America's Unofficial Ambassadors

We work at the grassroots level throughout the Muslim World to counter violent extremism before it takes hold, to promote tolerance and understanding, and to foster better relations with the United States.

Volunteering in Tajikistan: pre-departure reflections from Okxana Cordova-Hoyos

Summer Service Intern Okxana Cordova-Hoyos will be volunteering in Tajikistan at an organization that serves children with autism.   Below are her thoughts on what to expect.  

This blog post was originally written by Okxana.

I’m no stranger to travelling. I’ve flown on an airplane countless times. I’ve been to Sweden, France, and Mexico. However, I have a feeling that this trip to Tajikistan will be nothing like the others. On all of the voyages I’ve ever made, there’ve been people accompanying me who were familiar with the language and the culture. This time, despite the fact that I’m going with a professional group, I have no concept whatsoever of what awaits me. This does not go to say I’m not prepared. I’ve gotten the typhoid vaccine and taken (and will continue to take) malaria pills. I went out and bought new luggage, a first aid kit, a new camera, and almost a whole new wardrobe. I spent days (maybe 6?) trying to find a plane ticket that would get me where I needed to be when I needed to be there. So why am I even sweating it?

“I’m going to volunteer in Tajikistan.” Ignoring the fact that very few people know where Tajikistan actually is, people’s eyes automatically widen when I tell them this. I guess volunteering in foreign countries is usually left up to Doctors without Borders, or the Red Cross, or people who aren’t college-freshmen-going-on-sophomores. That makes me feel pride, if tinged with a bit of trepidation, at the work I will be doing. I will have the chance to explore a completely different country and help others at the same time. But the trepidation is still there because (isn’t it obvious?) I have never had even the smallest experience with the Russian alphabet or Tajik or Central Asian culture. I will be flying with unfamiliar faces, despite social media allowing me to “meet” these people beforehand. I will be thousands of miles away from home, with a 9 hour time difference, limited WiFi, and an exposure to culture shock that I have never had a problem with before. These may sound like petty, spoiled, first world problems, but I think they are justified. After all, there’s a first time for everything, and this happens to be the first time that I have ever been truly outside of my comfort zone. Why do this, then? As a rising sophomore in college, there is still much that is unsure about my future plans. This trip will give me much needed experience when I go on to try my hand at the medical field. I want to work with children and genetics when I graduate from school, and I know that this trip, especially since it is to a totally unfamiliar country, will help me gather my bearings when I enter the professional world, as well as hopefully point me in the direction I want to go.

Before graduating high school and going off to college, I volunteered in a pediatric facility with children aged newborn to 21. The IRODA, a center for autistic children where I will be volunteering for the next six weeks, will be at once familiar ground and uncharted territory. In all honesty, I have never spent much time with children with just autism. I am used to children with tubes in their tracheas, to children who are more used to shots and needles than I am. I am worried that I will not know enough or be patient enough to make children with autism comfortable or for them to trust me enough in order for me to help out at the center. I can’t stress enough that every aspect of this trip is new and unexpected and unknown. The six weeks in Tajikistan will be the longest I have ever been away from my family at a time, too. Of course, college more or less counts as moving away and is unchartered territory in and of itself- but you can still go home and have care packages sent and receive calls and have all the comforts of home at your very fingertips. Half a world away, that comfort disappears and I am left on my own in an unknown setting. Yet I am confident that this will only strengthen me and allow me to do my best work, because so far from home, failure is not an option.

This trip is giving me the opportunity to combine practical and hands-on experiences that will take me farther than any theoretical lesson. For example, one of my goals is to create a website for IRODA, and I am now in the process of learning basic HTML and CSS coding. These are skills that along with my experiences in Tajikistan will last me a lifetime, as cliché as it sounds. I am expecting to meet new people that will show me the ways of Tajikistan in a safe and thorough manner, all the while enriching my stay. I know the children I will work alongside in IRODA will irreversibly change my life, and maybe they will even help me if I ever decide to have any children of my own. That is what I mean when I say these experiences will last forever. Not only will they enrich my educational and professional lives, they will come into play in the social and personal aspects of my life as well.

I am incredibly excited —and nervous— for this trip. I hope to learn some of the language, a lot of the culture, and the people I will be working alongside. I have prepared in every physical aspect of the word, but I don’t think I’ll be totally mentally prepared until I step off the plane in Dushanbe. That’s fine by me; if anything, that will enhance the learning experience even more. If you think about it, going in unprepared means going in with an open mind. What better way to travel, if not with an open mind?

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