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Lauren Presler (2010)

Ecumenical Humanitarian Organization, Serbia

Lauren Presler graduated in Spring 2010 with a major in International Relations & Diplomacy. Upon graduation she immediately left for Serbia to volunteer with the Ecumenical Humanitarian Organization (EHO). Here is her story.

"When my mother tells our American friends that I am now living in Serbia, they usually ask where Serbia is and what intrigued me to come here. When I first landed my position at the Ecumenical Humanitarian Organization, here in Novi Sad, Serbia, I had no idea the kind of adventure I was embarking on and what I was going to learn. I thought that I knew everything about Serbia, since my mother is a Serb, I grew up in an area full of Serbs (Cleveland) and I spent two years studying the language at OSU. I was wrong! If you study a specific world region and language, and then go visit, you likely understand the culture shock that I am talking about. I moved from the comforts of driving my car to the grocery store and having air conditioning to living in a developing country where I walk to the grocery store and don't have air conditioning. I encourage everyone to try it!

The work that the Ecumenical Humanitarian Organization (EHO) does is fascinating, and each day I am learning something new. The organization works to improve the lives and social inclusivity of marginalized groups. EHO primarily works with people with disabilities, people with HIV/AIDS, people with cancer, elderly people, street children and the Roma. I spend my work days divided between three physical places, two projects, a pile of forms and documents and with two specific marginalized groups. The three places include my desk (where I tackle the documents and forms), the Drop-In Center (where I work with one of the marginalized groups' street children, many of whom are Roma) and in assorted villages outside of Novi Sad (where I am part of a group that hosts seminars and trainings that are part of our campaign to end violence against women). The Drop-In center provides a safe place for street children to go and hang out, play games and sports, receive informal education, psychological and counseling services, meals, as well as having the use of shower facilities and donated clothes and shoes. Their informal education includes seminars and workshops on topics such as safe sex, prevention of drugs and violence, personal hygiene, social services that the community offers and how to access such services, as well as the English lessons that I teach.

The campaign to end violence against women is a combined effort among my organization and three other organizations in Novi Sad. Statistically, Vojvodina has the largest amount of domestic violence. This is because of the large numbers of displaced people, war veterans, and people affected by poverty. The campaign consists of mostly seminars, trainings and collaborations with police, government officials and schools to make sure that the violence is accounted for and handled properly. Working with the Serbian people has opened my mind to what the world consists of outside of what I previously knew. It has changed my outlook on life and given me direction in terms of my long term career goals. I thought that I wanted to be a diplomat, but have decided that living internationally and working with non-profit organizations are where my interests lie.

Aside from working, I get to enjoy wild, wonderful Serbia! In the time that I have been here, I have visited multiple medieval fortresses, attended festivals such as the Guča trumpet festival and a honey festival, and folklore dances. While in Serbia, I also had the opportunity to work with and ride horses in my free time. It was great to be able to take one of my passions from America and continue it here.

Because of Serbia's location in the middle part of Eastern Europe, I was able to take weekend trips to neighboring countries. I visited Hungary, Slovakia and Romania. While in Slovakia, I visited a friend who showed me the path less traveled. In Bucharest, Romania, my friend and I lost our hostel reservation, thus becoming homeless. Homeless in Romania. Fun! Luckily, as we were wandering around looking for another hostel we met a guy by a university who let us stay at his apartment with him, his girlfriend and his roommate. The three of them took us on a tour of Bucharest, showed us the nightlife, cooked us Romanian food, taught us some of the language and gave us tips for traveling to the other places that we wanted to go in Romania. I learned that meeting locals will afford you a more fun and memorable trip than any overpriced tour group can.

Although most of it has been amazing, there have been several distressing occurrences. I quickly came to realize how people in Serbia and other parts of Eastern Europe do not hold the United States of America in high esteem. The first of these occurrences was having my mail stolen. My mother sent me a package. All of the valuable contents had been removed. On top of that, I had to file a formal complaint to even receive the package. The package finally came five weeks late. The second occurrence was on a train on the way from Belgrade to Novi Sad. A man on the train spent the entire two hour ride telling me how awful America is, how Barack Obama is a fake, and how the American people do not even know what the capital of our country is.

The people who stole my mail wanted what I had. The man on the train is bitter because Americans have the capacity to own things and make money, the freedom to be, to go and to do. Traveling and living abroad is an amazing experience, filled with ups and downs. The ups are the great memories we make and why we do it in the first place, and the downs are where we learn the real lessons that we carry with us for the rest of our lives."