Torchbearer: Afërdita Volina — Albanian. Ohrid, Macedonia.
Afërdita oozes optimism and warmth. She’s the type of person you would want on your team, because she would be the heartbeat. Wherever she’s lived or worked she’s built a community — a place for people to feel connected. This has gone FAR beyond her career as a teacher and in the defense community. It extends to helping refugees in Macedonia during the Kosovo conflict and her current passion, establishing the Balkan Book Club in several communities and countries.
In her story, you hear her love for life. Her love for people — and how’s she’s changing lives, one person at a time.
“I see things optimistically. Maybe I don’t have a critical eye because of this. That’s something I know I miss by being so optimistic. But not being so critical has helped me a lot. It has helped me take on the small things.”
Turns & Twist of My Life Made Me Stronger
I’ve changed my career several times and in several cities. My husband is military and being a military spouse is very nice, but it’s not easy. You have to bear with a lot of challenges throughout your life. I’ve learned that I need to behave friendly to whomever I meet and wherever I meet people, in order to have friends in a new environment. This has helped me feel warm and wanted wherever I go, which is very important to me.
I have two grown girls and they don’t need me like that anymore. But there are a lot of other people that probably need someone to talk to. I’m a good listener when I see someone needs that. I need people in my surroundings that love me. In order for me to make them love me, I need to love them more. You need to give a little love to everybody. So you can give love from everybody and you get more. What I do is, I talk to them with a lot of respect and bring them together. I love connecting people. When you have connections you can help people — This person needs that, how can we get it? You get more information in groups and you support people.
Careers — Driving, Teaching and Defense
I graduated from a civil military university that promotes civilians to work in the defense area. I couldn’t find a job right away, so I continued my education and became a driving instructor — this was my first job. Within two months I became the head of the driving commission. This was maybe 25 years ago. I was probably one of the first female driving instructors, so that helped me. I only did it for about a year because it was too far away from home. Then I became a high school teacher. I was a teacher for eight years. The last year I taught I was deputy dean of the school, which was huge. There were about 2,500 kids and 150 teachers.
Now I work in the Ministry of Defense in human resource management — policy, planning and evaluations of trainings. I’m the one that helps them plan their career development and education.
My husband moved to the capitol of Macedonia for better job opportunities and I had to follow him. Being apart from my husband wasn’t a good idea; we had two small daughters at the time. I didn’t want him to lose time with our daughters as they were growing.
I decided to leave my job as a high school teacher and find a job in the Ministry of Defense. That was then my third career. I had to start all over and prove myself. You meet new colleagues, you need to show that you’re good at the job you’re doing. Then when you come to the military from the educational branch, they think you don’t know how to do anything — that you just teach and nothing else. When you’re starting in a new job you need to make them believe in you AND your capabilities.
Education — Attract People with Your Knowledge
In America I met this older lady. She was highly educated and said, ‘My dear, you have to invest in your education. Because once you’re old like me, your outside beauty is not that attractive anymore. You attract people with your knowledge.’
For me, education is the most important thing in our life. The best part of my career was working with kids in high school — being able to help build a person in the right way. I invested in education for my pupils and me. It was not only about giving them knowledge, but giving them love — showing them respect and caring. I saw that the more I gave them, the more I got back from them. I think they are the ones that made me who I am today. If it weren’t for my ex-students that love me so much — I couldn’t make the Balkan Bookclub groups. And that’s a fundamental thing, it wouldn’t be. They help me, and I help them.
Your Place in The World
In 2004 they started making changes in education in our country. The Defense lecture that I taught was no longer part of the classic lectures. It changed into Urban Culture or Civil Culture, but I liked the defense lecture. You taught kids about the importance of things like collective security. They knew everything about NATO, the United Nations, European security and natural disasters. I kind of liked that.
People usually think that it would be difficult for kids in high school to understand world politics and their role in society and in the world. But if you teach it to them with love and respect, then they understand it with love and respect.
Taking on Small Initiatives
My mind works even when I sleep. I’m always thinking of doing something. I can’t just do my job and nothing else. I try to bring new ideas, to undertake initiatives — small ones, not big ones. Because if you undertake big initiatives you might not be successful. So I go with small things that involve others. You have small successes and one-by-one, you start to become the person that leads.
