by Larisa Nechita
Reprinted from “The Ohio Connection,” Summer 2020.
I was always a huge fan of the Erasmus+ program, first as a student and then as a youth worker, because it opens new learning and traveling opportunities. This program creates a multicultural environment that encourages interaction and communication. Basically, youngsters take part in exchanges in order to continue their studies in foreign learning institutions or to enhance their soft skills through non-formal education.
As a student, I had the chance to study one year in Italy at Università di Bologna, where I learned Italian, and then moved on to Université Libre de Bruxelles in Belgium to improve my French competency. I gained so many skills from this program in my two years of studying languages abroad that I didn’t want my Erasmus experiences to end. I decided to take part in short-term youth exchanges that last around a week, with the emphasis on non-formal methods used for tackling current global issues.
Some of my Erasmus traveling included Poland, Montenegro, and Spain. I was impressed that in such a short time we were able to boost our soft skills like creativity, adaptability, teamwork, leadership, and interpersonal skills. A bookworm myself, I discovered that we can learn while having fun and that, for a successful career, we need the right combination of soft and hard skills. It is true that non-formal education is not fully integrated in the academic curriculum, but I think that it can provide excellent long-term results if combined with the right formal learning methods.
After noticing the strengths of this program as a participant, I became a youth worker, presenting workshops about disability or creating language and assistive technology courses for the visually impaired community. I recently started a fruitful collaboration with IPV Constanta, a non-governmental organization that believes in the same values as I do. I manage writing projects and create high quality content for the youth. All our actions have as key points intercultural understanding, constant involvement and volunteering, characteristics that guide us in our work. Our opinion is that education represents a turning point in young people’s lives. Poverty or other social issues must not be an obstacle to education, so we support physical and emotional health through activities that encourage social inclusion, personal care, and self-esteem. We pay special attention to people with disabilities because the invaluable resources they contribute have not been appreciated in Romania. In 2017, IPV Constanta opened the first Romanian beach accessible to people with disabilities, and the project won two national awards. Each one of us can improve our communities through personal initiatives and volunteering.
Our adventure started when Unigrowth Development, an experienced Armenian NGO, was looking for a Romanian partner in order to create a two-part youth exchange with the aim to make the target group more employable. The project, titled “Employable,” got me approved and financed by the European Commission. For the first time I would see the Erasmus+ program from a trainer’s perspective. Together with my close friend Anda, who is the legal representative of IPV Constanta, we selected eight participants and were ready to go to Dilijan, a splendid mountain region of Armenia. Another member in our group was of course Tina, my guide dog, who is always ready for exciting trips — but was Armenia ready for her?
Our first destination was Yerevan, the Armenian capital, where we spent a day before meeting our partners. The city was getting ready for Christmas, and the decorations created a festive atmosphere. We visited the city center, a few tourist spots, and stopped at a nice café. Of course, nobody wanted a service dog in a church, museum, or café, so I had to negotiate my rights over and over. It had become a custom, so it was not as exhausting as it used to be. The notion of a service dog was foreign to almost everyone that I met, but communication is key, and we made it through. Knowing the situation in Romania and Eastern Europe in general, I could somehow work out what awaited us.
We left for Dilijan, where we met the Armenian team. For a week we lived in a cottage as a family consisting of 16 young people from both countries and four facilitators. Being such a small group, we got close. This is the advantage of small projects; people get connected at a deeper level. It was no surprise that everybody fell in love with Tina at first sight. I told them about our adventures in Yerevan and we agreed that the lack of information may make people skeptical when it comes to service animals.
The working sessions started, and our young participants were ready to find out how to become more employable. As facilitators, we had the responsibility to keep their motivation high and not let them get bored. We started by analyzing the current situation of the work market in both countries, moving on to describe the importance of soft skills. Every activity focused on teamwork, problem-solving skills, and flexible thinking. Everybody was encouraged to leave their comfort zone and to get involved in debates and role playing. In fact, the participants were the real stars of the project, because we only had to guide them in their work, leaving them the space and time to reflect about what they learned.
Days were dedicated to work and nights to fun. We danced in a few neighboring pubs where Tina was the center of attention. She was lying down next to a chair, watching the dance floor, and everybody was calling her “shunik,” the Armenian word for puppy. When we were not dancing, we were walking down Dilijan’s snow-filled streets.
Two evenings were planned by the participants from both countries. From Romania, we brought stories about Dracula and of course traditional food and drinks. The Armenians introduced us to their culture, and I found out so many new things. Did you know that chess is taught in schools from a young age? Maybe that’s why there are so many Armenian champions. If I had known that, I would have brought my accessible chess board. Other sports where Armenian talent is recognized are wrestling and weightlifting. Another interesting fact is that there are more Armenians living abroad than in the country — over 5 million abroad versus 3 million inhabitants.
My favorite part of the evening was tasting staples of Armenian cuisine. Lavash is their traditional bread, but nothing compares with Ararat, Armenian cognac, which is the pride of the country. Winston Churchill simply adored it; I think he had great taste!
Tina enjoyed playing in the snow and taking a break from work during our trainings. Every morning I would take her outside, and the staff from the cottage were scared at first, saying that I shouldn’t go out by myself and that someone from the group should help me. How dare they leave me alone! Watching carefully, they saw how Tina guided me and were left speechless.
The last day was scheduled in Yerevan, and this time I made sure that I was better prepared for refusals. My friends taught me the Armenian words for “This is an assistance dog.” We stopped at the same café and nearby shop as the first day and the staff there knew that Tina was allowed to enter. People are understanding if they are informed. Their first reaction is not surprising since they rarely see visually impaired people on the streets with a cane or a dog. Everybody appreciated my well-studied Armenian vocabulary. I would advise all travelers to learn a few words in the local language because a basic vocabulary can get you out of lots of trouble. Wandering around to buy souvenirs, there was no way we could enter a shopping area, the major cause being Tina. We had no choice but to talk to the manager. He didn’t want to hear any explanation, in spite of my charming Armenian pronunciation. Finally, we reached a compromise. We can enter if we promise that the dog won’t bite or bark. He was watching us closely, worried about Tina scaring the clients. After an hour, though, he told us that we can stay longer if we like.
Armenia is worth visiting because the people are easygoing, the food and drinks are excellent, and wherever you go, there is an amazing story about the past. We are looking forward to welcoming the Armenian participants to Romania, where the second part of the project will take place, this time by the sea. In this part, they will learn how to prepare a good CV and cover letter for their future job. All their work and efforts will be finally recognized by Youthpass, a European certificate which becomes more and more appreciated by employers.
I am sure that this won’t be my last Erasmus experience as a trainer. I am already working on new ideas and projects to inform people about the rights and needs of the visually impaired community. The Armenian participants have told me that it was their first time interacting with a disabled person and that I am a real inspiration. I am so glad that they appreciated my work!
I have many friends who participated in Erasmus projects dealing with physical or intellectual limitations, but there were no participants with disabilities. Through my future projects, I want to encourage young disabled people to travel more and get involved in youth exchanges in order to make themselves seen. We as a community are responsible for the way in which others perceive us. We can’t complain that we are rejected if we don’t try to be included. We can’t complain that our needs are not taken into consideration if we don’t promote them. And we certainly can’t complain that we have no friends if we don’t have the courage to leave our comfort zone.