Book 2018-08-10T18:51:48+00:00

ABOUT

A Mile in Our Shoes — Personal Stories of Global Journeys is an extraordinary international book project that shares stories of 11 women from Bulgaria, Croatia, Democratic Republic of Congo, Lithuania, Morocco, Nigeria, Romania, Saudi Arabia, Ukraine, USA, and Vietnam. Each real-life story shows that, despite their various backgrounds, these women all have one thing in common: Unexpected and sometimes tough circumstances have taken them from one part of the world to another. This anthology presents the multifaceted issues of migration and relocation, the challenges these women encountered, as well as how they journeyed on this life with humor and strength of spirit. The book is set to be published in February 2019 by the Danish publisher Whyte Tracks. The whole profit from the book will go to the foundations that help girls and women around the world.

CHAPTERS

I was one of the blessed ones, and in the country and especially period when I was born, this was a rare commodity. My childhood had little in common with the horror stories you hear from Eastern Europe, where kids endured poverty, food shortages, lack of toys or affection, as I grew up in a restricted bubble having not only the unconditional love of my parents but also an elitist upbringing which had little in common with Romania and especially Eastern Europe.

I’ve been brought up with the idea that I’m special and that empowered me to do more, but that also put me under immense pressure. High privileges come at a high price, and that was one of the first lessons I’ve learned.

Living in a family which expects greatness while keeping the standard at an unreasonable height, made me constantly question my self-worth.

I was a shy teenager who spent most of her days studying and reading, being in constant competition with my gifted brother who succeeded at everything without effort. Despite high marks and various accomplishments, I always felt that I’m not good enough and that I’m just a remarkable fraud.

I wasn’t the prettiest one, the most athletic, the most intelligent, the most artistic or the best at anything. Actually, I was quite mediocre and mainstream in everything I did but what put me constantly ahead of the pack was my stamina and perseverance. From a young age, I’ve understood that “fakers” like me need to work tens of times more than the naturally gifted ones, and I’ve undertaken this voyage willingly, continually trying to overcome my own condition and limitations.

By the time most kids were preoccupied with the hassles of first love, I’ve already undertaken summer courses all over Europe, studying foreign languages and arts in countries which opened my heart towards fine arts and made me embrace a more exquisite and refined aesthetic.

A summer semester spent in Germany became my escape door towards a world of endless possibilities but also the chance to overcome my own condition. An ordered life in the suburbs of a small town in Romania scared me more than the fact that I might never find my own voice; therefore, the need for escapism grew proportionally to my age.

After departing for Germany, my destiny took a turn for the best. Living alone, away from home, far from the influence of my accomplished parents, I was able to realistically assess my qualities and embrace those talents which were clandestine until then. I became aware of my value and stopped questioning my success or excusing my failures with childlike observations.

I was not only the master of my own life, but also the sole responsibility for every success and failure, for every decision and misstep; while this newly found freedom offered me the opportunity to write my own story. A story as unique as myself.

Up until today, I have lived in fifteen countries on four different continents, having published seven books in three different languages. I graduated from top universities, obtaining my Degrees with honors and was employed by remarkable companies. I’m actively participating in human rights campaigns, and you can find me smiling back at you from the covers of newspapers and magazines. I’d say that the shy girl from a small town in Romania has done pretty well for herself, but few know the work and commitment that are behind every accomplishment, every victory I marked.

My life is not the success story of someone who was gifted with outstanding talents, but rather the story of a woman who never gave up. I failed endless of times, my employment application got rejected by a significant number of companies, my books were not selected by literary agents, magazines refused to publish my articles, and my heart got broken by the wrong partners. There were days when I felt like a complete failure and when my self-esteem reached unbearably low quotas, but that didn’t stop me from getting up and trying again. Today, I can argue that each failure has built my character, teaching me that my limitations are mostly self-imposed.

In a world where everyone preaches perfection and success, I encourage you to stop undervaluing the power of failure. Look at every defeat as a gateway towards success and not as a final setback.