It’s a fact that we, as one person, can’t make big changes. Not even powerful people can make big changes in our society. There are so many factors that influence it BUT, we do have influence on small things in our surroundings. Taking on small initiatives, you can make people happy.
Starting Balkan Book Club
When I moved to Skopje, I felt I needed to do something after I finished my job. In America I was part of a book club, so I started one here in Skopje three years ago with about 25 ladies. After that I thought, ‘okay, I’m going every weekend to my hometown, Ohrid, and I want to see my friends when I‘m there.’ So I started a second book club with about 30 other ladies in my hometown. In that group there was also my ex-students. For about a year I had 2 book clubs.
There was a woman that invited me for a TV interview to explain the work of the book clubs. During the questions she asked, ‘you already started two book clubs, why don’t you continue and make it wider? Like a movement.’ Then I thought, ‘okay, I can do that! I do have a lot of friends!’
I worked with my ex-students to start book clubs in 3 cities. They are now grown and married. After that, it was my connections in America — we have a lot of Albanian friends and family living there. Through Facebook we were able to promote the book club to six other places. People would call me to help them start one in New Jersey and I have other friends in Germany that started a club. Now, I manage to link all these book clubs through Facebook, “Balkan Bookclub.” It’s like a movement right now!
Invest in Friends
Socializing is a very important part of our life. I really do invest in friends, a lot. I think this is my life investment. Make friends and keep connections with them. It makes me feel lively!
Wherever I am, I need to have community and friendly surroundings. I can’t just go to work and come home. I can’t live like that. I need to have a place, a space to meet people. I try to socialize with people and make them socialize.
I have an old friend and she’s very shy. She felt lonely and when I thought about starting a Balkan Book Club in the city where she lived, she said, ‘oh, that might help me get friends!’ After that, she was so grateful. I don’t know how many times she told me, ‘you’ve made my life so meaningful.’ And believe me, this is not the only case of this. That makes me very happy and I thank God for this.
Even now at work, we have a lot to do but I never forgot to mention — we need to do team building, we need to get together. When you meet colleagues in different environments to talk and laugh then it’s not just a job. Of course we need to do our job but it’s one part our life. Our life consists of a lot of beautiful things we can do. We need to use every second of the life we’re given to us for good. For positive vibes. For positive things.
Being Ambitious and Personal Fulfillment
I am ambitious but it needs to come by itself. My promotion must come by itself, not through manipulation. I’m getting paid a little less than my colleagues now because of the 4 years I spent not working while in the USA with my husband and family. It was really bad for me. I didn’t stay at home doing nothing, I was a part of different women clubs. But it was bad for me and my career. There was a gap. Although it’s bad, I don’t feel very bad about it. It doesn’t truly matter to me because I’m optimistic. I look forward.
Now and days, people use politics and their political connections to become somebody. I don’t do that. I hate that. I AM ambitious. I want to upgrade my career but not under different circumstances.
It has to be in my own professional way. The moment I can’t do that, I fulfill my ambitions with things I do in my personal life. I need to feel my soul fulfilled. I’m very happy with the Balkan Book Clubs, I fulfill myself and my soul with the connections I’m making with the book clubs. I’m not getting paid for it but I’m happy.
Need Strong Women
For me, it’s very important to have strong women surrounding me. When I was younger, I was the head of a women’s organizations — supporting children’s education. This was 25 or 30 years ago, but back then, not all girls would go to high school or university. We used to talk to parents and try to convince them to send their girls to school. Then we helped a lot during the Kosovo Crisis. A lot of people from Kosovo came to our country. We helped them settle down and aid them with food and clothes.
Women should think a little bit more about themselves. As women, as mothers — we usually forget about ourselves because we are dealing with family issues. Yes, family is very, very important, but it’s also important that we fulfill ourselves and our wishes. So, go for it! In my job we needed a policy to have 30% of staff involved in defense be women. Why does it need to be a policy? Why isn’t it a lifestyle for women to be respected for their knowledge, for their possibilities, for their capabilities? Not just a policy! So women, go for it! We should catch what it is given to us. Don’t let it go. Don’t let fear take a chance.
— Afërdita Volina
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