You may remember that we discovered that six of our children turned out to be younger than they’d said. Being eight years old means that they can in fact register in the normal way to start school in September, unlike the kids aged nine and above who come to our classes because they can’t register for state-funded education. We took two of the eight-year olds to register last week, and yesterday I made some home visits to the other four to see whether we could arrange to register them. Cima and family were out begging again, the door to their shambly house tied shut with red string and the neighbours telling me they wouldn’t be back till later. In another house the girl’s parents were on an extended trip to Macedonia, and her aunt who’s looking after her didn’t want to make the call. But at the two other homes Shkurta and Muhamet’s parents were in, and they were happy for them to go to register. In neither case was there a parent free to go with them, but they delegated older sisters (both of whom are young teenagers who attend our classes) to accompany me and the eight year-olds with their papers.
We set off on our little expedition, the five of us. ‘Where are you going?’ passers-by asked curiously.
‘To register,’ Shkurta lisped with pride.
Her sister, Samire, chatted as we walked. Samire (H, not Samire R who registered last week) is one of our brightest pupils, a sensible, friendly, confident 13 year old. She was singing ‘we are the world; we are the children’ as she walked, and then she wanted to know what all the words meant. I was really pleased she’d come on this trip to the school with her younger sister because it was a chance for her, too, to become familiar with the school and get used to the idea of where she, too, will hopefully be registered in September – presuming the system adapts to accommodate her in time. She will make such good use of an education – she’s conscientious and ready to learn.
When we reached the school we were shown into the deputy director’s office again, and the woman got out her big registration book. You may remember that last time we were here she welcomed the children about to register at her school with accusations of how Roma parents sold the textbooks they were given for free. Today she stayed off that topic but addressed her opening remarks to Samire instead.
‘You know you can’t wear that headscarf in school’ she barked in lieu of ‘hello.’
Damn. In all my thinking about getting these kids to school and the various cultural and economic barriers there would be I had completely forgotten this hurdle. Last year the Kosovan government banned headscarves in school, as a measure they saw in line with the Kosovan constitution which identifies Kosovo as a secular state (the same constitution which says that ‘every person enjoys the right to free basic education’ and that ‘public institutions shall ensure equal opportunities to education for everyone in
accordance with their specific abilities and needs.’) Hijab-wearing by young women is extremely rare in Kosovo in general but among the families who come to our school it is the norm for grown women and even seen among some of the little girls. Samire’s two pre-adolescent sisters who also come to our classes both wear headscarves, though for some reason Shkurta, who we were registering today, does not.
Since Samire was in this instance only in the deputy director’s office as a carer and escort for Shkurta it shouldn’t make any difference whether she was wearing a headscarf, and I said as much. The deputy director grudgingly admitted this. But of course if and when Samire comes to school in her own right in September it will be a different story.
When we’d registered Muhamet and Shkurta we left the school.
‘Success!’ I said chirpily to Samire, when we were outside. I wanted to gauge her reaction to the deputy headteacher’s aggression. She smiled politely back and I wondered what she was thinking.
On the way back home we passed her father. He had just come back from mosque and he stopped to ask how it had gone at the school.
‘The deputy director shouted at me,’ replied Samire. Her father raised his eyebrows.
‘And we registered Shkurta’ said Mrs Chirpy. He smiled at that, and so did little bare-headed Shkurta.
But he’s not stupid, and certainly Samire isn’t. There will be a conversation one day at home about the deputy director, and about Samire’s headscarf, and about what this school represents for her. A future, yes, and a chance for economic advancement for the family, possibly. And the requirement to leave at home the symbol of a set of values too. Battling the Kosovan education system I’m up for; battling the local hoxha I’m not.
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