As an African and a woman, my story may speak volumes to some people who have a certain idea of what an “African woman” is or supposed to be. For some who do not know or understand in-depth that “task,” this chapter may shed a ray of light on the challenge of going after your dreams amidst the African environment.

Even though women’s engagement has improved considerably in Africa, it is no news that African society is still significantly controlled by the traditional rules, ideas, principles, beliefs, and culture. This has made it tremendously difficult to be an “independent woman” who is free to make her own choices. The culture of African society has long considered women only as “homemakers” with limited responsibilities. Mostly they are expected to conceive, bear children, cater to their husband’s and children’s needs, take care of the home and perhaps any other extended family matters. They are not exactly seen as parties with anything else to offer to the growth or development of a society. Hence education for the girl child is in most cases considered “useless.” Some years ago, girls were not even allowed to go to school in some parts of Nigeria.

Growing up in such an environment in a family that could afford “just enough” discouraged me from aspiring to anything. I used to think I would not be able to make any significant achievements in my life, but my mother always told me not to kill the hope inside me, and that encouraged me.

I watched my mother fight for what she believed in; that all children were gifts from God and all deserved the same opportunity. So she ensured that we all went to the best-rated schools. These schools were supposedly for the high-class society, so I faced a lot of detrimental attitudes and resentment from my peers because of my low-class status. However, I did my best to be on par with the pace-setters, and this began to give me some recognition and self-esteem. I concluded that hard work and determination were the weapons I needed to fight my “war.”

I later earned a scholarship to study abroad, and that was when the paradigm shift occurred. During my studies in Cuba and France, I realized that other countries were more woman-friendly and that everyone was given a fair opportunity to serve in any capacity by the testimony of their qualifications and abilities, and not by their gender. From then on, I made it my objective to leave no stone unturned in ensuring that I achieve my set dreams in life regardless of my gender or cultural background. I was not going to limit my scope as to where that was likely to happen.

I felt and still feel that being an African woman in a capacity little dreamt of by someone from a third world country could give other women from all spheres of the world the needed push to pursue and achieve their dreams without the contempt of their culture or society. And by that I mean those who are engulfed in the whirlwind of the many challenges women are prone to: discrimination, domestic violence, harassment, segmentation, abuse, or financial constraints. But, as proved in my case, it is possible!

I also wish that women would pass this baton of strength, courage, boldness, determination, and most of all, respect for our girls and fellow women, friends, family, and colleagues. I want them to know that where there is a will, there is a way, and absolutely nothing can stop you from achieving your dreams unless you do not try. If my mother had not striven nor taught me not to give up, I would not be who I am today.

I am still on the path leading to my ultimate goal, which is to become an arrowhead to all, and especially African, women in global matters, but at the same time, I am thankful to God because I know I am halfway through. I have been working in a government establishment for nine years now and proud of what I have achieved there so far. I have received numerous commendations and appraisals which have allowed me to represent Nigeria in over ten countries (Venezuela, Jamaica, United Kingdom, India, Russia, Congo, Mozambique, Cuba, Brazil, Ethiopia, France, and Spain). I still look forward to doing more, and I hope my story inspires other women to do the same!

I have had what you might call an “interesting” life, and I wouldn’t have it any other way. Now a sixty-five-year-old grandmother of four and a professional stage singer, I am not retiring into my rocking chair any time soon.  I have visited forty-five countries and lived in the Caribbean, Costa Rica, and Argentina. I knew from an early age that a conventional suburban life was not for me.

Coming of Age is a story of self-discovery set amid the defining moments of the turbulent twentieth century. Because my parents’ generation had lived through the Great Depression and World War II, they were determined that their children, known as Baby Boomers, would be raised in a world that was small, secure and completely predictable.  As the youngest and adored child, I was a tomboy who loved to play baseball, ride horses and sing and perform in shows. My dream as a child was to be on Broadway.

