It’s not just one. A day in the life of The Ideas Partnership, Saturday 14 January 2017

jwg_7948It’s been a long time since I’ve updated this blog, but my experiences in Fushe Kosove this weekend came after having a series of conversations with people where I tried to summarise the range of what The Ideas Partnership now does and how we try to respond to the needs in the communities where we work, and particularly how we try to

  • Help people in need
  • Help people in need to help themselves, and
  • Help people in need to help others in need

It’s nice to place it on the Getting Gjelane to School blog and be reminded how far our activities have developed in the 6 years since the first post here. Hopefully it also shows the fantastic range of support that makes our initiatives work – it comes with a huge thank you to our staff, volunteers, donors and friends.

So this was what I saw of a day in the life of The Ideas Partnership this weekend

9.15: I leave home with a rucksack full of clothes that have been donated by friends in Prishtina and Tirana to be distributed to the families we work with

9.25 I meet in Prishtina with fellow volunteer Medina and our driver Elvir to go to Fushe Kosove. Elvir is one of our bursary recipients from the community and is at university (in exchange for his bursary he offers a free lift each week to hospital to people from his community). He tells us that he has his English exam later this month so during the journey Medina and I try some English coaching

9.45 We arrive at the centre in Fushe Kosove. Many of the team are already there – staff from the community sorting out the fruit juice and boxes of fruit we offer as a healthy snack to the children who attend our Saturday academic support activities. Also busy with compiling attendance lists are the Little Teachers, teenagers from the community who are being supported by our volunteers Rron and Arian with critical thinking and pedagogy skills to have the chance of becoming teachers in the state system one day (since there are currently no teachers or other staff from the community working in the local schools). On Saturdays they use their skills to help the younger children in their community.

10.00 Despite the snow, the children arrive – about 60 of them today. They split into classes to learn English, maths and literacy from our volunteers.

Meanwhile, I chat to the team. Our community health assistant, Bajramsha, and I discuss the case of a woman with a nasty fungal foot infection and the recommendation we had from a UK-based podiatrist for how to manage it.

The team discusses what can be done to support families in particular need in the desperate temperatures of this winter (last week it reached minus 20). It’s agreed that the centre manager, Jashar, and others will identify five families most in need to start an appeal for food or coal to help them through these hard days.

Arijeta, our Girls Club co-ordinator, wants to talk about an idea of getting an older woman from the community to teach the teenage girls at Girls Club how to knit so they could use some donated wool we have from the UK to make blankets for new-born babies.

We also discuss the possibility of a gentle Keep Fit class for older women at our centre. We’ve identified that many women in this community don’t have many opportunities to leave their homes and this would be a way of promoting healthy lifestyles. We agree that we’ll put out a call for a female volunteer willing to do this once a week.

Our discussions are interrupted by a man at the door. He’s a rubbish-picker whose wife attends our women’s literacy classes. He’s heard that we’ve received a donation of glasses and would like a pair. He leaves, able to see.

Our cleaner, Agron, comes to ask whether he might be able to have a pair of glasses. Since starting work with us he’s become interested in improving his literacy skills and is having regular lessons with one of our volunteers. But he’s realised that he can’t see the letters clearly. So that’s one more person who’s able to see by the end of the day, thanks to the kind collection of spectacles from Laure and her friends in the UK. Before I leave another man has come in having heard about the donation. I know him only as the father of a man we helped a while ago when his house had an electrical fire and they lost all their furniture, with the windows blown out by the fire and had nowhere to sleep. Now we’re able to help him with a pair of glasses too.

I discuss with the co-ordinator in Fushe Kosove, Hysni, what we can do about the case of two children forcibly returned from Germany who should therefore be entitled to enter the school system in Kosovo immediately. However, because they and their family had been taken by the police to be sent back to Kosovo with no warning the children have no documents to prove their school attendance so the Kosovo school system won’t accept them. They’ve been told to attend intensive classes – but the municipality say they have no money to run the intensive classes. One of our volunteers translated a request into German and we’ve now had a confirmation from the school in Germany of their attendance. Hysni’s going to forward it to the Ministry.

Outside, it starts to snow again.

