palace.

It has been a very enriching experience, although especially at the beginning of the experience and making new friends can be difficult.

But it’s about moving on and being patient with yourself to get through the adjustment time.

For me to build new relationships and my stay in Croatia was not very difficult and I quickly established my comfort zone by creating good relationships with friends of different nationalities. Although our cultures and ways of living were quite different.

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Human relationships have been very important. They represented my second family and a source of learning in your day to day, at work, at lunch, in free time and on the trips we organized.

Differing opinions and seeing things with the eyes of others bring you closer to different cultures and civilizations and will make you more open to the world helping you grow personally and see the world from another perspective.

In fact, this happened to me and I want to thank all the people I met of different nationalities French, Romanian, Egyptian and many more.

My tasks in the project were divided into two different areas, Maintenance of gardens in two gardens of two schools in which we helped with their maintenance and built a pond with fish and also did activities with the children of the schoolsGarden festival in which we prepare among all activities to do with the children of a school to make a festival for the end of school.

All of that was an opportunity to boost my self-confidence and find a way to be effective and successful in any assigned task.

So, lived, I would say that the most important thing is to believe in yourself and if you want to do something you have to follow that feeling, always make an effort, challenge yourself, learn things and overcome the challenges that come your way, because volunteer experiences will inevitably make you a more competent person and able to adapt to any environment in which you find yourself.

To you who have read this, I invite you to live a similar experience, you will not regret it.

                                                          – Jose, Spain

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  I spent 51 days in Zagreb and I can say that it was one of the best experiences in my life. I finished my master, I had found a job and everything seemed to be perfect. On January 2023, my company decided not to renew my contract so I have to ask myself, now what? I had heard about volunteering projects but I had never dug deeper. After searching through numerous projects, I found one that really matched what I was looking for. I wanted to work with children, trying gardening and learn more about environmental issues and sustainability. When OAZA gave me the opportunity I I knew that this dream had only just begun. 

I moved to Zagreb on 14th of April. I had to share a nice hostel with 11 more people. And not only the hostel, also the work space and all the activities. 

It was a challenge. It was amazing how since the beginning we connect perfectly each other. We were from different countries but we did our best to understand the others culture and manners.

During one month and a half we shared everything and we didn´t have any important problem. Meeting them, was the best thing of the project and without them, nothing would not have been the same.

Thanks to being part of this project, I have been able to experience activities that otherwise I would not have tried. Each day, it was a different one. We worked in school gardens, we planted flowers and trees, cut the grass, watered the flowers, cleaned natural spaces and even we made a pond! Furthermore, we had the opportunity to do workshops with the kids discovering amazing children. 

When I knew that the project was taking place in Zagreb, I didn´t know anything about Croatian culture beyond a few pictures of the coast and beaches. At the end of the mobility, I discovered a country with an incredible cultural richness, a high amount of natural spaces and an exquisite gastronomic culture. I will never forget the sir bureks! Also, living 24 hours with my mates (and friends) has also allowed me to learn much more about their culture, eliminating prejudices and stereotypes about their countries.

After having lived one of the best and enriching experiences of my life, it only remains for me to thank the European Solidarity Corps, all the people who are part of OAZA and who made this activity possible and all the people that I could meet during the jouney. You have changed my life and every time I hear the name Zagreb a smile comes to my face. See you on the road!

                                                       – Julia, Spain

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Udruga O.A.ZA
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