My journey began with an idyllic childhood in the conservative Eisenhower Era.  I turned thirteen on the cusp of the sexual revolution and went to university during the hippie movement and Vietnam War protests of the late 1960s.  I studied Speech and Theater Arts at Ohio University, but I soon realized I had none of the ruthless ambition required to survive as an actress or singer. To me, only kindness matters.

My quest for adventure took me to the southern Caribbean where I met and married a man whose family owned a tiny remote resort island. The family was the only permanent population of the mile-long island, and they hosted the fabulously rich and famous amid crushing poverty of the local people. Recognizing this dichotomy, I realized I could make a difference and at least try to improve their dire condition. My two sons were born there, and for ten years, my life was a balance of domesticity and adventure in St. Vincent with volcanoes, hurricanes, ships sinking and a revolution. After returning to the US, I became a foster parent to abandoned children and had a successful career as an interior designer in a small Florida town.

But the restlessness returned, and my desire for independence ended my already difficult marriage, leaving me to raise my sons alone. I moved to Orlando and remarried again. After converting to Reform (Liberal) Judaism, I rediscovered my voice in the synagogue. I sang in the choir and often filled in for the cantor when needed. I also acted in plays and musicals in local community theater.

After divorcing again and losing my job as a designer due to the crashing economy, I became certified in ESL (English as a Second Language). With a friend, I went to Argentina on vacation and fell in love with Buenos Aires. In March of 2010, I moved there, not knowing anyone or having a place to live but soon had a job as an English teacher and a tiny rooftop apartment. I lived there for two years, having the time of my life and being completely free (and a little wild) for the first time in my life.

One day on the street corner I saw a tall, dark, and handsome Argentine man waiting for the light to change. I smiled, he smiled, and in order to meet him, I pretended to be a lost tourist. We went for coffee and realized we both were singers. We fell in love and married in 2012. He moved to the US, and we began a successful singing duo called Duo Romantico. We now perform all around Florida, New York and sometimes in Europe. My dream has been realized fifty years later!

My life philosophy is taken from the Hindu Upanishads: “It is better to live your own life imperfectly than to live a perfect imitation of someone else’s life.”

If I have any message for women it’s these three things:
One: Getting older is not a curse, but a blessing that is denied to many. Besides, it is the only way you get to have grandchildren who bring all of the joy of children without any of the responsibility! Those gray hairs, wrinkles and saggy thighs are the price you pay for the wisdom and self-knowledge that only comes from walking around the planet for decades.
Two: Although becoming a mother is extremely wonderful, it shouldn’t define you wholly. Motherhood can consume you so utterly that you run the risk of disappearing inside the soccer mom or ballet mom. But living your dreams through your little ones is unwise. They came here to fulfill their dreams, not yours. Juggling children and a career is challenging but feeds our dual desires. Motherhood allows you to be part of something eternal as your genetic material and what you instill in your progeny lives forever. But a career lets you explore the part of yourself that exists in the now and facets of yourself and your power are revealed only in that arena.
Three: That you should never give up on your dreams because they can become true even after fifty years. As a five-year-old listening to the audience’s laughter or a sixty-five-year-old listening to the laughter, I have come full circle. Many people think performers perform for the applause and adulation. That, although lovely, does not thrill me as much as moving people deeply with my voice. If I can make you forget your pain for even a few minutes, it is then my greatest joy.

Life is full of challenges, and this chapter reminds us all that there’s hope. Regardless of where you were born and what limitations you encountered or you may currently be experiencing, you can still make it.

I was born in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Congo is situated in the heart of Africa with a population of over seventy-one million. Congo is the world’s wealthiest country concerning natural resources and yet one of the poorest in term of GDP per capita. Congo is blessed with natural resources including cobalt, copper, niobium, tantalum, industrial and gem diamonds, gold, silver, zinc, manganese, tin, uranium, and coal; as well as petrol and timber. However, history confirms that its population has not benefited from the country’s abundance of resources. Also, due to the outbreak of fighting in August of 1998, millions of lives have died, millions displaced, women and children raped, and many lives have fled to safety.