Hysni and I also discuss what can be done with the other 60 children awaiting the intensive classes which are their only way into education, but which the municipality in Fushe Kosove say they can’t organize for the children. We want to support these children and make sure they don’t slip away or get cold feet about education while their municipality considers the formal request we’ve made for the classes to restart, as is required by law. We don’t want the children to go back to begging and rubbish-picking – or the girls to get ‘married’ – but we shouldn’t be doing the municipality’s job for them, and nor would classes we run be accredited by the Ministry. We plan the support that’s possible on Saturdays.

While we’re talking, 8 year-old Olti comes in with his grandmother. He doesn’t have a father or mother but his grandmother and great-grandmother look after him, going through the bins for recyclable scrap in order to support themselves and the boy. A family abroad sponsor Olti through us with some money each month for food for the family and while the grandma gets help from Bajramsha today  with medication she needs, Olti writes a thank you letter to send to the family who help him.

Hysni and I also discuss the possible support to another particularly vulnerable child who’s out of school and only just surviving under the care of her father who has mental health difficulties. One of our team went to visit the family recently and discovered that they have no running water and are washing with what they bring in buckets straight from the sewage-polluted river. She wants to offer 1:1 support to the girl so Hysni and I discuss the scheduling of these sessions.

12.00 It’s the end of the first shift of activities. Some new volunteers arrive and the children in the older group. Also here now is Erlehta, our physiotherapist, here to run sessions for children with mobility difficulties, and for their parents, to give them help with supporting their children at home.

One of the pupils from the second shift comes to see me. She explains that she doesn’t have a birth certificate. She was born in Bosnia she says but she has no documents and she’d like help with getting registered. I have no idea how she would do this. However, one of our bursary recipients – Bekim – who is volunteering as a teacher this afternoon, used to work for an organization who supported families with civil registration so I’m able to ask him to help the girl.

12.30 I go to visit the Krasniqi family – a widow and her 6 children aged 5 to 14. I take money that was collected for them by supporters in the UK – pocket money for the children on condition that they go to school (and don’t take up their late father’s wheelbarrow to go rubbish-picking instead), and money to support their mum. She gives me her electricity bill which a supporter has offered to pay.

In the road there’s a woman in slippers in the snow, pushing a wheelbarrow. She looks really cold. When she recognizes me she asks if we could give some clothes for her children during this terrible weather. I’m able to refer her to Hysni at the centre, knowing that recently we’ve had some generous donations for distribution.

14.00 It’s the end of the second shift of academic support activities, though not the end of the activities at the centre – there’s still the Girls’ Club that will be held later this afternoon, working with young teenagers to tackle the issue of early marriage. But I leave for Prishtina, together with volunteer Mirjeta who’s been teaching a child his alphabet this afternoon. She’s asking whether it would be possible for her to come a few extra times a week to work 1:1 with him. ‘I know it’s only one child but even if it’s only one then it’s worth it’ she says.

But it’s not just one.

__________

There’s more about the work of The Ideas Partnership at http://www.theideaspartnership.org/wp or on Facebook

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In their shoes!

little boy having his foot measured

Blog by Ideas Partnership volunteer Kaltrina Kusari

If you enter any store towards the end of August, you immediately see “Back to School” displays. All those colorful notebooks and backpacks lure kids in, making them believe that they really need those items. For the parents who can afford to spend, trips to such stores are fun because their kids are happy. Seeing such families shop for school materials is also fun because it is nice to see kids excited about school.

At the same time, you cannot help but wonder about those kids who cannot afford to buy a new backpack, or a new set of pens and pencils.

I grew up in a family that could afford to buy me all the things that I liked. I never wanted too much, but it was nice to have that one red backpack that was so popular. I did not even feel the weight of the books in my way to school – I was too happy to notice! I was so caught up in my own happiness that I barely noticed my peers who entered the class holding their heads down.

It was not until last summer that I put myself in the shoes of my less fortunate peers, working with kids who could barely afford to eat.  The faces of my students made me aware of my ignorance as a 7 year old. These kids did not want fancy backpacks, or the latest pencil set – they wanted something much more essential – they wanted an education.  And to get an education, they needed shoes and clothing.

So I got involved with TIP to try and make a difference in these kids’ lives. Unfortunately, I left Kosova to finish my university studies. I was sad to leave because there was so much I could help with there. Again, I was ignorant to the possibilities that globalization has brought about.
I kept in touch with TIP and helped with small tasks.

