"I am going to Uzbekistan"; "Where? Pakistan?"; "No. Uz-be-ki-stan"; "Aaah! West Pakistan!"
During my year as a UN Volunteer in Uzbekistan, I have often shared stories about the confusion that habitually ensued when I, proudly, announced my upcoming UNV assignment to friends and family. What I secretly omitted is that I myself had to google the country before being able to pinpoint its precise location in Central Asia.
It has been almost a year since I flew to Uzbekistan to take up my role as ‘Community Outreach Specialist’ for a joint UNDP/UNV youth empowerment project.
After a year in the field, not only can I confidently hold a lecture about the differences between Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan to the uninitiated, but can also look back on a year in which I have been given the opportunity to genuinely engage with and get to know the most important stakeholders of every country – its youth.
Whether as participants in the workshops I have learned to hold, as work colleagues (of whom all except the Project Manager were under the age of 30), or the friends I have made here, everybody had a story to tell, and I was intent to listen.
The ‘Social Innovation and Volunteerism in Uzbekistan’ project of which I have been part of has a simple goal: to help young people in the country to become more active citizens. Knowing that I would not only be a UN Volunteer but also have to promote volunteerism in a professional capacity, I came to Uzbekistan armed with a suitcase full of arguments about why it is important to give something back to society without expecting money in return.
Yet it was only here in Uzbekistan that I slowly came to realise the full extent to which volunteerism can be a transformational experience for young people who are often devoid of the channels for self-expression I had simply taken for granted in Europe. Volunteerism enables young people to explore and try out new ideas; gain confidence and life skills, and a sense of activism and appreciation in return which can go a long way in the climate of political apathy which often surrounds them.
Volunteerism truly can make an impact, and I am glad I had the chance to contribute to its promotion in Uzbekistan.