Due to unfortunate circumstances as result of tribal and political conflicts and other ongoing calamities that have caused devastation and extreme poverty around the country, my family was forced to leave the country in pursuit of peace, which later paved the way for us to make Australia our new home twelve years ago.

I’ve experienced enormous challenges from a young age including lacking the very necessities such as food, safety, and security but I refused to allow my past obstacles to limit my future. Now being a young woman of African descent who is ambitious, educated and a high achiever, I would like to encourage you not to give up. The journey has made me resilient and has been a channel for me to become a voice for the voiceless, but the reality is, to get to where I am, it has been hard work, sacrifice, resilience, persistence, and passion for making a difference in my life and those of other women needing a hand.

It’s distressful to know that in the 21st century, there are still too many people living in oppression and living lives that are shattered by different predicaments. In this chapter, I hope to encourage and remind women of all walks of life to continue to pursue their dreams regardless of their past and present circumstances. The challenges that women are facing around the world are real and in many cases are stumbling blocks and hindering them from being effective, successful, and from reaching their dreams.

Through this chapter, I share my life journey to revive the hope of other women who are living in devastating circumstances, and I also hope to shed lights into the political dilemma the Congolese nation have struggled with for more than a century.

Growing up in Morocco within a highly conservative family has been for me a blessing and a curse. A blessing because of the challenges it came with early on in life. The rules I had to question at three years old and the choice I had to make to develop self-awareness and the intellectual identity that I feel should not be influenced by parents nor by society. But this has also been a curse in the sense that my artistic drive also comes from feeling maladjusted to the world as it is, maladjusted to rules and frameworks, labels, the establishment of any pre-written ideology or belief. My name is Imane, and it means Faith, but not blind one, insightful one, and that is exactly what I had to embody and become. My mother was well aware this would be my calling, and she became my biggest ally.

If I had to describe myself in one word, it would be “humanist.” I have massive resistance to labels. I simply can not stand boxes because the second you put me in one, be it the gender one or the job one or any other one you would like, then you are not seeing me as a whole, and I want to be seen as a whole. Complexity is deeply beautiful: it is beautiful to be with someone that constantly questions and evolves, there is nothing more stimulating than evolving and knowing the ones around you do too, we are not who we were yesterday, and if we understood this statement we would all meet each other anew daily.

My writings are my lifelong love, and they reflect well the path of learning I am on, but they also accidentally on the way represented others, men, women, gay, straight, single parent, divorced parent, only child… It was all by accident that I lived into intimacy with all these. I was told that I inspired a few women, especially those in the East, to open up about their beliefs or at least open them up to the possibility of being different in the world, outside of the rules other put up for them.

I have a very complex background. I studied and excelled at mathematics and was invited to the mathematics Olympics at age thirteen where I was the only girl and also the youngest. Mathematics is straightforward in their complexity, and there is only one answer in the end; I was good at it because my real life was anything but simple and the answers I looked for never were that obvious. Mathematics gave me confidence that some things within their complexity are actually quite simple and that whatever way you choose to solve it, will guide you to the right answer.
At thirteen, I also published my first writings, something that seemed wrong to others, to love mathematics and poetry so profoundly, as if it were contradictory to have heart and mind both completely alert.

I finished my master’s degree in Business after completing technical science knowledge for two years. Within the business school, everything seemed dead, so I created an art movement, and many of the dead had just forgotten how alive they were and how filled with the talent they were, it was my first true leadership experience, again by accident. I have never really wanted to lead anything; I just want to make others feel when I touch their lives.
Later on, I founded School of Why and Tribe of Why to keep connecting people who want to share life learnings in a safe space and go beyond the labels they are in.

I am now creating two art pieces, the life-long book project “The Bird Who Lived With Humans” which tells the story of a naive bird’s perspective on humans and his quest of joy that turns accidentally into a quest of meaning. I am also writing “Alphabet” which I want to complete in the course of twenty years, each letter of the alphabet will sum up one major learning I have made in life.
I will make sure I dig into my heart enough to tell everyone’s story through my writings.