One of my tasks earlier this summer was to find a foot-measuring device, so we could spend less time trying to guess shoe sizes to match up the children’s feet with shoes we’d been donated. We 18 boxes of shoes arriving from tireless supporters abroad (thanks particularly to Margy Grosswendt and friends in the US, Barbara Hawkins and the people of Port Isaac, and David and Sarah Whetham, as well as others), and children in two project communities – Fushe Kosove and Janjeve – to try to match with the shoes. TIP volunteers  spent many hours trying to find the appropriate shoes for these kids, and all that time could have been spend on other activities that would assure these kids a better school year.

So, early this summer, I e-mailed a few shoe companies asking them to donate a kid’s foot-measuring device. Many companies replied, getting my hopes up, but then saying that they only ship within their countries. None of the companies that I contacted had a foot measuring device to donate. When I had almost given up, I received an e-mail from a research team from Austria. The Stomp Kids shoe company, which I had contacted earlier, forwarded my e-mail to a team that develops foot-measuring devices. The “chidren’s feet – children’s shoes” research team (www.kidsfeet.info) sent the device as soon as I sent them our mailing address.

Now, measuring feet size has turned into a new type of amusement for the new students. And I’ve realised this is one of the benefits of globalization – from a town in Canada, I can contact people in Austria who will help kids in Kosova.This results in happy kids with shoes ready for another wonderful school year…and a happy Kaltrina who feels that she has done something to help her society!

A huge thank you, faleminderit and hvala to the Children’s Feet-Children’s Shoes team, from a bunch of children who will be walking proudly to school next week to join their peers.

Posted in donations, guest blog | 1 Comment

Gjelane revisited. How have we spent the last year?

Hello! How have you been? It’s been more than a year since we’ve updated this blog (though people who’ve followed us on Facebook, where we are Theideaspartner Ship, have read about how our story’s continued). But today I bumped into Gjelane as I often do in the course of our work in Fushe Kosove, and it made me think that we should fill in what she and her friends (and we and our friends) have been doing in the past year.

You’ll remember how last year 9-year-old Gjelane wanted to go to school, how she was told she was too late to register, how we started classes for her, and discovered that she wasn’t alone and that there were at least sixty other kids in her community on the edge of Kosovo’s capital, Pristina, who also wanted to go to school and had also been told that they were too late. With the help of lots of people in and beyond Kosovo, over the course of six months we got these children registered for school.

So what happened then?

Well, we had a tear-jerking day as Gjelane and her 61 schoolmates set off for school with their brand-new rucksacks on 1 September.

a group of girls in pink backpacks walk along a road, overseen by a teacher

We had a tear-jerking (for different reasons) few days during the first week of September as eleven children were sent home from school by teachers facing over-crowded classrooms and pedagogical challenges. ‘Come back when we have our extension built’, ‘you’re too big for these chairs’,’you have fleas’ (the two children in question didn’t – we had a doctor check them) they were told. And it’s hard to convince a child back into class after the teacher has sent them home for fictional fleas in front of all their classmates.

So some of our children dropped out. Others wavered – and were convinced, cajoled and supported to keep going to school by our Family Advocate and father of seven, Hysni.

As the year went on we discovered how small economic disadvantage can open up huge gaps. If you were my daughter and you lost your schoolbag and the teacher won’t let you in class without your books then I’d pop out and buy you a new schoolbag. If the 20 euro it would cost has to be taken from an income of 75 euro a month for a family, then you’d better stay at home. When Kosovo had the harshest winter for a generation and 7am starts for school were dark and icy, my daughter would be taken the 2km to school in a car, but otherwise only the most committed kid will battle that every day on foot. When the school introduced a mandatory 6 euro uniform for every child, at 2 weeks notice, it was prohibitive for some families (especially those with more than one child at school). We helped with schoolbags, a kombi van and uniform costs.

four boys look out from the seats of a van

By February there were 11 of the children whose attendance was so patchy that the school said they wouldn’t be able to be considered to have passed the year. The only option for them was intensive catch-up classes where they could make up what they’d missed. By law, it is the municipality’s responsibility to run such classes. The municipality said that space was a problem, but then space was identified by one of the international agencies working in Kosovo. Then the municipality said that transport would be a problem, so the agency organised buses. Then the municipality said that security would be a problem, but that they would find a way to arrange the classes in the school by the end of March.

