Over recent decades, volunteer activity has become an integral part of European life, where cohesion and solidarity in society are seen as key values. Participation in volunteer initiatives also helps to gain new experience and knowledge.
In Azerbaijan, this trend is still at the initial stages of development, but it is gradually attracting the attention of an increasing number of young people.
Thirty-three-year-old Gunel Isakova from the north-western region of Azerbaijan – Zaqatala – has led an active lifestyle since her youth, taking advantage of all the education and development opportunities that opened up to her.
While still at school, she took part in an exchange programme for schoolchildren in the USA, and after graduating from university in Baku, she couldn’t wait to continue exploring the world.
“I didn’t want to continue higher education right away, but I wanted to taste life, see the world, try to apply the knowledge and skills that I had acquired during my university years. And, of course, to get life experience,” says Gunel, recalling the events of 10 years ago.
An opportunity came to her almost immediately – friends from the ‘Yuva’ youth organisation were looking for a candidate to join a development programme abroad within a European Solidarity Corps project, volunteering at the Åland Islands Peace Institute in Finland.
“I agreed without hesitation! I have been working part-time since my student days, but earning money was not a priority for me at the time. I didn’t want to sit still, I wanted to move somewhere, to do something,” says Gunel. “I applied, and I was accepted.”
So, in 2011, at the age of 22, Gunel Isakova found herself on the Åland Islands, an autonomous province of Finland inhabited by Swedes. The archipelago is located in the Baltic Sea, with a population of about 25,000 people, and the official language on the island is Swedish.
“Everything was interesting. New people, the unique nature of the islands, my new responsibilities – it was all very exciting,” says Gunel, who spent a whole year on the island.
The Institute of Peace, where Gunel Isakova was registered as a volunteer, is an independent organisation with a 30-year history, which is engaged in theoretical research, education and awareness raising on peace and conflict resolution.
What was her work at the Institute of Peace?
Gunel was directly involved in research on gender equality and strengthening the role of women role. The project called ‘Open Doors’ was carried out in Baku on behalf of the Finnish ‘Institute of Peace’ with Azerbaijan’s youth organisation ‘Yuva’ as direct implementer.
“The work was very interesting. While in Finland, I coordinated the implementation of this project in Baku. A Centre for Girls was opened there, where they could learn English, computer literacy for free, and take part in group discussions on topical issues,” she says. “I had to coordinate communications, translate documents, compile brochures, and so on.”
“Towards the end of my stay in Finland, I was also involved in a project in the field of peacemaking – it was decided to hold a jazz concert called ‘Voices for Peace’ on the Åland Islands,” says Gunel.
Gunel recalls that she even had a chance to talk with the former President of Finland Tarja Halonen, who attended one of the conferences organised by the Institute of Peace.
What are benefits of volunteering?
“The age under 30 is a period in life when it is very important to invest in yourself as much as possible,” says Gunel. “Sometimes fortune sends you unexpected opportunities – most valuable educational programmes are offered for free. Refusing such opportunities is a crime!” she said.
“Volunteering has become an invaluable experience for me. It is no exaggeration to say that during the year in the Åland Islands I got acquainted with the world – new people, a new culture, I learned to live independently, to take responsibility for myself, for my life, for my well-being.
“I felt what tolerance in action means – it is when you are perceived with dignity, and without any prejudice. I saw at first hand how to solve various problems in another society. In particular, I was impressed by the caring attitude of people towards nature. But the main thing, perhaps, is the friendly ties that I have kept for years,” says Gunel.
Gunel advises young people in Azerbaijan not to miss such opportunities, since the experience of living in another country, and working on useful social activities help to develop important qualities such as insight, empathy, dedication, and the desire to make the world around them a little better.
Back in her homeland, Gunel’s experience in the Åland Islands became an incentive for further active involvement in socially oriented volunteer initiatives. She supports children from orphanages, assists youth centres in the exchange of schoolchildren, and even at her current work place she has joined her firm’s corporate social responsibility efforts, supporting small entrepreneurship among rural women of Azerbaijan.
What is the European Solidarity Corps?
The European Solidarity Corps is a multi–year programme funded by the European Union that that provides young people aged between 18 and 30 with an opportunity to volunteer in social projects. The purpose of the programme is to promote cohesion and solidarity, and the development of an active civil society.
Azerbaijan, along with other Eastern Partnership countries, has been involved in the programme since 2007. There are six youth organisations accredited with the European Solidarity Corps in the country, entrusted with receiving and sending young volunteers. The youth organisation ‘Sağlam düşüncə’ (which means “Common Sense”) is the most active among them.
“Young people from Azerbaijan can choose from a huge list of various volunteer programmes – from ecology and healthy lifestyle to human rights and gender issues. All announcements are posted on the common portal of the European Solidarity Corps, which everyone over the age of 18 has access to. One only needs to create an account,” says Ramiz Aliyev, a representative of ‘Sağlam düşüncə’.
“The open volunteer programmes may vary in duration – from two weeks to one year. All expenses are fully covered by the EU, including transport, meals, accommodation, insurance and visa fees. Also, each volunteer receives pocket money – the amount varies depending on the country of residence,” he adds.
Before the coronavirus pandemic, which complicated international exchanges, ‘Sağlam duşüncə’ alone annually sent at least 70 young volunteers from Azerbaijan to Europe. This process is now gradually being restored.
Who can participate in the programme?
There is no single set of requirements for candidates, says Ramiz Aliyev. The only strict criterion is the age limit, as well as an acceptable command of English. Everything else depends on the project’s subject – on a farm, for example, you may need a strong and hardy person who loves to work the land, while in a kindergarten or youth centre, you need a person with great patience and empathy.
The ’Sağlam düşüncə’ youth organisation informs the audience both online via social networks and via live info sessions at universities, youth centres, etc. But, according to Ramiz Aliyev, social networks have proved to be the most effective way to “reach out” to young people.
“We help young people navigate through large amounts of information, direct and advise them on opening an account, drafting applications and writing motivation letters. However, young people should do all this themselves, we can only direct and advise. The process is simple.
“Also on our website we regularly publish information translated into Azerbaijani about those projects that may be most interesting for our youth,” he says.
Finland offers volunteers to try themselves in organic food growing projects; a project in Belgium will be interesting to those who are interested in art; Poland provides volunteer positions in kindergartens and youth centres; and in Croatia you can live in a village, and get acquainted with local culture and traditions.
The full list of available opportunities can be found on the portal of the European Solidarity Corps.
Author: Elena Ostapenko
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