Returnee Meeting 2021: A Space of Meaningful Encounters

Published: December 15, 2021

We had a party! On November 6, 2021 we celebrated the Returnee Meeting at the Gabrium close to Vienna. It was a remarkable event and I talked to Sabine Selinger, who organized the wonderful get together, about how she experienced it. This is what she told me about it:

Sabine, you just threw a huge party for the 60th birthday of the Technical Advisor Programme in Austria and the 20th birthday of HORIZONT3000: the Returnee Meeting 2021. You came by the other day and asked me, whether I would like to have a chat with you about the event in order to publish it on the KNOW-HOW3000 News. What prompted you to do so? What was your motivation behind it?

Martina Ressmann (Moderation) and Sabine Selinger

Well, first of all, I asked you because I am a fan of the KNOW-HOW3000 News! I enjoy reading the posts and newsletters. And I thought the wonderful event that we just had deserved a special place there for everyone to see. The attendees were so happy to be there and I wanted to share this feeling and the outstanding occasion via this channel as well.

What’s more, I wanted to bring a part of what’s happening in the returnee community into KNOW-HOW3000 and ultimately to TAs and partners. And while TAs are still out there working at their project, it is most likely nice to get a glimpse of what is going to happen once you are back in the Austrian community as returnees.

I’d describe my approach to managing the meeting as a very personal one. Communicating with the people directly means a lot to me and I think it makes a big difference for the event in the end. People respond immediately to invitations and confirm their attendance, if you write them a personal letter for instance. So, I think I can confidently say that the event does have my personal touch to it.

Why would you say that TAs, who are still on their assignments, should read this interview and get to know more about the recent Returnee Meeting? How can they benefit from it?

Petra Navara interviewing Anton Mair on camera

People, who have taken the preparation course in Vienna and have attended Returnee Meetings after their assignments, have expressed their highly appreciated inspiration that they got from the event and the community there. The people you get to meet at Returnee Meetings are best described as a colorful melting pot – some did their assignments in the 60s others just came back a couple of months ago.

The realization that we share a certain motivation across the generations and continue to make a contribution to the cause is why I think it is worth experiencing it and of course it leaves you very inspired. It’s a connection that is hard to put in words, but it makes you see things from a different point of view: For instance, when taking the train and seeing an older person, I start wondering what’s the person’s story. You never know. It might just be somebody who spent the 60s in Bolivia and has an attitude towards life that we all could learn from a lot. Mingling with the people at the Returnee Meeting opens up this perspective for me.

That’s the reason why one of my main goals when organizing these events is to create a space, where this kind of connection can flourish, where people feel comfortable and part of the same cause, of the same community.

What was your personal highlight at this year’s Returnee Meeting?

Marc our guy with the camera and Sabine goofing around behind the scenes

Wow, my personal highlight… let me think (smiles). It’s hard to put it in a few sentences only, but I’ll try. On the one hand, what has really deeply touched me, was the ceremonial act from Toni Meier together with the quartet that accompanied him musically. Maybe the fact that I could let go of all of the event management stress at this point contributed a bit to my emotional response too, but I really felt that this part of the programme triggered something very beautiful in me – and others as I have heard later that day. The speech he gave together with the music matched just perfectly.

Another highlight is definitely the feedback that I have received in the last couple of days. There were so many positive and heartfelt words coming from different people, who shared their appreciation of my efforts, for creating this space of community and all the work that comes along with it. This made me feel that my organizing the event is truly being valued.

And sensing that the people went home with a very meaningful experience of exchange with others in their pockets was very gratifying for me.

What was the biggest challenge waiting for you in the process of putting together such an outstanding event?

During the preparation and organization period, I would say that the biggest challenge was the limited period of time to get everything set. That is probably also due to Covid, but we should have calculated a longer preparation phase. The tight schedule and the fact that – until the last weeks before the event – the entire management was a one woman show run by myself definitely made things more challenging. In the final phase I was very lucky that Sebastian, an intern, backed me up two days a week. This had a very positive effect on my quality of sleep (laughs).

On top of the tight schedule and the limited resources I had, there was the usual daily business (work permits, visa etc.) as well that I had to take care of. I guess, what I am trying to say is that the last months have left a mark, but in the end they were still very much worth it.

In retrospect: What would you have liked somebody to tell you at the very beginning of planning the event? Are there any learnings that you will carry with you for the next Returnee Meeting?

Toni Mair, Günter Klingenbrunner, Franziska Böhm, Maria Ruckenstuhl, Karl Hinteramskogler, Rudolf Walter, Friedrich Dreier, Brigitte Fong, Annemarie Behmel, Klaus Behmel, Richard Drexel, Erwin Eder

Since this one wasn’t my first Returnee Meeting, I already had some learnings that I could rely on. There are, however, always new lessons waiting to be learned. When reflecting on how it all went down, I actually did make a list of a couple of things.

A very important personal learning was to not get stressed out too much. Some things I had to deal with like technical issues but also emergency issues – that the people hopefully didn’t even notice – stressed me out quite a bit. During the event we we found ways to handle them and everything worked out just fine. Next time, I hope I can take things easier and trust that everything will be okay (laughs).

For the Returnee Meeting 2023 I want to make sure that the main structure of the event is finished way earlier. Actually, I already have some exciting ideas for the next Meeting in 2023, which I have to write down and keep track of in order to start implementing them a lot earlier next time.

Is there anything you want people to know – above all – the ones who attended this time, but maybe also the ones who didn’t and the TAs, who are still on their assignments but will be returnees at some point?

The message I would like to send out to the world, the returnees and all of the returnees to be is: Keep in mind that taking the decision to go on an assignment is – in most cases – a life changing one. A lot of things change during this period of our lives. What I came to notice is that at the Returnee Meetings, people get the chance to connect to these periods of their lives again, to the persons they were and became back then.

At the same time, it gives them the opportunity to connect with people, who have and are experiencing the same. And the overall connection to the development cooperation community gets strengthened again. This time we put a focus on Papua New Guinea and even the returnees, who never worked there, really enjoyed the information and experiences shared about the country during the event.

Therefore, the event also provides an opportunity to follow your interests and check out what’s new in terms of development cooperation and beyond. Not everybody works in development cooperation only. So, it is also a great networking event.

What I most cherish is observing people reconnecting to this “TA spirit” and walking out of the meeting with recharged inspiration and positivity. They feel enriched and so do I. I love being able to create these spaces, where people can come together to be real and give meaning to their encounters.

See you at the next Returnee Meeting! 🙂

Sarah Fichtinger

Sarah Fichtinger

Sarah is part of the Knowledge Management Team in Vienna and in charge of the KNOW-HOW3000 platform. She is eager to provide all the tools the KNOW-HOW3000 community hopes to find on the internet platform. So if you have any requests, questions, recommendations or comments regarding the platform, please get in touch with her. She is always happy to hear from you.

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