They didn’t. We wrote a formal request, signed by ourselves and other NGOs working in Fushe Kosove, for the classes to start in June. And although they didn’t start then, with us all continuing pressure on the municipality,  on 4 July the classes finally began. So now, those 11 children, and about 20 others are attending catch-up classes which should make them eligible to return to the mainstream system at the beginning of September.

We’ve had a go (with thanks to the Dutch Embassy) at transferring what we achieved in Fushe Kosove to another Roma community, in Janjevo, where we have run summer classes to prepare children for school in September too.

sitting at a table, a group of children with the giggles

Meanwhile, we’ve been seeing Gjelane most weekends, as all year long we have been running Saturday activities (art, maths, English, reading, and the occasional museum trip or sports day) open to all children in the neighbourhood – whether in school or not. We now have 120 children attending those classes, and a great group of a dozen local volunteers from the community helping us to run them. We’ve also started a smaller quiet play drop-in every weekday afternoon where children like Gjelane can come to draw, read or play with lego and other resources that they don’t have at home.

a row of children in the middle of singing a song

a young man shows the pages of a book to a group of children

Finally, while we haven’t been blogging, we’ve been developing our support to the children’s families in the ways that we believe will help keep their kids in school. This has included a soapmaking microfinance initiative (thanks to the Austrian Development Agency, the Kindness of Strangers and KFOS) for five of the children’s mothers (including Gjelane’s). The soaps are handmade with olive oil and essential oil and all the profit goes to the five women who make them. Gjelane’s mother, who used to sit with her hand out, outside the mosque on Fridays, has now run a stall at craft fairs, spoken on the radio about her new source of income and presented at a round table to women’s groups in the area.

two women stand by a radio station's sign

a woman smiles at the camera, surrounded by her soapmaking equipment

Meanwhile, Gjelane’s father is one of 5 men for whom we’ve run training and given equipment to become a shoeshiner, giving him another source of income alongside what he makes from collecting recyclable garbage. Gjelane’s uncle is one of the 12 men we’ve supported with a bicycle and trailer in another project to enable these men to travel further and more efficiently in their mini recycling enterprise. We’ve also linked the men with organisations in Pristina who are wanting to recycle their plastic bottles and cans, to give the men one small guaranteed source of income.

a man with a bike in front of a heap of rubbish

on a central city pedestrian street a man has his shoes shinedAnd we’ve offered English classes and adult literacy (Gjelane’s other uncle has been one of those who’ve started bravely at A and almost got to Zh) and IT classes to offer skills for the adults of Gjelane’s community to become more employable and have choices about their lives. We’ve also continued our clothing transfer project so that now 170 families in need have received sacks of secondhand clothes.

rails of clothes
And now we’re getting ready for our biggest logistical challenge yet – making sure that more than 100 children have a schoolbag and a pair of shoes to start the new school year. That means measuring more than 200 feet this week and matching them up with the varied range of shoes we’ve been donated. Gjelane’s younger brothers are due to start school this year and I saw them today too – a serious 6- and 7-year old nodding enthusiastically at me when I tell them that it’s only 10 days to go. Here’s hoping that they have a wonderful start, and that not only Gjelane, but all of us, and all of those at her school, have learned something in the last year.

a group of children with their parents holding their first school exercise books

Gjelane’s brothers, with others of the 27 children whose families we supported to register them for school so they can start with their peers in the first grade in September

A boy has his foot measured

If you want to learn more about our work, or you want to help, or buy some of Gjelane’s mother’s soap then do get in touch at theideaspartnership@gmail.com.
And Gjelane’s story is now told in a book published as
The Rubbish-Picker’s Wife; an unlikely friendship in Kosovo (Elbow Publishing, 2015) and available on Amazon

