Road Signs

Lessons from the Journey

By Dan Kearney ‘00

Dan and Jillian Kearney have been volunteering with the Peace Corps in Macedonia for almost two years, teaching the underserved Roma, or “Gypsy,” population. Dan’s essay for HCM sheds light on the struggles and achievements of their young charges, shares his belief that the spirit of Holy Cross exists on a global level and explains how the seed for his journey was planted on a cold winter day in the Hogan parking lot…

One of my biggest regrets from college is not taking up an offer from Father Hayes [associate chaplain]. It was February of my second year, with the second term just under way, and Worcester’s icy winter nowhere near being done. We crossed paths in the parking lot of the Hogan Center, and he invited me to join a Habitat for Humanity project in the South somewhere, Tennessee maybe, during spring break. I had no plans other than returning home to Maine for the week, yet I politely demurred. I’d think about it; sure, I was involved in SPUD and could see the value in Habitat’s projects, but somehow this trip just didn’t feel like me.

So much of those years at Holy Cross is lost in a happy fog of memories, but that moment stands out. It was a missed opportunity, one I found myself pondering years later. A classmate and friend had joined Jesuit Volunteer Corps in Nepal following graduation, and I pondered this, too: service as an adventure. Giving back in unknown corners of the world. Suddenly the Peace Corps felt like the most obvious decision of my life. Even before my wife, Jillian, and I were married, we decided that the Peace Corps was something we needed to do. So graduate school and four years later, we boarded a plane for the Republic of Macedonia. As our time here comes to an end, I have more moments that will surely stand out…

The street is called Edinstvo, the Macedonian word for harmony or unity. In this particular case there is a certain unity provided by two elements: absolute poverty and an all-Roma population. The Roma are an ethnic group more commonly known as Gypsies, owing to the fact that their dark skin prompted 16th-century Europeans to believe they had migrated from Egypt (it was actually India). That sort of history feels bookishly irrelevant on Edinstvo, where many of the homes are not houses at all, but ramshackle constructions of corrugated metal, wood and plastic bottles. Dirt floors are common, and the drainage trench that parallels this cobblestone street is clogged with candy bar wrappers, smashed beer bottles and other worthless refuse.

The Roma population constitutes a small pocket of the town of Kriva Palanka. Formerly a member of now-defunct communist Yugoslavia, Macedonia has spent the last 18 years making the transition to a free-market democracy. It’s still a work in progress. After almost two years here, I have a single-word description of this country: complicated. I don’t think I’ve ever experienced such intensely mixed emotions about something—on any given day I’m alternately optimistic or pessimistic, inspired or deflated, enjoying my time here or dying to get home. Jillian and I were placed in Kriva Palanka to teach English in community schools, but our work has branched out in a variety of directions.

One of those paths led us to the Roma community, where the cycle of poverty is incredibly entrenched. The relationship between the Roma and the majority ethnic Macedonians is one marred by mistrust, avoidance, marginalization and racism. The invisible wall between the groups feels as strong as steel; it’s not clear if the municipality wants to help improve this desperate situation, and it’s not even clear that the Roma want help, anyway.

We’ve focused our attention on the children in hopes of bettering their chances of staying in school and graduating. For instance, once a week we walk to a community center near Edinstvo to teach English, though we’re not so much teaching as we are providing kids with a positive activity. Forty children, ranging in age from 8 to 14, pile into the classroom and sit at the tiny tables. Basically, it’s chaos. Jillian and I spend a good quarter of the hour shushing them. Every little thing sets them off into giggles or spontaneous applause.

The kids come for hugs, high-fives, affirmation, English. The first three may jockey for top position, but English is decidedly last in the pecking order. The lesson is constantly disrupted by someone rushing forward to show us what he or she has written. Yes, you’ve spelled Wednesday right. No, you’re not even close in your spelling of father. But does it really matter?

A girl beckoned me over to look at her paper. The days of the week advanced and retreated across it like a staircase designed by Dr. Seuss. Her shy smile turned huge as I rubbed her head. “Одлично,” I said. Excellent. Her oversized T-shirt, its collar gaping open, revealed her neckline and the tops of her shoulders. The skin was ravaged and raw from what I could only guess to be bedbugs. Like many of these kids, she probably suffers from an advanced case of lice.

Another day, another lesson. “Македонска работа,” Tina sputters between angry tears, “Македонска работа.” A Macedonian thing. She’s reacting to the bald display of corruption unfolding in front of us. Tina is the head counselor of a community day camp we’ve organized, and she’s facing the week’s biggest crisis: The manager of the sports field we are using is shaking us down for money. He’s convinced we’re running this camp for personal profit and he wants a cut.

We’re standing on the dusty terrace of the field’s dilapidated field house. Below us, 30 children are screaming in delight—it’s the end of the day, which means water games in the hot June sun. Most of the campers, ages 10 to 12, had never seen a water balloon before this week. Now they’re throwing them with abandon. Our camp is called Healthy Kids, and our goal is to fill the health education void in the public schools by teaching the benefits of a healthy diet, exercise and proper dental hygiene, as well as the cons of cigarettes and alcohol. Oh yeah, and we’re having a ton of fun in the process.

The field manager stares over at Jillian and me and slowly rubs his thumb and forefinger together, the international signal for “Give me money.” I take a deep breath and try to focus on finding a way around this. My thoughts are clouded by anger and frustration—but not surprise. This sort of shameless corruption, along with apathy and obfuscation, has been the hallmark of our interactions with the so-called leaders of the community. And so we’ve created a motto for project work: “Don’t trust anyone over the age of 30.”

We’re only half-joking. Though I certainly don’t want to paint every adult in Macedonia with the same brush, our primary source of partnership, success and inspiration has been a group of local high school students like Tina. Eager to embrace volunteerism and not weighed down by lingering vestiges of the communist mindset, these young leaders have been of great help to us in the present as well as in giving us hope for Macedonia’s future.

If Macedonia is to thrive as a member of the European community, a change of heart—not just policies and procedures—must come about. But I believe it’s coming, slowly and organically. Jillian and I will return home in November convinced that Macedonia has given us at least as much as we gave it and its people. Ultimately, I hope and believe that the young generation will carry Macedonia forward and provide its citizens with what we in America have in such abundance: opportunity.

To read more personal tales from the Kearneys’ Macedonia adventure (some bring smiles, others bring tears), visit holycross.edu/magazine and click on Web Exclusives.

/sites/all/images/socialimages