To write is to create a new government, always remember that!

Today people call me a successful social designer and innovator. Whenever I am introduced to an audience where I speak or give trainings, they highlight the fact by the age of only twenty-six, I have visited more than thirty countries. People also say that I have led many successful initiatives, projects, and events gathering hundreds of people around the world, from Lithuania to Thailand, from Algeria to the United States.

But like everything else, this is only one of many labels we get when we achieve something. Yet, it does not say who I am, how many times I have had to fail in order to succeed, what problems I have had to overcome. It does not say how many times I have felt trapped and don’t know how to get out from those traps. Life has created this in order to teach me lessons, and now I understand them, and they finally make sense.

Like any other person, I have had ups and downs in life. Sometimes there are days when I cry, all day and all night, and sometimes I laugh until the sunrise. What I always do is believe and trust in life, believing that after a dark night, comes a bright day. Having this viewpoint has helped me to overcome challenges and dark periods, to enjoy and be present in every minute and to become who I am today.

In this chapter, I am going to talk about what I have learned and the factors which have helped me to succeed in everything I have been doing. I am hoping that it will empower and inspire other people to follow their dreams and to always keep the belief of achieving their dreams in faith in themselves alive.

I will start with my early childhood memories in an industrialized post-Sovietic Lithuanian city with an alcoholic father and a mother who was sick with depression. In this part, I will share with you my experience on what it meant for the development of a child to grow up in an unhealthy environment. I always lacked love and experienced things and situations in which a six-year-old child should never encounter. I will also touch upon the Soviet Union‘s influence on the mentality of people and what it means for me to have been born in 1989 and to be the so-called ‘‘child of independence‘‘.

Then, I will bring you into my teenagehood, the time when I was rebelling against the whole world, abusing alcohol, choosing wrong partners, falling into a six-year struggle with anorexia and bulimia, and attempting to suicide. Fortunately, my grandmother‘s care, love, and encouragement to study saved me and slowly formed in me the attitude of being an achiever.

We will travel abroad together and will look into how, in my early twenties, my Erasmus+ students exchange and Master studies in Hungary helped me to find peace within myself. Those experiences allowed me to forgive my parents, released me from the prison of anger I held myself in for twenty years. I will share with you the lessons I learned from my travels and people I met, and show you how they helped me to grow and find my own path to leadership and human hearts.

I will finish my chapter with my recent move to Sweden where I am now settling down with my life partner, which is a new rollercoaster ride in my life.

Even though all those periods of my life are different, they have one common feature which I believe has influenced my success: Hope. Hope for a brighter future, hope for sincere and pure love, hope for being able to study, hope for following my own path and being able to pursue the career of my passion, hope to be healthy, hope to find happiness and peace within myself. I want to show that whatever I have been doing or wherever I have been going, I have always carried with me Hope. That hope has helped me to become who I am today. I again hope that it will light the belief and faith in yourself, your life and the world that surrounds you and give you the strength to never let anyone put you down or destroy your dreams. You are the only person in this world who truly knows your strength and what you can or cannot do.

“I want to be an inventor” was a sentence I exclaimed when I was a little girl born in Saudi Arabia. Little did I know that this sentence would define my path as an Arab Muslim woman.

1994 was when I first opened my eyes. Before I was able to speak, the world had already decided for me that I am a woman and that I cannot study STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics), because that’s only for boys. Luckily, I had the support of my parents when it came to pursuing my dreams. They are both Saudi, but they are from different parts of the Kingdom. My father comes from the more liberal part of Saudi Arabia, and my mom comes from the more conservative part. Their marriage was unconventional. Their audaciousness and tenacity to stand against society and join together to create a family is definitely what gave me the courage and empowerment to break down all of my obstacles.

Being a Muslim Saudi woman, I am often misrepresented in the media. So I am here to tell my story with my own voice, not through sound bites or a caption. I may have faced many challenges being a woman in a conservative society, but I also had a lot of opportunities.

