Fifty two! And shall I count in fives or tens?

a girl writes at a chalkboard, questioned by a teacher and watched by her father

Gjelane’s dad watches her being assessed

Fifty two! That’s how many children came with us to be assessed for school on Friday.  Out of the 70 children who’ve been coming to classes with us for the last four months, I’d reckoned that 37 would definitely make it to the assessment – these are the children who’ve come almost every day, who’ve greeted me each morning with ‘and when are we going to the big school?’ Daily attendance at school is now part of their mental model of how you live.

And then there are the other 33 children who come to us less regularly, who have greater demands made on them by family for working or begging.  Would they make it to be assessed? Would Mentor come? It meant arriving at our classes an hour early that day. It meant walking a mile out of the mahalla, and into a large echoing state institution; I didn’t know how many of them really had the stomach for it.

Fifty two! The first ones were already waiting when we arrived at the rented flat where we’ve been running classes.  Florinda was wearing a startling flowery dress I’d not seen before. The sisters Mirjeta and Arjeta were wearing new matching pink Tshirts with sequin designs (matching clothes for siblings are particularly prized here, I’ve discovered, because it shows that they were bought new – not hand-me-downs or handouts, or lucky finds in a rubbish bin). Everyone had blown their nose (Astrit showed me two packets of tissues in his pocket, and Fidan standing by looked rather crestfallen). I went to Elvira’s house to check she had remembered that today she needed to come early.  She was washing her face at the standpipe in her yard. ‘I’m cleaning myself up – I don’t want anyone at that big school to say that the kids from Elizabeth’s school are palidhje‘, she reassured me. Palidhje is one of my favourite Albanian words – it means ‘stupid’ or, literally, ‘unconnected’. It struck me as a good metaphor for today, when the kids from ‘Elizabeth’s school’ were being connected up to the mainstream system for assessment.

And we set off – a straggling, giggling line of fifty odd children strung out across the mahalla. When we reached school we were greeted carefully by not only the school director but also the director of education for the municipality.  Later staff from Unicef and from the Ministry came too. It wasn’t just the kids who knew this was a big day.

The children were sat in a classroom (sat in a classroom! Even if the system somehow fails us for their registration next week, they’ve done it now.  As I watched them taking their place at the desks I thought how these children come from families who know a thing or two about squatters rights.  They’ve each made a part of that school their own now, and I think they’ll be back) and I was introduced to the Commission.

The Commission was made up of three kindly teachers from the school, the deputy director and a community representative.  The organisation Terre des Hommes which works with children at risk, including some of ours, had heard about the assessment process to be held and had got permission from the municipality to be in the room, along with me, as a friendly familiar face for the children from their caseload.

In fact the children scarcely seemed to need reassurance of that kind.  I was dispatched to collect each child one by one from the waiting room and bring them in.  On the way they skipped down the huge corridors, and only the occasional one snuck their hand into mine for a brief moment of reassurance.  That’s what struck me most about the day – their self-confidence, in their learning and in the rightfulness of taking their place in this school.  As I walked Astrit to the room for the assessment, I said to him, ‘don’t worry – they’ll just ask you what you know of your letters and numbers.’

‘I know up to 100’ he said. ‘Will they want me to count it in fives or tens?’ The children couldn’t wait to show their skills. And over three and a half hours, the commission conscientiously took notes of what each child could do.

So now we’re waiting. Tomorrow we’re due to receive the report from the commission which will identify for each child the class that they will enter school in.  And then, according to the action plan agreed by the Ministry and Municipality and Unicef, and submitted to the European Commission, the children will be officially included on the school’s register next week.

By the way, one of the children on that list will be Mentor.  He did turn up – late because he’d been working; and no new sequined Tshirt for him.  But he made it up to the commission’s blackboard, showed off his mental arithmetic, barked at the print (on Friday I heard 52 children stammer out the sentence, ‘my mother works a lot’) and then asked if he could go because his wheelbarrow was outside.  He should be on the register by the end of the week; the next challenge will be keeping him there.

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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Our Big Day tomorrow

I’ve not done much blogging over the last few weeks but please don’t think that not much is happening in Fushe Kosove. It’s probably been the most significant week since we started classes.  Here’s what’s been going on since I last wrote:

Saturday, Sunday and Monday: along with Kaltrina, a recently-joined volunteer, I visited every family whose children have attended our classes. We had been given a deadline by the municipality to submit the details of all the children to be assessed for registration by Tuesday.  They needed name, date of birth and form of ID so we knocked at doors, called into empty hallways, interrupted weddings and bumped into people in the street until we had a neat spreadsheet showing the details of 70 children who didn’t register in the first two years of school, have since been denied access to school by the Ministry’s policy but whose parents say they want them to go to school.  We watched 70 birth certificates being unfolded from careful storage.  In most cases the mothers (it was usually mothers who reached for the carrier bag filled with documents hung on a nail on the wall) handed a sheaf of birth certificates over to us and asked whether we could help tell them apart because they didn’t know how to read their children’s names.

