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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
And 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.
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.
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 email@example.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