This morning I had coffee in a dispensary; this project is taking me to strange places.

When we visited Gjelane’s neighbours last month and discovered how many of them had kids in the same position as her (unable to go to school because they’d missed the registration period, and unable to pass the test which offered the only way in after the registration period had closed) we discovered something else.  Despite the availability of free vaccines in Kosovo, in the 21 houses we visited we found 60 kids who didn’t have all their vaccines.  In part that’s because they don’t go to school – vaccinations which children should have after the age of 6 are administered through the school, so missing out on education means missing out on other life-changing or life-saving opportunities.

When we asked whether parents would be willing to send their kids for vaccines if we organised it with the local health centre, all but one family said they would (the dissenting father said ‘my kids don’t need vaccines’.  It’s the same father who brought home the mouldy bread but is now sending his kids to school where they lick their lips over the fruit yoghurts they get from us for breakfast).

So last week I went to the local health centre, about a 10 minute walk from our classrooms.  I met the doctor there and explained about the 60 children we’d found unprotected from TB, polio, measles, hepatitis and the rest.  He was wearing a white coat with a cartoon elephant on it which I presume was part of his paediatric specialism, to give kids something to look at as he jabbed them in the arm – and I liked him for it immediately. He was extremely friendly and said he was willing to help, but I could tell he was skeptical about the idea of so many children in his catchment area being without such basic health care. ‘Are you sure they understood what you were asking? We’ll check in our files – we might find that they have actually had the vaccines, and we wouldn’t want to vaccinate them twice.’ I handed over a photocopy of our notes from the home visits and he said he’d call me.

This week he did, and today I went to meet with him.  He was still friendly and definitely willing to help.  And today there was something else, like embarrassment or apology.  He explained what had happened: they had checked the data I’d given him and had been surprised to find that it was true that so many kids were without vaccinations.  So then they had decided to get out the files of every child in Neighbourhood 29 and the next-door Neighbourhood 28 and had checked the records not just of the families we’d visited but of everyone.

‘There are 200 children without their basic vaccinations,’ he said, shaking his head.  I stared at the elephant on his white coat like overwhelmed people in his surgery must do every day. It was unbelievable really.  And it also gave me an idea of how many kids there must be out of school.  His list shows about 30 kids missing vaccines in each age group – 30 born in 2004 (those are the 7 year-olds who should be at school by now), and another 30 born in 2005, and so on.  Those kids can’t be at school or they’d have had their vaccines, and his list doesn’t even include families who haven’t registered with the health service (we know from our home visits there are some of those).  So while we are priding ourselves on our 50 kids coming to classes with us, in the six year groups we serve (9 to 16 year-olds) it seems likely that there might be in fact something like 180 kids who could be coming to classes.

I filed that away in a mental ‘mathematical models to check out’ folder, and focused on what the doctor was proposing.  As I understood what he was suggesting I realised that this was a public health hero.

What’s going to happen is that every Tuesday – starting this week – from 8am to 10am (before our lessons start) a team of his health centre’s vaccinators is going to base themselves in our teaching space.  They’ll take one ‘generation’ of children per week, beginning with those born in 2004.  Anyone from Neighbourhoods 28 or 29 with kids in that year group is welcome to bring them.

I smiled at the doctor and his team.  What wonderful people.

‘And you must have time for a drink’ said the doctor, ushering me into the dispensary where the little butane ring was already gurgling with tarry Turkish coffee. It was 7.15 am (they had the early shift this week, the doctor explained) and my stomach lurched.  But the grinning elephant gave me confidence in this kind, careful man.  Obedient as the mothers of Neighbourhood 29 may well prove to be on Tuesday, I sat down politely and let the doctor prescribe me a shot of strange liquid to start my day with a kick.

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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