In some cases parents, even of those who have attended our classes very regularly, said they wouldn’t allow their children to start at the ‘big’ school.  The reasons were varied, mainly unfounded, and we had gentle debates before leaving those houses.  Was it really true that the Albanian kids would beat their children up? Were they sure it was too far to walk? Plenty of children manage it every day. Yes, Nerxhivane has an eye infection, but that shouldn’t stop her going to school. If Lume needs to help his dad with scrap metal collection, couldn’t he fit it round a few hours of going to classes every day?

On Monday afternoon Nerxhivane’s mum came to school.  She’d brought her daughter’s birth certificate. ‘I’d like her to register on Friday,’ she said. We chalked up one small victory.

By Monday evening we had the 70 children’s details compiled, along with a fiendish bit of Excel work by Young Rob showing the attendance details for each child: we have 37 children who’ve attended on more than half the days we’ve held classes. We sent the details off to the Municipality, and waited to see whether they would stick by the agreement we’d made that we could bring the children to be assessed on Friday.

Tuesday: an email from the Municipality inviting us to bring all 70 children at 10 o’clock on Friday to go before a Commission of three members of staff at the school.  The Commission will then decide in which class each child should enter in September.

Wednesday: a phone call from Vlora Citaku, the Minister for European Integration.  She had chaired the conference called by the European Commission Liaison Office in Pristina where we had raised the issue of our children’s difficulty in registering at school.  ECLO have been pursuing this issue, and Vlora was calling to reiterate her commitment to getting the children into school.  What’s more, she said she had just come from a meeting with the Prime Minister where he had said that ‘the children in Fushe Kosove should have their constitutional right’.

Thursday: Fidan buys a pack of tissues. Our Kosovan teacher, Avdil, spoke to all the children yesterday about how they should present themselves when they go to school.  ‘Clean faces, clean clothes, nails neatly trimmed,’ he ordered them. ‘And you need to bring a tissue with you so that if you need to blow your nose you don’t use your sleeve.’ This morning Fidan greeted me by patting his pocket ostentatiously.  ‘What have you got there, Fidan?’ I asked.

I’d seen Fidan in Pristina at the weekend, cleaning car windscreens at the traffic lights. I guess it’s some of the money he earned there that he used to buy himself a pack of tissues so that when he turns up at school tomorrow no-one can judge him because of the way he wipes his nose.  This is a boy on his way to his future; I almost needed to borrow one out of the pack myself.

And Friday… Who knows? I know that not all of the 70 children will make it to the school to be assessed.  Friday is mosque (= begging) day, when our numbers are always down.  It’s summer and state school holidays, and wedding season has started.  Some children will be caught up in family celebrations. And some will be sick and some will discover they’re needed at home or to go and help their dad, and maybe some will get cold feet about this state system that has been readied for them. I really hope that the 37 regular attenders will get there, and I’d love it to be more. We have a squad of volunteers ready to knock on all the children’s doors an hour before we’re due to set off for the commission, to leave them no excuse that they forgot or overslept. And after that it’s in the hands of the kids themselves.

Gjelane’s dad says he’s coming with her.  I know Fidan will be there with his newly blown nose; Afir wouldn’t miss an outing; Gazmend can’t wait to tell someone his times tables; Besmire wants to be a doctor when she grows up. Those are the things that get children to school all over the world, and now the system in Kosovo has adapted so that those are the things that tomorrow will get a gaggle of Kosovan children to school for the first time too.  I can’t wait!

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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What the twelve year-olds taught me

Guest blogger: Kaltrina Kusari

I initially wanted to be a part of the catch-up classes in Fushe-Kosove because I grew up in Kosova, but I was rarely exposed to the Roma, Ashkali and Egyptian communities. I wanted to immerse myself into these communities in order to understand where their traditions come from, and how they ended up in Kosova. I also enjoy working with children, so this was the perfect opportunity to do something that I have been interested in for a long time. After two weeks of working with our students, I have learned more from them than they have learned from me.

These students keep reminding me that education does not only happen at schools. The students that we teach know a lot, but because this knowledge is different from that of other children their age, they are not appreciated as much. For example, Hamide, one of the students who helped us clean up the school one day told me that it is important to do a job the best we can, no matter what job it is. I was amazed to hear this coming from a 12 year old, who has to pass many bureaucratic challenges to attend mainstream schools in Kosova.

