Differences in languages, culture and traditions do not prevent young people from different countries from finding a common language, becoming friends and bringing the European Union closer to all its partner countries, including Azerbaijan.
Participants of the EU bus tour project share this opinion. Thanks to the project, Young European Ambassadors (YEAs) from European Union countries and from Azerbaijan travelled around Azerbaijan's regions, getting acquainted with local young people. The initiative was supported by the EU Delegation to Azerbaijan.
The Sheki and Zagatala regions were chosen for the project as here, in remote north-west Azerbaijan on the border with Georgia, young people are least aware about the EU, its educational possibilities and opportunities for youth to come together.
"The main goal of our mission was to introduce local residents to the European Union and its representatives. We wanted to show what Europe is like and I think we managed to do that. We saw young, enthusiastic faces and this is most important," explains Anthony Adams, one of the mission's leaders.
Over the course of two weeks, Young European Ambassadors visited Zagatala branch of the State University of Economics, Sheki branch of the Azerbaijan State Pedagogical University. After that, they have visited several secondary schools in Baku (№60, №258, №189-190, №193) and European Azerbaijan School.
Interactive meetings with schoolchildren, students and teachers were held in the regions and also in the capital. Participants discussed what the European Union represents, how it was created and what values lie in its foundation. Taking into account the young age of the audience, the focus of the meetings was on education and joint youth projects.
"I am very happy that young Azerbaijani people are motivated to obtain more information about the possibilities, which will let them be successful in life. They are really excited to get to know their peers from other countries better, to expand their world and learn about new cultures," says 16-year-old Aysha Gadirova from Baku, who is one of the YEAs from Azerbaijan.
Young European Ambassadors are activists representing the online platform "Young European Neighbours" (YEN), which was launched in the summer of 2016 and unites young people from the 28 member states of the European Union and the six Eastern Partner countries.
Today there are over 100 YEAs, 80 of which represent the Eastern Neighbourhood countries (Azerbaijan, Georgia, Armenia, Ukraine, the Republic of Moldova and Belarus) and 20 of which represent the EU countries. There are 15 participants from Azerbaijan.
The list is constantly being updated and expanded. According to Anthony Adams, who coordinates the Young European Neighbours network, there are plans to increase the number of YEAs to 200 soon.
The task of the young leaders is to help youth in their own countries to understand the essence of the European Union, as well as the importance and prospects of cooperation with the EU, to help them get closer with their peers in other countries, and to open new opportunities for education and development.
Johannes Bunk, a YEA from the Netherlands, is convinced that young people around the world are united by the same interests and aspirations: "During the trip around Azerbaijan I only got confirmation of this. We have a lot more in common than we think sometimes."
It was not Johannes’s first time in Azerbaijan. He came here seven years ago as a tourist and he liked Baku and its people. That is why, when he had a chance to come here again, he took it.
"This time I saw a lot more than one can see during a touristic trip; I saw not only the capital and its touristic centre, but the lives of regular people as well. This is a much deeper experience. It is wonderful that the young people have this possibility today," he says.
Svenja Peterson, a YEA from Germany who also visited Azerbaijan as a tourist a few years ago, also supports the idea of getting closer.
"Europe is not limited to western European countries. It does not end at Poland's borders – Europe is much larger," she comments. "We are closely connected. Historically and culturally our nations always cooperated, which is why such partnership today is natural for both parties."
Bogdan Pavel, another YEA, notes that, during the meetings with young Azerbaijani people, he was interested in debates about whether Azerbaijan is a part of Asia or Europe.
"This issue always causes arguments. Someone considers Azerbaijan to be east, someone says it is west. Each party presented their historical reasoning," says Bogdan.
For Bogdan this is a relevant issue, since his native Romania was outside of the EU only ten years ago and today is one of its fully-fledged members, making use of all the possibilities of the common market.
Most of all, the Azerbaijani schoolchildren and students were interested in the subject of education. YEAs shared information about the available educational programmes for Azerbaijan and where more information can be found.
Two of the European guests, Johannes and Bogdan were participants of the Erasmus student exchange programme, a very popular programme in Europe as it gives an opportunity to students to live and study in any EU country for 3 to 12 months.
"Besides good education, you also get experience from communicating with people from different countries and learn to understand the world's diversity better. It is wonderful to have such an opportunity when you are young. This opens up great prospects in life," Johannes comments.
Educational opportunities for young Azerbaijanis, financed by the EU, vary from different joint projects between universities and exchange programmes in Europe to receiving diplomas from the European universities. All this is united under the umbrella of the Erasmus+ programme.
The head of the National Erasmus+ Office in Azerbaijan, Parviz Bagirov, also participated in the EU Bus tour and together with the YEAs met students and faculty members of regional universities.
He puts the insufficient awareness among local students about EU-financed educational opportunities down to Sheki's and Zagatala's remoteness and the lack of international departments in the branches of local universities. According to Parviz, he has discussed the possibility of assisting students in this regard with the universities.
YEA Aysha Gadirova feels that, besides the lack of awareness, young Azerbaijani people are often afraid and not sure of themselves. "Many think that all this is too far from them, that it is not for them, which is why it does not even make sense to try," Aysha says, urging her peers not to miss out on their chance.
One obstacle to Azerbaijani and European youth becoming closer is the lack of information about each other, coupled with many stereotypes.
Rovshan Badalov, a YEA from Azerbaijan, noted with regret that there is a biased attitude towards family values in Europe: "Some unreasonably think that there is no value of marriage in Europe and that is why there are many divorces, that people are not so religious and have overly liberated lifestyles. However, all of this is exaggerated, people are different everywhere."
The main problem in Europe regarding partner countries is the lack of reliable information. Svenja Peterson says that many of her friends in Germany do not really know what kind of country Azerbaijan is.
"Knowing only that Azerbaijan has been under Soviet influence for a long time, they forget in Europe how post-Soviet countries are all different, how each one of them has many interesting aspects of their own," she says.
"Stronger together" is the motto under which multiple initiatives on youth coming together from EU and its Partner countries are implemented. Today's schoolchildren and students will define the development of their countries, and their cooperation in the future depends on their relations today.
Author: Yelena Ostapenko