Why ReDiscover Romania? A Canadian perspective...

A Canadian’s Observations on Romania 

Gelaine Santiago
At the end of June, it will be almost 2 months since I first arrived in Romania and began my internship. Despite my 4 years in AIESEC and the travel preparation beforehand – mainly consisting of hours spent on Google and Wikipedia, reading about Romanian culture, language, politics, education, and all things Eastern European – life in Romania has been much more challenging, confusing, frustrating, and more amazing than I could ever have expected.

First things first – what am I actually doing in Romania? 

I came here with AIESEC’s Global Community Development Programme (GCDP) and I am working at a non-profit organization called Super Tineri ASIRYS. ASIRYS has largely operated out of the small town of Tirgu Frumos since 2008, and has recently expanded its operations into Pascani. As the Director of Organizational Development, I am largely responsible for establishing the new chapter of the NGO, and essentially restructuring the entire organization in order to define and develop a new and more focused direction for ASIRYS. When I first arrived in Pascani, there was a lack of internal organization, zero projects, and zero volunteers in Pașcani. Being a new NGO in the town, ASIRYS also had no office space, which meant that I was largely working by myself out of someone’s apartment. Definitely a challenge.

Two months later, we now have a stable group of 25 volunteers, 3 new departments and department managers, and a new project underway to restore Pestisorul Park in Pascani as part of our new “Rediscover Romania” initiative. ASIRYS also has a more defined purpose – we want to make a difference in the community by using various forms of art as a means of raising awareness and taking action. Every month, we will be focusing on a different issue in the community, such as violence against women. The volunteers first need to attend trainings to learn about the issue at hand, develop ideas about how we can educate the public (such as street theatre, theatrical dance, art exhibitions, etc.), and then take action and implement their ideas. The journey to get to this point has been more challenging than I had expected, but it has definitely been rewarding. 

“But… why Romania?”

During the first week I arrived, I went to a barbecue hosted by AIESEC Iasi during the weekend of the Intercultural Preparation Seminar, a conference organized for people from Iasi who want to go on internships abroad with AIESEC. 

It was a great experience. Everyone kept asking me, “why did you choose to come to Romania?”  This question has been posed to me soooooo many times. One volunteer from ASIRYS even asked me, “So… did you come to Romania on purpose?” 

Granted, my knowledge of Romania before I left Canada was limited to the fact that it was previously a Communist country and that it was famous for Dracula, castles, and gypsies. I had met a lot of Romanians in my home committee AIESEC Guelph, since quite a few of our interns ended up being from Romania and they were always very interesting people. But, more than any other reason, I was curious – plain and simple. 

So my answer always is “Yes, of course I chose to come here on purpose. In fact, I had always wanted to come here.”  Needless to say, everyone is always so surprised to hear my answer.

Romania is an interesting place. I ask people how they feel about living in Romania. When I hear them speak about it, I hear a lot of the negative things - there is a bad economy, very incompetent politicians, poor education system, poverty and unemployment, corruption - but nevertheless, the majority of Romanians finish their rants with “ah, but it’s a nice country.” When I first arrived, this was just plain confusing for me. How can people dislike so much about their country and yet still be so loyal to it? 

I still remember a conversation from when I first arrived. It was with a member from AIESEC Iasi, and she said something that helped me to understand. She said that despite the difficulty of living here, many Romanians believe and hope that things can change and that they will get better. 

This is one of the reasons that I am loving my experience in Romania. This country has some of the most idealistic, motivated, and passionate people I have ever met. Sure, there are people who leave the country to find opportunities elsewhere, but the individuals who choose to stay will make a big difference. They are filled with a sense of optimism that I envy, and a drive to make life better. Change always begins with one unreasonable individual. It’s only a matter of time before things start to give, and the right people begin to do the right things.