Over 75 removal boxes are stacked up in the office of the association for Eastern European Students Association (EESA). At the beginning of next week, the boxes will be sent to the Albanian city of Durrës, which was hit by a major earthquake in late November. “In itself, the magnitude (6.4 on the Richter scale) wasn’t that extreme,” says Denisa. “But since Albania doesn’t have the right infrastructure to deal with an earthquake like this, it has had a major impact.”

School friend

Durrës – Denisa’s home town – sustained the heaviest damage. At least 51 citizens died in the quake, and hundreds were injured. Many of the damaged buildings have been declared uninhabitable, and hundreds of people are forced to survive the cold winter without a roof over their heads, according to the International Business Administration (IBA) student. Denisa also lost an old school friend to the disaster. “He didn’t have time to run out of the building. And then his home collapsed.”

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Back home

Denisa had just woken up on that fateful 26th of November when she received a message from one of her friends, asking her whether her family was safe. “I remember thinking, what a weird question. But then I saw the earthquake updates filling up my Facebook timeline.” She was dismayed, and if it were up to her, she would have flown back home that very instant. “Of course I was very worried about my family, so the first thing I did was call my parents.”

At the time of the quake, her parents and her brother were in the capital of Tirana, an hour’s drive from their home town. “I felt so relieved they weren’t in Durrës when it happened.” So far, her family has stayed on in Tirana for safety reasons. “Their house is OK, but they’re worried about aftershocks. And things are still very chaotic in Durrës right now.”

Image credit: Aysha Gasanova

“I was very upset when I heard about the earthquake. The only thing I could do was read news updates all day,” remembers Denisa. “Due to the distance it’s hard to wrap your head around the fact that this is actually happening.” She decided to help her compatriots. Together with her student association EESA – and in collaboration with fellow student association Mozaik – Denisa launched an aid effort. The result: nearly 1,000 kilos of items and over 3,000 euros in donations.

Denisa was surprised how positively her fellow students responded to the initiative. “Even over the weekend, when the student associations’ offices were closed, they showed up at my room with donations.”

Give something back

This is hardly the first time the 20-year-old student has worked on behalf of her fellow man. Denisa has been doing volunteer work since she was 12. “I participated in Save the Children’s programmes before moving to the Netherlands,” she says. “I think it’s important to give something back to society, and that has always been my goal in life.”

This weekend, Denisa will be flying to her native city of Durrës to distribute the donated items. “We collected far more than expected. That’s why we’ve asked Save the Children to work together with us in distribution,” she explains.

Besides handing out clothes, blankets and other items, Denisa will also be offering help to the earthquake survivors. “I still need to consult with Save the Children regarding which tasks I’ll be taking on. But whatever I end up doing, I’ll be making myself available for a period of four weeks.”

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The collection drive has been rounded off. The boxes full of donated items are ready for transport, and Denisa has packed her suitcase. She heaves a sigh. In her memories, the streets of Durrës are still unscathed. “When I was little, all I did was play outside with the other kids in the neighbourhood, until late in the evening,” she remembers with a smile. But she probably won’t be returning to the city of her childhood. “I don’t know what to expect when I arrive there,” she says.

Although she does know one thing for sure: she’ll be spending her Christmas holidays helping as many people as she can. Except during New Year’s, which she will spend with her family. “Albanians always spend New Year’s Eve with their family. And so will I. I’m so grateful that they weren’t hurt.”