My first surprise was that they only wanted me to work for four hours a day, four days a week. I was in shock. Only four hours a day? When I am willing and able to work up to eight? I was prepared for a regular 9-5. They only wanted me for four hours? But such is life in Bosnia. Things just work differently here. Interns are rare (in fact, I was told there is no word for “intern” in Bosnian). People don’t have the luxury of working for free. Some organizations in the US practically run on free intern labor, but here, such large amounts of willing volunteers do not exist.
In addition to organizations not being used to having interns, I was perhaps not the most efficient intern they could have had because I don’t speak Bosnian. There is only so much I can do. I can’t help write reports, which is what CURE does a lot of in the summer. I can’t conduct interviews. I can’t help run workshops. I can’t really even observe the workshops since I wouldn’t understand any of it.
I’ve felt so limited because of my inability to speak Bosnian. I want to work in the field. I want to talk to people, to interview them, to get to know them. I want to help with the workshops. But how can I without speaking Bosnian? I could bring a translator, someone else from my internship, but what good would that do the organization? They could just do the interviews themselves. It would be a hassle for them to interpret the workshops for me – it would get in the way of the effectiveness of the workshop. This experience, with the language barrier, has really motivated me to work on my Arabic so that in the future, when I hope to find myself working in the Middle East, a language barrier will not again be a problem.
It has also pounded in another feeling, something I had been thinking for a while but had never experienced in reality. Sometimes, there is a mentality (American, Western, I don’t really know), that people need help and so we can just walk in and help them. Often this amounts to nothing and in some cases it actually makes things worse. Walking in to another country and assuming that my knowledge and experience is somehow superior, that I know more about the situation than the actual Bosnians, is foolish. What meaningful insight am I supposed to contribute to a country in which I have only lived for a few weeks? What do I know about anything?
Being here to learn sometimes seems self-serving. I have learned a lot and I am so grateful to have been able to work with such an amazing organization. But what did I contribute? I have another line on my resume. I can speak with more confidence on women’s and LBTQ rights in the Balkans. I have a great appreciation for how long it takes to make any significant change and for how much work goes into it. But what did I do for CURE? Potentially maybe raised a bit of money for them? I am so incredibly thankful for this internship as CURE is an inspiring place filled with highly intelligent and motivated activists striving hard to make positive changes for women in Bosnia. I can only hope that I managed to contribute even the tiniest bit to their efforts since they have done so much for me.