Getting Gjelane to school before the Cannes film festival

I stood up in a room of fifty or so people.  I cleared my throat and they all listened to me.

No, I wasn’t in our school in Fushe Kosove, but in the government building in Pristina, attending a conference organised by the EU on the situation of the Roma, Ashkali and Egyptian communities in Kosovo.  This session was on education and the room was full with Ministry representatives, NGOs, and representatives of most of the international organisations and embassies in Kosovo.  If all these people pulled or pushed in the same direction we could get Gjelane to school with the flick of a microphone switch.  I did not want to mess this up.

I said what I had to say and people listened.  Some people nodded and a woman nearby even said ‘Bravo’ when I’d finished (her, I could have hugged).  Someone suggested a meeting of all the relevant stakeholders to try to resolve the issue and I could have hugged him too.  It’s always easy to criticise conferences for being just talk, but talk can change things sometimes.

And just by holding a conference you bring attention to an issue – we were contacted by the TV station today who wanted to do a story on us because they’d heard about the conference and our work.  The finished piece aired on the news tonight.  It started with pictures of the Ministry representatives and others with their simultaneous translation headsets at the conference, and then came the warm fuzzy footage of our kids in Fushe Kosove.  They did an interview with Jashar.  ‘Yeah, we learn things here.  Letters and stuff.  I’d like to thank all the people who made this school possible’ he said, as I welled up in front of the screen.  They interviewed Rob, the English teacher, too, and Vlora, and showed images of Avdyl at work, of children poring over their exercise books, a close-up of the display of children’s work on geometric shapes we’ve put up on the wall.  The message was really clear – there are some children in Fushe Kosove who are really serious about learning, and they need to be given the opportunity to do so in state-funded education.

It feels like momentum is growing and attention is temporarily on the plight of these children and the others like them who can’t go to school.  We mustn’t waste this moment, and we don’t have long; the next item on the TV news was the opening of the Cannes film festival.

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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