By Vishalini Sivarajah
In May, I travelled to Kosovo with ten other students from McMaster University on a trip facilitated by the Global Youth Volunteer Network, a non-profit volunteer organization. For the month, we worked with an organization called the Balkan Sunflowers (BSF). Rand Engel, an American living in Kosovo, founded this organization in 1999 in the wake of the Kosovo War, which was a step in the journey to Kosovo’s independence from Serbia. Independence was declared in 2008, but it is still not recognized by Serbia.
Kosovo is composed of five ethnic groups: Albanians and Serbians, who form a majority, and the Roma, Ashkali and Egyptians, who form a minority. Ethnic Albanians in the area wanted to separate from Serbia and form their own country. The resultant war was a continuation of a long existing conflict between Albanians and Serbians, which is thought to have started as early as the 14th century.
This area in Europe made headlines worldwide in the 1990s as the Yugoslavia Confederation crumbled, and as ethnic conflicts and cleansing began. In the midst of these wars, the minority groups in Kosovo, namely the Roma, Ashkali and Egyptian communities, were caught in the middle. They lived in fear and were often threatened by once friendly neighbours merely because of their ethnicity. Living in this constant fear made it difficult to lead a normal life, and as such, many stopped going to school.
In the Roma community, the students that did remain in school had difficulty with the language barrier, as they did not speak the majority languages (Albanian and Serbian), but instead spoke various dialects of the Romani language.
This problem was worsened because their parents’ lack of education, resulting in parents not being able to help their children with schoolwork. In these minority communities, children do not stay in school very long. Many girls often drop out of school after grade five or six in order to get married in their mid teens and start a family. This is a common practice because the unemployment rate in the country is 40%, and is even higher in the minority communities. The unemployed rely on welfare payments, which are only given to families with children. As such, there has not been much motivation to stay or succeed in school. The BSF was created to change that. It has set up learning centres for minority children to receive extra help in math and language courses when they are not at school. There are four in total, located in Gracanica, Fushe Kosove, Plemetina and Shtime. My team split up into four groups, and each was assigned to a different learning centre. I had the pleasure of working at the Plemetina Learning Centre (PLC) with two of my teammates for the month.
Plemetina was a camp originally established for internally displaced people during the war in Kosovo. There were shelters set up in the area, which were supposed to be temporary, but are still used today. The UN funded the construction of two apartment buildings in the town a few years ago. Since then, fires and maintenance issues threaten the health and safety of the residents.
The school system in Kosovo is structured differently from North America. There is limited space in schools, and far too many students, so schools have to operate on a shift system where kids attend school in the morning or in the afternoon. Kids from neighbouring areas (called mahalahs) come to the centre when they are not at school. At the centre, we had three shifts—two in the morning, and one in the afternoon. Kids were split up into different classes based on their grade. There was also a preschool class for children that hadn’t started school yet so they could get a head start on mastering the Serbian language. The kids who were in school receive short math and language lessons from a learning facilitator, who is also from a mahalah close by. By hiring locally, a greater sense of community could be fostered in the learning centres. A few tutors were also present in the classrooms to provide extra assistance to the students.
On our first day, Faton, one of the centre’s learning facilitators, met us in Pristina, the city in which we were staying, to take us to Plemetina. The commute, which we made twice a day, consisted of a 15-minute walk, a 20-minute bus ride and a 10-minute taxi ride. We were introduced to the people who work there, such as Valjbona (the preschool facilitator), Goni (a tutor), Sanela (the learning centre coordinator), and Lotte (a German volunteer doing a year-long stay in Plemetina). After a few quick hellos, we went inside one of the three classrooms in the building, which was Faton’s class. I sat beside a second grade boy who was working on some three-digit subtraction problems. I noticed that he was having some trouble, and despite the language barrier, I was able to help him by showing him how to do single digit subtraction questions.
During the lunch break that day, Lotte took us to meet her host family. One of her host sisters went to the local store to buy “black juice”, which is better known as Coke. Even though the host family wasn’t very well off, they insisted on providing us with something to drink because it was important to them. When a gesture like this is made, it should never be rejected. Instead, it should be received with the utmost gratitude.
The host family was friendly, and they were very interested in the new Canadian volunteers. The host mother remarked that I resembled a Roma girl, and insisted this was a compliment. Throughout the month, I was continually mistaken as a Roma girl. I even had people come up to me and start speaking in Romani. This made me feel very welcome amongst this community.
Lotte, who not only spoke German, Serbian and a bit of Romani, spoke enough English to be able to teach us many useful words and phrases in Serbian. With many of her “after school lessons”, we were able to learn mathematical terminology and the Serbian alphabet. Equipped with this new, important knowledge, we were able to communicate with the children and assist them in a much more efficient manner.
Math and reading were the easiest to help the children with. Our biggest accomplishment was increasing their understanding of multiplication by helping them construct time table charts up to the twelve times tables. Prior to our assistance, the majority of the kids would, for example, add four seven times instead of multiplying four by seven to get twenty-eight.