I grew up quite sheltered. I had an active childhood where I used to run around with my cousins and play all day. It was only when I finished high school and wanted to become an engineer that being a woman was suddenly the only thing that defined me. I did not let go of my dreams and persisted on entering one of the most prestigious universities for women in my country and the only one with the field of electrical and computer engineering for girls.

I was so set on studying engineering, and that was exactly what I did for my Bachelor’s degree. But throughout my years of study, I found myself excelling in business and entrepreneurship. I set new dreams for myself preparing for a new chapter with new challenges. I learned how to carry the banner of an empowered woman and set the path for other women to follow.

Having the opportunity to travel and meet different people from different walks of life, races, religions, and nationalities gave me a broader perspective on life, but also a more defined one for myself. I learned that even though we each have our own story to tell, we can all easily connect by sharing our hopes, dreams, and ambitions.

My greatest concern was facing the world as a Muslim Saudi woman and the heavy baggage these labels carried. But throughout my journey, I was able to face my own prejudice. That taught me never to judge a situation until you’ve tried it or a person until you’ve walked in his or her shoes. I don’t know what my next chapter in life will be. All I know that even if I lose my way a little, I will always be going in towards the right direction.

The short stories that I have included in my chapter should be read as prose and should be thought of as a sensation of experience, as a reality that can be encountered in any part of the world, almost like seasons of fragility, achievements, falls and rises, smiles and tears.

I was born in Zagreb, Croatia. Since an early age, I performed for my family and neighbors, while creating tickets, drawing posters and sewing clothing. One day I would dress up like a pirate, then the other day like Mary Poppins. I would sing and jump like I was going to conquer the world. My dream was to perform at Broadway—I felt extremely attracted to those majestic shows. When nobody was home, I would steal a microphone from my dad, who was a musician and would perform songs from famous musicals, pretending I could also sing them in any language.

When I was seven, my father suffered from a brain tumor, which left severe repercussions on his body. We had to teach him how to walk and talk again. The way he never stopped loving life and being humble during his illness was a rarity. My mother took care of us and decided to leave her job to be full time with my father and me, at the time when Croatia was going through a war. There were not many other options for us than to fight and survive. A few years later, my mother also got sick, which made one side of her body paralyzed. Again, we fought her illness with the same zeal as we did with my father’s. I was fifteen at that time. My dream was to travel the world and to sing, maybe because of the circumstances I lived in. Music was everything to us because when it stopped, life became difficult. Despite all the obstacles, my mother always made sure that I was well educated and taught me that we should always face life with a smile, and we should go for what we dream of, no matter how impossible it may seem. My parents fought for life with their illnesses, and I started to fight for my dreams—to fly for my dreams, to grab them, feel them and embrace them. Because life is about living the moments!

My dream started to become a reality as soon as I challenged myself to change constantly. Since my university years, I have lived in Milan, Rio de Janeiro, Paris, Mexico City, London, New York, and now in Beijing. Through the diversity and differences of people I have met and grown to know, I have learned a lot about myself. In my stories, I also speak about the moments that have moved me, the people that have touched me, the landscapes that have empowered me and the situations that have changed me. My current dream is to leave a trace and to express my previous experiences in objects of beauty. I am now a singer-songwriter and a jewelry designer. I left my promising career in architecture in my early thirties, and since then have turned to singing and creating. Through my music and art, I want to encourage people to find they own freedom and expression to make a beautiful world for themselves and those around them.  I have found my meaning in music, which has a great power to change people. The songs that I write connect me to direct emotions we all feel in different ways—the emotions that scatter through space if we give them a visual context.

I have captured my moments of ups and downs in my stories. I express my own fragility through tears, which sometimes fall like little berries, sometimes appear through smiles—just like rainbows popping up during a sunshower, each time the tears I shed lead to a small change within me. Through the awareness of my fragility, I have come closer to myself.

The stories we draw might not always be clear, even to ourselves, but as we go forward, as we keep on moving, time will clarify them. The dreams still enchant us, and if we think of them, the hidden laws of nature will bring us closer to them each day. As we search for our dreams, they also search for us.

