Volunteer in the Balkans

The nightly news presented a steady stream of heart-rending images. What could I do to help in Kosovo? I had no experience in relief work. As a business consultant and manager, I’d worked in stressful situations in Asia. Perhaps, I hoped, my organizational experience would be useful.

So I emailed resumes and letters to major relief organizations. No response. But when I emailed an inquiry to Balkan Sunflowers (BSF), I received a quick reply. Although the details on what I would be doing were sketchy, I was invited to come to Albania. Balkan Sunflowers was the inspiration of Wam Kat, a Dutch peace activist with long and varied experience in the wars of the former Yugoslavia. His Croatia diary, an almost daily Internet report during the earlier war, had been followed by thousands. It even caught the attention of Al Gore, who cited Kat’s efforts as an example of the difference individuals can make in the world. In late June I flew from Boston to Rome—commercial flights to Tirana were uncertain during NATO operations—and then to the port city of Bari.

As prearranged, in Bari I met a Canadian volunteer, Chelsea, to share the overnight ferry ride to Albania. In Durres we were captured by an energetic taxi driver before we’d disembarked and our bags muscled out of port on a large cart before we could protest. An hour later Chelsea and I entered the Balkan Sunflowers Peace Hostel in Tirana. Though most refugees returned to Kosovo, Balkan Sunflowers continues work in Albania and Macedonia, as well as in Kosovo. Our children’s activities include games, sports, drama, music, environmental awareness, video, art, and cinema. We have restored city parks, installed playgrounds, painted a major city mural, helped on a refugee camp newspaper, hosted healers and children’s theater troupes, distributed tens of thousands of teddy bears, and much more. Volunteers pay their own travel and day-to-day expenses and make a one-time contribution of $120. BSF provides food, housing, and accident insurance. For more information see www.balkansunflowers.org.

RAND ENGEL left business consulting behind in response to the Kosovo refugee crisis. He has coordinated Balkan Sunflowers Kosovo activities since July 1999.

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