Posted in Adults, Families, registration | 1 Comment

Finding the words and images to say

three children working on drawingGuest blogger: Elisabetta Iberni

I still cannot say whether my first encounter with Elizabeth, in the Roma Mahalla of Mitrovica, happened by accident or by destiny. I have been working there for almost two years with Danish Refugee Council, in my capacity as clinical psychologist, on educational and health issues with the RAE community returned since 2007 from lead-polluted camps. So, when I found out that she was running catch-up classes for those children in Fushe Kosova, I realized how difficult and challenging her mission was. But her enthusiasm and energy proved instantly contagious and I was honoured to accept the invitation to offer psychosocial workshops in Fushe Kosova. So, I tiptoed into the atmosphere of this homemade school, where children are eager to learn new things and to improve their writing and reading skills so to decode the surrounding world. In the beginning, I just came to silently observe their classes, watching a vivid kaleidoscope of numbers, letters, colourful paintings and listening to the jingly alphabet repeated in chorus with the teacher Avdil for dozens of times. I am sure that I was more impressed than they were, looking at my notebook and wondering what I was writing on it. I can now tell you: from my notes on …July 2011 “in general, the majority of children tend to cooperate and support each other: especially the most skilled with the ones needing more time…they demand attention and constant feedback with an overwhelming rate…it is remarkable their capacity to accept constructive criticism about their performances”.

To participate in the psychosocial workshops, children are invited to fill an application and explain their motivation: Elizabeth proposes it as a proper task where children have to exercise their writing skills.   The most popular reason they mention is to learn, immediately followed by to read and to write. There are also some enthusiastic of visual arts who say that they like to draw, putting beside original paintings as if it was a competition for the best artists. And finally, the introspective ones (or maybe those who had a more precise understanding the aim of this exercise) tell that they would participate to talk and to express their feelings and emotions and someone said also because there won’t be noise so they can have a peaceful afternoon. To dedicate to everyone an adequate span of space and time, each workshop will host a maximum of eight children, so all of them will have chance to participate in rotation.

I have been sincerely surprised by the curiosity and spontaneity that children shown for exploring the immaterial dimension of their feelings and thoughts. Even the unleashed triad composed by Avdush, Gazmend and Afir, (which together resemble balls in a pinball machine), were sitting composedly at the working table holding in their hands a sharp pencil. They listen carefully the main objective, oriented to develop their creativity and imagination to better understand both the external and internal world and to learn how to know themselves. Presentations start and everybody says his/her name, age and name of brothers and sisters, so that I propose to draw their family. Feebly a tender protest rises up: they have too many people to draw if they want to represent realistically their family members. But they are already absorbed in their work; the most industrious complete the family portrait with names and ages.

Children’s drawings have a great power of unveiling emotional movements of their internal world, adaptations and responses to critical events such as the loss of an important caregiver or abandonment and terror instilled all day by the evil eyes of some adult living in a domestic environment deeply contaminated by violence. Sometimes the details revealing the unsaid may be the characters’ dimension, or their spatial distance, colours’ use, omissions and pressure on the sheet.

Florinda, 12 years didn’t draw her mother, who died a few months ago, and she neither wants to talk about it, though in a corner she drew and then cancelled the profile of two human figures closed and confused in a hug: it is a powerful symbol which can give off the deep meaning of a relationship that can’t be forgotten but also remembered to not feel pain for that place left empty. Children take a breath when finished to draw and some of them express a wish to talk about their fears and the future. And if the future is (almost) always bringing positive things, the present is often marked by death and roughness. Ajsha finds space to tell us a detailed and precise story where two boys had a fight and one died. I feel that there are many things that need being worked through, and probably it is not necessary to touch upon everything.

What matters more is to find words (and images) to tell them. The workshop came to its end and Erhan, 10 years old, approaches us smiling and sits, making himself well comfortable, on a chair in front of me, and says: “I want you to ask me questions, about who I am, what I like and what I don’t like, what I want and what I’m afraid of”. In my mind an insight pops up: this is a good stating point, the talking cure conquered the children of Fushe Kosova.

Posted in extra-curricular activities, General, guest blog | Leave a comment

Registered! Gjelane’s going to school :-)

So Friday was a great day, the Hollywood shot, as the children stepped out en masse across the mahalla to claim the education that was theirs by right.

But what was done at the ‘big school’ on Friday was only the assessment. The plan agreed with the municipality and ministry was that by yesterday we would receive the assessment conclusions for each child and that at some point before 20 July the children would then be officially registered.  The best movie director would be hard pressed to make a compelling scene out of such a process, but as time passed following our jubilant assessment day at the end of last week, even without a Hans Zimmer soundtrack I found I was on the edge of my seat.

When the end of the working day passed yesterday, without any assessment data sent through to us, and then midnight passed too, I started fearing conspiracy theories and doubting that we were going to keep to the timetable before all education staff went on holiday on 20 July.  This morning, however, I got a call from the school director.  The assessment data was ready and I should go and collect it.

In his office he handed me the list of names with a recommended entry class for each child.  It was signed by all members of the commission, and had a reassuring big school stamp on it. Great.

‘And when might the children be registered?’ I asked politely.

‘They are! This is the official confirmation.’

Hans Zimmer’s orchestra crescendoed and the camera whirled around the room, my grinning face, panned to Gjelane out in her yard playing with their new puppy and looking up with a small confident smile, wiped to Ajnur saying ‘ueh!’ which is Fushe Kosove speak (now adopted by me) for ‘wow’, and then went wobbly round the edges so we know that this is an image of the future showing Besmire, who always wanted to be a doctor, all qualified and standing in the door of her surgery in 2030 welcoming a different generation of children for their vaccinations.

All this while I was quietly, jubilantly shaking the director’s hand.   It was a milestone moment – the end of an extremely long and sometimes wearying process.  But it’s not really the end – for those 52 children this is just the beginning.

Gjelane’s story is now told in a book published as The Rubbish-Picker’s Wife; an unlikely friendship in Kosovo (Elbow Publishing, 2015) and available on Amazon

Posted in changing policy, General, registration | 8 Comments

Virtual volunteering

Guest blog by Su Jones

By day I’m a senior design manager for a high street retailer, and in my evenings and weekends I am a virtual volunteer for The Ideas Partnership, working from the UK to remotely support the fantastic work the team in Kosovo are doing. Having worked with Elizabeth in a more hands-on capacity for the last 2 summers where my partner Paddy and I have used annual leave to be voluntourists, and having loved both experiences I was keen to support any further work and keep involved even if we weren’t able to afford the time to visit Kosovo this year. So, I became a virtual-volunteer, offering my support with planning and admin wherever I could, in particular helping to co-ordinate the volunteers for the forthcoming summer programme where we plan to teach English in the Fushe Kosove community to anyone who wants to learn (those who are registered for school and those who are hoping to get registered).

My role has been fairly small compared to the teaching commitments made by others, but I hope in some way the regular skype meetings, emails to volunteers, application form processing and information packs, along with the newsletters and campaign flyers that I have been able to use my design background to create, have helped to ease the pressure of those at the chalk-face (or should I say whiteboard) doing the real hard work, and it has been a real privilege to be involved and be asked to create guest blog to talk about the part I have played.

There have been times where my demanding day-job has eaten into my time, and when I have hastily driven back from work to jump straight onto another computer for a 2 hour skype meeting, whilst Paddy has placed food and drink in front of me with a look of patient understanding. And I’ll admit that once or twice during my skyping and scoffing I had questioned whether I was over-complicating my life, but then I’d read the emails and this blog and be humbled by how much Elizabeth and the team were pushing themselves to achieve their mission and my busy day would pale into insignificance. I also have a great reality check from the school stuck onto my fridge; it’s an early faleminderit poster from Selime (one of the first letters sent out in response to a donation I made to the project and probably some of the first letters of the alphabet Selime ever wrote). As a virtual volunteer it was lovely to receive something that was actually from the school, something tangible to have in our house and it’s a great advert for the project for our friends and family to see. Every time I go into our kitchen it reminds me of the progress that has been made since those letters were carefully scribed out back in the early days, to last Friday’s big day before the commission, and, after a long day at work it helps put things into perspective: I am really lucky to have had an education, to have been able pursue my career aspirations and I should never take that for granted.

I guess the moral of my blog is that volunteering is good for you and good for your stress levels, so no matter what time you have and what capacity you can work in (virtual or real) you should offer up some of your time for good causes like this because it makes you feel good too. And before I get too Jerry Springer on everyone, I would like to take this chance to plug the summer programme which starts on 18th July through to the end of August, I can highly recommend the tourist experience Kosovo provides and doing something worthwhile whilst you’re there. You don’t have to be a student, a teacher or have to take a sabbatical from work to do anything like this; it is possible to have a mini gap adventure with a 1-2 week break from any job. So if anyone fancies taking time out to do something different as well as getting a tan then please get in touch, it’s not too late to do something amazing with your summer break.