We tend to put labels on ourselves and on the others to simplify our life. At wars, it’s “our heroes” against “the enemies.” In the society, it’s “women” vs. “men,” “children” vs. “adults,” “rich” vs. “poor,” and so on. In this chapter, I will reveal the dangerous side of labeling by telling the stories of my grandmother as a civilian in a war-torn country, my mother as a woman in a patriarchal society, and me as an immigrant.

I come from a country where sacrificing herself for her husband and her children is a must-have virtue expected from any woman. When I was a little girl, my grandmother and mother persistently reminded me that as a woman, it was my duty to be hard-working and to endure all the sufferings that my fate was going to bring me. Because in Vietnam, it is believed that a person’s life is determined by their fate.

Many Vietnamese women are taught to be dependent on their husbands and their families, and so was my mother. Shortly after my parents got divorced, she decided to move to the Czech Republic to live with her family, that had moved there before the fall of communism, and she took my little brother and me with her. We settled in a small town in a region that had once flourished with iron and steel industries, but now was battling high unemployment rates and poverty due to the closure of mines after the Velvet Revolution of 1989. Local people saw the hard-working immigrants as a threat to the job market.

My years growing up in that small town were a battle between trying to blend into Czech culture and society while trying to be an obedient, traditional Vietnamese girl when at home. On the one hand, as I was one of the very few non-European students in that town, children in and out of school would not lose a chance to ridicule me in front of others. What made this worse was the well-accepted discrimination of non-citizens, as even some adults would remind me in public that I was ‘different’ from them. On the other hand, growing up in a Vietnamese family meant that I had a fixed set of responsibilities to fulfill in my role as a female and as the eldest child. Moreover, I felt a lack of affection and understanding from my family since Vietnamese seldom, if ever, explicitly express any kind of feelings even to the closest people in their life.

Growing up under such circumstances, I was always craving love and recognition. I eagerly participated in all kinds of competitions during my secondary education, hoping that all the prizes and accolades would make my mom, who would have frowned upon a grade B, proud. I felt happy on those rare days when I arrived home without having been mocked on the street. I thought my life would be fulfilled if someone fell in love with me. My first broken-heart love story, which commenced like a fairy tale on the mesmerizingly romantic Champs Elysées Avenue in Paris, made me realize that I had been letting others define my values and state of well-being.

My full awakening occurred during my university studies. I had an opportunity to spend a semester in Argentina, the Latin American country where radiant and warm-hearted people helped me see that almost nothing in this world is purely black and white. This discovery fueled my travel bug. I changed from an obedient and shy teenage girl to a ‘rebellious’ young woman who started to define her own values and who learned to live life in her own terms. Liberating my ‘ugly and disease-like’ freckled face from tons of makeup and holding my ‘futile’ third-world passport in my hand, I began a journey that has helped me overcome all prejudice and bias against me and others who face the same resentment.

One international study or work trip after another helped me put together the puzzle pieces that had previously been missing from my life. At the least expected place and time, I met the love of my life, to whom I am boundlessly thankful for showing me the side of the world that previously had been a mystery to me. Having the courage to leave my comfort zone enabled me to embrace the beauty in differences. There are always good and bad things about every person and every culture, and, by acknowledging this fact, I have acquired the best from each of the places I have lived in and left the negative traits behind.

After years of traveling and living around the world, the shame I felt about myself and my origin, instilled in me by others’ prejudice, has been replaced by pride in my uniqueness. During my journeys, there are still times when I encounter racism, misogyny, and other forms of discrimination. Nevertheless, they now simply remind me that the primary source of all the hatred in the world is ignorance and fear of the unknown.

I was born to be average and expected to be ordinary. I was smart enough to get by, but not exceptionally talented. All I had was my personality, persistence, and unprecedented optimism. These are qualities, I learned that come for free, and while family, societal stereotypes and traditional dogmas can be a good excuse not to move forward they do not make much of a motive to give up.

