The kindness of strangers

When I first moved to Kosovo, nearly 5 years ago, I was acutely aware of my vulnerability.  Unable to speak the language or navigate the culture or systems, I spent much of my days alone in a bewildering land.  I should have been the perfect target for scamming, robbing, disrespect but in fact I experienced not a single example of such treatment, as I threw myself on the kindness of strangers, and in return received nothing but welcome, help and gifts. In many cases I could scarcely even say ‘thank you’.

My experience over the last few weeks, starting our project in Fushe Kosove, has felt similar. Of course my own situation is wildly different – I now have all the security offered by linguistic confidence, a Facebook portfolio of great Kosovan friends, and about a seventh of my life spent here.  But nevertheless, what we’ve set out to do has only been possible because of spontaneous, sometimes anonymous acts of generosity by strangers or near-strangers.

We’ve needed it – needed donations in kind, needed money for the ongoing expenses of running classes and a rented space, and we’ve needed volunteers’ time.

This is how it worked today… The augurs were there when we walked into the building.  Where before the corridor carpet had been a strip of unfitted remnant (we decided we couldn’t justify the expense of carpeting the corridor when we got the classrooms done), now other bits of remnant had been laboriously and neatly jigsawed together so that the entire floor was padded.  I went down to ask the landlord about it and he grinned proudly. ‘Yeah, that was me!’  it was a truly – unnecessarily – kind act.

There was more to come.

Just before the end of the morning, two visitors arrived, having heard about our work.  They were from international organisations and they stayed for our closing circle, the awarding of stars, and then met with me briefly.  One of them explained she would like to recommend our project for a grant of 1000 USD.  There was a simple form to fill out, which she handed me in hard copy there and then.  It seemed too easy to be true, and I burbled my thanks.

As she got up to leave she handed me a banknote.  ‘And this is from me personally’. I calculated how many yoghurts it would buy for the hungry kids, and became more incoherent in my thank yous.

When we arrived back in Pristina from Fushe Kosove, Laura and I went to meet with the United Nations Development Programme and the head of the United Nations Volunteers programme in Kosovo.  They’d come to visit our classes last week and had asked then how they might be able to help.  We’d drafted a list of what we needed for them, and they had it in front of them as we sat down for a coffee this afternoon. It was covered in highlighter pen.

‘These are the things we’ll be able to help with,’ they began.  They read through our list, jumping from fluorescent yellow item to fluorescent yellow item.  Ongoing costs like rent, transport, cleaning, yoghurts – no.  A few particular items of furniture – no. Pretty much everything else on the list – YES!  As they read on, itemising tables and bookshelves and board markers, Laura and I caught one another’s eye.  It didn’t feel real.

I remembered Arjeta’s friend’s words when we brought in the loaned tables on Monday, ‘it’s like a real classroom’.  We really were almost there.

My head was still dizzy with calculations.  If these donors couldn’t help with yoghurts and cleaning costs and rent, I wondered how much more money we needed to raise, and was still wondering how to do it.  But I had an hour on email before going out to the next meeting, and waiting for me was a notification of two PayPal payments (, each for £105.  That’s two kids’ worth of breakfast and rent etc.  One was from an old friend, and the other from someone I’d never met. A stranger, and a kindness indeed.

It seemed too much to hope that the final meeting of the day, with more strangers, might lead to more of the same.  But Laura and I headed to the American University of Kosovo to speak to student members of the charity club there about our project. There were ten students in attendance, and by the time we left we had 8 of them committed to running regular additional classes with our kids in afternoons or at the weekend.

It’s been an extraordinary day; money, resources, volunteers, all offered to us by a stream of good people making giving look easy.  Of course there’s more that we need (I still don’t know where the daily yoghurts and fruit, or the rent will come from in June) but the kindness of strangers is seductive. Somehow it will work out.

When I moved here 5 years ago, I had difficulties in saying thank you in response to the generosity of the people who looked after me; ‘faleminderit’ is one of the longest, most ungainly words of thanks of any language I know.  Right now, I’m having the same problem – I’ve got my tongue round Albanian, but it’s still really difficult to say thank you properly.  Because of course it’s not for me to say – because it’s not to me that these things are given. But I know what Gjelane would say if she knew about all these details, and I know what Arjeta’s friend said when she saw the classroom furniture earlier this week.  It is indeed like a real classroom.  Faleminderit.

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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