Posted in guest blog, Summer Programme | 2 Comments

Fifty two! And shall I count in fives or tens?

a girl writes at a chalkboard, questioned by a teacher and watched by her father

Gjelane’s dad watches her being assessed

Fifty two! That’s how many children came with us to be assessed for school on Friday.  Out of the 70 children who’ve been coming to classes with us for the last four months, I’d reckoned that 37 would definitely make it to the assessment – these are the children who’ve come almost every day, who’ve greeted me each morning with ‘and when are we going to the big school?’ Daily attendance at school is now part of their mental model of how you live.

And then there are the other 33 children who come to us less regularly, who have greater demands made on them by family for working or begging.  Would they make it to be assessed? Would Mentor come? It meant arriving at our classes an hour early that day. It meant walking a mile out of the mahalla, and into a large echoing state institution; I didn’t know how many of them really had the stomach for it.

Fifty two! The first ones were already waiting when we arrived at the rented flat where we’ve been running classes.  Florinda was wearing a startling flowery dress I’d not seen before. The sisters Mirjeta and Arjeta were wearing new matching pink Tshirts with sequin designs (matching clothes for siblings are particularly prized here, I’ve discovered, because it shows that they were bought new – not hand-me-downs or handouts, or lucky finds in a rubbish bin). Everyone had blown their nose (Astrit showed me two packets of tissues in his pocket, and Fidan standing by looked rather crestfallen). I went to Elvira’s house to check she had remembered that today she needed to come early.  She was washing her face at the standpipe in her yard. ‘I’m cleaning myself up – I don’t want anyone at that big school to say that the kids from Elizabeth’s school are palidhje‘, she reassured me. Palidhje is one of my favourite Albanian words – it means ‘stupid’ or, literally, ‘unconnected’. It struck me as a good metaphor for today, when the kids from ‘Elizabeth’s school’ were being connected up to the mainstream system for assessment.

And we set off – a straggling, giggling line of fifty odd children strung out across the mahalla. When we reached school we were greeted carefully by not only the school director but also the director of education for the municipality.  Later staff from Unicef and from the Ministry came too. It wasn’t just the kids who knew this was a big day.

The children were sat in a classroom (sat in a classroom! Even if the system somehow fails us for their registration next week, they’ve done it now.  As I watched them taking their place at the desks I thought how these children come from families who know a thing or two about squatters rights.  They’ve each made a part of that school their own now, and I think they’ll be back) and I was introduced to the Commission.

The Commission was made up of three kindly teachers from the school, the deputy director and a community representative.  The organisation Terre des Hommes which works with children at risk, including some of ours, had heard about the assessment process to be held and had got permission from the municipality to be in the room, along with me, as a friendly familiar face for the children from their caseload.

In fact the children scarcely seemed to need reassurance of that kind.  I was dispatched to collect each child one by one from the waiting room and bring them in.  On the way they skipped down the huge corridors, and only the occasional one snuck their hand into mine for a brief moment of reassurance.  That’s what struck me most about the day – their self-confidence, in their learning and in the rightfulness of taking their place in this school.  As I walked Astrit to the room for the assessment, I said to him, ‘don’t worry – they’ll just ask you what you know of your letters and numbers.’

‘I know up to 100’ he said. ‘Will they want me to count it in fives or tens?’ The children couldn’t wait to show their skills. And over three and a half hours, the commission conscientiously took notes of what each child could do.

So now we’re waiting. Tomorrow we’re due to receive the report from the commission which will identify for each child the class that they will enter school in.  And then, according to the action plan agreed by the Ministry and Municipality and Unicef, and submitted to the European Commission, the children will be officially included on the school’s register next week.

By the way, one of the children on that list will be Mentor.  He did turn up – late because he’d been working; and no new sequined Tshirt for him.  But he made it up to the commission’s blackboard, showed off his mental arithmetic, barked at the print (on Friday I heard 52 children stammer out the sentence, ‘my mother works a lot’) and then asked if he could go because his wheelbarrow was outside.  He should be on the register by the end of the week; the next challenge will be keeping him there.

Gjelane’s story is now told in a book published as The Rubbish-Picker’s Wife; an unlikely friendship in Kosovo (Elbow Publishing, 2015) and available on Amazon

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