I grew up in a small town by the seaside in Bulgaria. Born as a post-communist baby in a country undergoing a transition from socialism to capitalism I knew little about the outside world. In fact, there was little to be known at the time. I still remember the empty grocery stores, the despair in my parents’ eyes, the defeat in people’s faces. Even so, I failed to understand why a whole nation would so effortlessly give in. Such were the times.

Going to Western Europe at the age of eighteen changed my perceptions. Until then I did not imagine that a world where people rarely had financial worries existed, a world where they could choose what to pursue, commit to their passions or not and still be happy. Until then I never pictured that life would be much different from a constant struggle of trying to explain my eagerness and perseverance for more than there was, that same eagerness which was so untypical for my country.

Working around the globe for the next six years I became aware of the power of choice. I found happiness in the decisions I took, in people’s eyes, in their reflections. The world became small. Suddenly I no longer needed to justify my every step of the way. Suddenly no one was interested why I had not settled down yet or devoted to building a family at the age of twenty-five.

So here I am now. I still have not made it very far financially, and I doubt I ever will. Against all society dogmas, I am still single but happier than ever because despite everyone and everything I learned how to make my own choices. Some decisions proved to be more uncomfortable than others, and those are normally the ones that change our lives. Make them today. Travel. It is a small world. Take it from someone traveling on a Bulgarian passport: geographical distances are only a matter of perception. Dare to make your own choices. Don’t marry too young. Get to know yourself before committing to others. Start writing your own chapter today. We do not need to be extraordinary, only exceptionally motivated to make it through in life. Courage and kindness are all it takes.

Escape. Flee. Leave. That is what I’ve always been doing. Afraid to get anchors that would make me stop, I would run as soon as I felt that there is a danger of being trapped into a comfort zone. Life is given to you once. So go: explore, move, dive into experiences, and get stronger. Hit the road. Prove to yourself that you’re worthy. Set goals and accomplish them. That’s is something that I had told myself once upon a time and started fulfilling vigorously.

I have always treated myself as a marathon runner. Yet, if a marathon runner eventually reached the destination and celebrated, I would rather scold myself for being slow or not fit enough and keep on running. Being brought up by a single mother, who had a vision of a perfect daughter, who apparently I was not, I always had to fight for love. Prove that I am worthy of care. Trying hard to be good enough meant passing exams with flying colors, winning all possible academic competitions and, in general, being a well-mannered humble kid, who would keep her mouth shut. In this way, I hoped to reach that point when my mother would be proud of me. Yet, she never was. In her view, there was always room for perfection. So I kept on running in a vicious circle – angry with myself and hungry for love and approval.

Having fled the parental nest, I entered a capital university and realized how freedom really tastes. But a marathon was ongoing. There was never enough. Joggling between the university and different jobs, I tried hard to prove that I am independent and a successful grown-up. I started traveling, participating in international youth conferences and building a portfolio of a global citizen.

This passion for travels and experiences has taken me throughout the globe: from baking cinnamon rolls in Texas to meditating with monks on a Thai island. I always thought that true harmony and happiness is somewhere there – miles away from Ukraine. So, I chased experiences to become a better self. I would not dare to travel just for rest. Life was treated as a fight where every step had to be strategic. So I would only hit the road if there were some assignment or job to do. At some places, I stayed for a few days or weeks and searched meticulously: what is it that makes people happy. At other places, I stayed for hundreds of days. Learned their language, cooked their food and wondered if it were a place where a marathon would end at last. I  shifted and changed dozens of locations and projects around, made invaluable friendships throughout the world, but still couldn’t befriend the closest person. Myself.

After years of searching for meaning and true fulfillment, I know that the only thing that actually matters is a journey itself. A process. A moment. The magic of NOW. Thanks to travels and learning more about people and myself on the road, I left that powerless hungry for love girl in the past. I don’t need to win love and approval anymore. Now I generate my own power, and I love it! The road has taught me that success is not a fight, but an exciting game. It is about being alive, facing fears, having emotions, falling and having the courage to rise again.