In addition to offering math/language lessons and homework help, the centre also provided lunch for every child that attended class. Pasta, white bean soup, rice pudding and bread were frequently served along with some meat. The centre’s cook, Hajrie, arrived early each morning to cook these wonderful meals, which were able to feed the children, employees and even the Canadian volunteers. She would also make the employees and volunteers a piping hot cup Turkish coffee every morning. Even though she spoke did not speak English, and I did not know enough Serbian to keep up a conversation, her warm smile and kind nature always made me feel welcome.
Hajrie’s meals really taught me to appreciate the wide variety of healthy food that is available in to me at home. For many children in the centre, this lunch was probably the healthiest food they had all day. From some of the children’s visible tooth decay, it was clear that their diet was largely composed of processed sugars, and that they were not able to take very good care of their teeth. Many of the children were also short and very thin, further indicating that they did not have access to wholesome food. These children can only eat what they can afford, and what they can afford is not necessarily good for them. It soon became clear that in North America, we are very fortunate in that we can be “picky” about our food, whether that is through eating healthy food, or even being vegetarian.
The kids in Plemetina were successful in making me feel welcome at the centre. Each day, we picked them up from their homes before class and dropped them off afterwards. When walking them to or from the centre, groups of kids would “fight” over who got to hold the volunteers’ hands. A nine-year-old girl named Gina was quick to befriend me. She did not like it when I did not sit beside her in the classroom or walk her home after class. She was always very interested in learning about my life. For instance, she wanted to know “where I was sleeping” and “where my mother was”. I explained, with the help of Faton as a translator, that I was staying in Pristina, and that my mother was in Canada. We became such good friends; she even painted my nails and braided my hair a couple of times. In turn, I helped her with multiplication and reading. After my last day at PLC, I saw Lotte again in Pristina, and she told me that Gina had asked her if I was gone forever. It broke my heart a little to hear that, but I knew that the centre received many international volunteers, and that this sort of turnover was something that the kids must have experienced before.
The tutors and facilitators also made it very easy to feel at home in the centre. We were treated like good old friends, and quickly became a part of the antics that took place during lunch break and after school. The number of times I’ve been playfully carried or tossed in the air exemplifies that. We learned many different games—which usually involved some form of playful hitting—from our new friends. The use of computers, phones and other sorts of technology were not required. These kinds of games built real, tangible friendships, the kinds that cannot be made by sitting in front of a screen for hours and hours.
After a few days, we grew more accustomed to the centre and the daily schedule. In the morning sessions, we assisted the older children, whose school level ranged from grade 2 to 6. In the afternoon session, the kids were split into a preschool, grade 1/2 and grade 3/4 class. In a day, as many as 75 children would come to the centre. In the afternoon, I worked in the preschool class with Valjbona. Many of these children, who were five years old or younger, were just learning Serbian, thus, the activities in this class were language and writing based. For instance, we learned about some familiar stories like Goldilocks and the Three Bears and The Three Little Pigs.
The centre had an innovative way of encouraging all of the students. Each classroom had a poster on the wall of a garden, a tree or a solar system. On the poster, each student was represented by a symbol such as a flower, an apple or a star. At the end of class, the facilitator would move each student’s symbol up 1-5cm based on how well they did that day. The first student to reach the top of the large poster would win a prize. The children were never competitive about this motivational tool. They would cheer for their friends who were approaching the top of the poster and exchange high fives with the facilitators. With this kind of encouragement from the learning centres, more students are succeeding in school and pursuing higher education.
Near the end of the month, two KFOR (Kosovo Force) soldiers came to PLC to see how the centre is operated. KFOR is a peacekeeping force that was employed in Kosovo by NATO. UN and NATO soldiers are still on patrol in Kosovo, mainly to ensure that there is no violence between the various ethnic groups. They speak to important leaders of the communities to mediate between them, and patrol large events to ensure that no violent outbursts occur. The NATO soldiers that came to PLC were very interested in us Canadian volunteers, and, to our surprise, they took the three of us out for dinner the next day. They told us more about what they do, which included speaking to members of the community, and making sure roads and buildings were intact. They are a part of a team of 21 soldiers, who are responsible for 80 municipalities in the country.
We were also lucky to experience a Roma, Ashkali and Egyptian Culture Week. There were events all throughout Pristina, such as concerts, plays, documentary showcases and photography exhibits. We attended an event everyday after working at the centres. Another popular Roma cultural event is the Rolling Film Festival, which showcases films about Roma populations all over the world.
After being home for two months, I still feel very connected to the people I met in May. The ability for these people to find pleasure in the simplest things, and to be happy despite circumstances that many would consider tragic, are inspiring. These amazing people have shown me that having less makes life more enjoyable. Most importantly, the war survival stories that they have shared make all of those so-called “first world problems” seem so silly. Comparing daily problems we experience in North America, such as a slow Internet connection, to being the target of ethnic cleansing, is unthinkable. Kosovars may not have to directly deal with war-related issues anymore, but they have lost a lot—homes, possessions, relatives and even friends—as a result of the war, and that sense of pain and loss is something that they have to face everyday for the rest of their lives. The experiences of the Roma and other minority populations, and really, all Kosovars, truly puts things into perspective for me, and that is something I will never forget.
Vishalini Sivarajah is studying Health Sciences and specializing in Global Health at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario.