Justina Raleva | Bring Together LT'23 stories
Labas! My childhood took place in Chicago, Illinois, where my parents met after both immigrating to the United States. They both came to seek opportunities that post-occupation Lithuania could not offer at that time.
Being raised in the Chicago area allowed us to have a strong Lithuanian community, and my parents did their best to teach us the importance of our culture from a young age. We practiced traditions such as Kūčios and tautiškus šokius. Cooking Lithuanian food, going to Lithuanian camp, and speaking the language also deepened my appreciation of Lithuanian roots.
For a long time, I was content with my connection to my heritage. Although I had only been to Lithuania once as a child, I thought my life would be complete in America as long as I kept some level of my heritage with me.
My mentality changed when I matured, and after finishing a degree in wildlife biology I realized a new desire: to return to Lietuva and explore my home country with new eyes. I was ready to grow personally and professionally in a new country and connect with Lithuania in a way I had never done before.
The Bring Together Lithuania program allowed me to explore Lithuania for the first time in a decade. I was amazed at how developed, green, and beautiful it was. I felt so connected to my peers who shared a similar life history and a new desire to reconnect with our culture. As we traveled together to Nida, Palanga, Klaipeda, and Kaunas, I was able to realize how diverse Lithuania is. We learned about history and culture never through a book, but by living in it. Interacting with locals taught me so much about today's Lithuanian culture, traditions, and personal endeavors I will take experience, and this program is just the beginning.
The program has changed how I view my life. I want to be where I know I am at home, and to me, that home is Lietuva.
The program also gives us so many opportunities to grow professionally. For a month and a half, I had an internship with the Baltic Environmental Forum, an organization that strives to strengthen environmental protection. One keystone project I was able to help with was the translocation of a globally endangered bird species: the aquatic warbler. Environmentalists and scientists from all over Europe collaborated on this project at a translocation site in Poland, and I was able to have this opportunity because of the "Bring Together Lithuania". I learned the process and techniques necessary to accomplish a successful translocation, something I had only ever seen in books and never imagined I would get to see one happen in Europe with such an at-risk species. What I cherish most will be the opportunities I had to work with a group of people from diverse backgrounds, with a common goal of protecting the environment.
This program allowed me to see Lithuania in a way I would never have been able to do so. I recommend the program with all of my heart to anyone with ties in Lithuania, no matter how small you think they are. They are worth rediscovering and cherishing. As for me, the program has changed how I view my life. I want to be where I know I am at home, and to me, that home is Lietuva.