Asha Fleerakkers - Peru Project Manager
Asha is a 28 year old from the Netherlands with a background in Cultural Anthropology and International Development Studies, and Human Geography with a focus on Latin America and to a lesser extent Africa. She has been active with various NGOs in the fields of education, health care, community development, and gender. She is currently working as project manager for Kiya Survivors in Peru.
You volunteered in Bolivia while finishing your master’s degree, and worked in Nicaragua for a year. How let you to Kiya Survivors’ programs in Peru?
When I finished my job in Nicaragua I started looking for a new job, amongst others through the internet. That’s how I found Kiya Survivors. The main reason to apply for the job was, besides the fact that being project manager for an NGO abroad has been a dream since I was young, the work with children with special needs. I grew up on a farm that was run by children and youth with special needs, and my father was a teacher in agriculture. So combining my “work related dream” with that personal background is wonderful.
Your role as Project Manager involves a variety of tasks, what does a typical day look like?
A typical day… My office is at the Rainbow Centre in Urubamba, Peru. When I come in, I look for the caretaker to see if everything is fine onsite. Then I open my office and start up my computer. The first hour and a half, before children and staff come in, I use to be in touch with the UK office. Then, when staff comes in, I catch up with them and plan the day. Then also children and parents come in. That;s the moment that I get out of my office. Parents come to me with questions, activities at the Centre have to be arranged (material for bakery workshops for example), volunteers need guidance with their work. Twice a week we visit families in their communities with our Outreach Team. The other days I am at the Centre or around Urubamba having meetings, arranging things for the families we work with, or things for the projects, etc. Around lunch time, the Rainbow House children come to the Centre and I catch up with them, about serious things like school and their homework, and just hang out with them for about an hour. After lunch, I get back into my office and use the rest of the afternoon to catch up emails and do administration. Every Friday afternoon I go to the Rainbow House to hang out with the children there, and to be at the change of the substitute mothers. I think that I can say that this comes close to my daily routine.
You studied Cultural Anthropology, International Development Studies, and Human Geography at Radboud University in the Netherlands. How has your background in these areas impacted your work with Kiya Survivors?
I learned a lot about how culture and the development of a country and the development of a community are intertwined, as well as how international relations influence these developments. It made me think about how to value and understand cultures, traditions, habits, customs that are different than my own, and how to improve the quality of people’s lives without disrespecting their culture. Doing my master’s research in Quechua communities in Bolivia and writing my thesis about it, I learned a lot about Andean cultures. All things that I find essential to be able to do my work for Kiya Survivors here in Peru.
Besides my studies, I learned a lot from doing internships and voluntary work that are helping me a lot in my job as well, especially organisational, communication, and management skills.
You’ve spent time volunteering and interning throughout Africa and Latin America. What has been your most impactful experience or memory from your times abroad?
When I was in Bolivia for my master’s research, I visited several very rural Andean communities that are governing their communities according to their Quechua culture and tradition. When I came to the first community, I got out of the bus (after having had to change buses three times) and walked over the plaza. All of the sudden I felt that everyone was looking at me. Following me with their eyes. I heard people talking. In Quechua. I didn't understand a single word of it, but knew that they were talking about me. I went to the municipality where they were expecting me and made appointments for the next day. One of the city councillors walked with me to the only guesthouse in town and left me there. I was sitting on my bed, looking around, and started feeling very alone. I had never felt so excluded, so different, so white, and almost not welcome in my whole life (although I had already been to several countries backpacking just by myself). I wondered how I was going to talk to the people here, and how I was going to gather the information I needed for my research. What was I doing here?
For quite a while I felt horrible and was doubting if I should even go out to look for something to eat. I was hungry though, so in the end left my room and started wandering around town a bit. I found a stall where a lady was selling salchipapa. I asked her for a portion and in my desperation and nervousness I smiled. She smiled back at me and started talking to me. In Spanish! I felt so relieved. This experience made me realize that people will often treat you as a response to your appearance. If you look shy and closed off, people won’t come up to you. If you give them a smile and open up, people will do the same to you. Wherever in the world you are. This is not a cultural thing, it is in the essence of being human being. Overall, my experience in Bolivia has been great. I learned a lot, not just about Bolivia or the information I needed for my research, but also about myself. Even after having had this experience of feeling so different and not in the right place, it doesn't mean I didn't experience that again. I did. Several times. But now I know better how to deal with it. And it helps me a lot in my work as a project manager. Especially when new volunteers come in and recognise that look on their face of “what am I doing here?”.
You’ve spent years of your life volunteering and working with organizations abroad. What sets Kiya Survivors’ programs and work apart from other volunteer abroad programs?
I find the direct impact of volunteers unique for this organisation. I find most of the volunteers that come here very well prepared. They come in with good ideas of what they want to do. That way, even if they are here for a relatively short period of time, they can do a lot of work and have a real impact. Not just on the children and the families we work with, but also on the local staff here.
What is your favorite part about working with the children involved in Kiya Survivors’ five program centers?
What I like most about working directly with the children is going back to basics. We are working on such basic skills with them that it makes you realize that it is not “normal” to just have these skills. Working with them, seeing and experiencing the outcome of the work we all do, that is what I do my job for. That makes it worth spending hours in the office looking at my computer screen.
You speak Dutch, Spanish, and English. How do you incorporate language learning into the work Kiya Survivors volunteers do with children?
For me it is super important that volunteers at least try to learn as much Spanish as they can. Sometimes people think that working with children with special needs doesn't require a high level of Spanish, and it is true that a big part of the communication is nonverbal. But still, a big part of communicating with the children IS verbal. Thereby is it very important to communicate well with the teachers and the therapists to make sure that volunteers understand instructions well. Besides the working aspect, for me it has to do with respect: we are coming to a country where they speak Spanish so we have to try to learn Spanish. I don't expect everyone to get to a level of fluently speaking Spanish, people just really appreciate it when they see that you are trying the best you can. Another point of the importance of learning the language is that it teaches you a lot about the culture as well. So, to fully immerse yourself in volunteering and to get most out of the experience I think that learning Spanish is important. All volunteers I have worked with here so far have done the best they can to learn Spanish. I am very impressed by the way they manage to figure things out and communicate despite speaking fluently Spanish. They are very creative.
What is the most fulfilling part about your job as the Project Manager for Peru?
Might sound cliché, but really the moments that you hear a three year old boy (he comes to our Centre because he might have autism) who started six months ago with his therapy and could only cry, saying the alphabet now; or a fourteen year old boy who a year ago was just sitting outside his house (in a rural community high up in the mountains) not being able to attend school or to receive therapy, and now after having him arranged an operation and therapy is finishing his primary school and walking his first steps without crutches or a walker; a girl with the Sturge Webber syndrome that till two years ago was treated by her parents as an animal is now coming to our Centre almost every day because her parents realize now that she is a human being that should be treated and loved as a human being; a mother of a boy with autism who always depended on the father of the boy, learned to make cheese in one of our parent support groups and is now selling cheese every day. Those achievements on the personal level are fulfilling.
If you were to travel somewhere new tomorrow, where would you go and what would you do?
I would love to go to Mongolia to work for an NGO. I have never been to Asia and I don't know a lot about the continent, but what I see in pictures and read in articles always somehow makes me compare their culture and living circumstances with the Andean communities in Bolivia and Peru. I really want to find out some day if Mongolia is indeed somewhere similar to Bolivia and Peru, or if I had it completely wrong.