The students have also taught me that patience is a virtue. I tend to get frustrated when I do not understand something, but these students keep trying to spell a word, pronounce a letter, or solve a math problem no matter how many times they fail. They listen to the lessons with attention, and I can see how they process the information by just looking at their eyes. They are always hungry for more knowledge. When Jetmir was having particular difficulty remembering the letter X, I asked him to associate the letter with a word that started with X. Ever since, he has learned to associate other letters with words that he already knows.

Helping these children gives me a sense of fulfillment. Every time they learn how to spell their names, or write a number I know that they are one step closer to joining the schools that I was able to attend. Going to these schools might be difficult for them because of the prejudice they face, but they are taught enough to handle it. I know why the Roma, Ashkali and Egyptian communities are not favored in Kosova, but these are only kids, and we can shape them to be an integral part of the new country that we are all building.

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Counting down: preparation for next Friday’s Commission

Today was the five times table.  We counted it out with fingers, compared it with the tens (almost everyone knows their tens), high-fived our way around the class, drew round hands on the beautiful new bright sugar paper we were donated this week (thank you, Frankie; thank you Jacqui and Sue for bringing it over from England for us!), and checked it out on the number line.  We counted up and we counted down and we did it all with a particular urgency.  Because next Friday the children go before The Commission.

I don’t really know what The Commission will look like, but the one thing I’ve been told they will ask the children is a recitation of the multiplication tables.

The Commission is the result of the meeting I attended on Wednesday to draft an action plan for registering our children in school.  It’s the result of the meetings and lobbying and emailing we and many others have been doing for some weeks.  And, with the Commission, it feels like at last we are getting somewhere in registering these children for school.

Wednesday’s meeting was with a representative of the Ministry of Education and the Municipal Education Director in Fushe Kosove, and the valiant Education Officer from Unicef. At the meeting it was agreed that the school in Fushe Kosove would set up a Commission and that next Friday all the children from our school would go, Oliver Twist-like, before this board, and be individually assessed. The Commission will identify which class each child’s current attainment equips them for, and then they will register them for that class.  All this will be done before 20 July; it’s dizzyingly soon.

When the children came into class yesterday I announced the news: we’ll all be going to school next Friday.  They cheered – and I got goosebumps.

I don’t quite know what Mr Bumble is going to ask these children on that Friday; I hope he doesn’t mind that we’ve set the two times table to music.  But I reckon he could throw out any x5 question he likes and the children in class today would impress him.

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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Dear Minister, this is why we want to go to school

12 children stand by a blackboard

Green Group stand beside the letter we drafted together to the Minister

‘Imagine I’m the Minister for Education…’ I begin.  The children are looking blank.  I’m attempting to build a classroom of advocates – kids who are self-confident and know their rights and have some of the skills to assert them.

‘What do you say to me?’ I ask the children who are being encouraged into this little role play.

They’ve obviously heard this rhetorical question before.  One of them remembers what worked last time.

‘Faleminderit,’ chirrups Emine.

Ah yes, they have lovely manners now, the children who’ve been coming to our classes in Fushe Kosove.  They know that when I hand out the yoghurts in the morning I expect a ‘faleminderit’ (‘thank you’).  They’ll say it when they’re given a pen, too.  They’ve all written thank you letters with ‘faleminderit’ in big capitals to the donors who have made this school happen.

But it’s not the right answer this time.

‘What are you saying faleminderit for?’ I grumble.  ‘Save that for when he’s given you your place at school.’

Because today we are writing letters to the Minister of Education.  After a series of frustrating meetings with the Ministry representative, still no sign of the promised action plan for how these children are to be integrated into state-funded education, and a dwindling amount of time before school starts in September, I am not feeling minded to say ‘faleminderit’.  I am fretting that the possibility of the children being admitted to school for the beginning of the new term is fragile.  I need to do more; we need to do more.

So I go over it again with the children.  It’s a child’s right to go to school – ‘whether you’re in Africa, in America, in England or in Kosovo’ I say.

‘Or in Belgium’ adds Astrit.

Yes, in Belgium too.

And you want to go to school, right? So now you have to tell the Minister why.

I didn’t prep or prompt them, I just wrote down what they said (and when the top group had their lesson, they wrote it themselves without help).  The letters they wrote were heartbreaking in what they showed that these kids know about what they’re missing.

‘Dear Minister, I want to go to school because without school you look stupid.’

‘I want to go to school because when I go to the pharmacy I want to know what the tablets are for’

‘If you don’t know how to write then when you go to register your birth certificate you can’t sign it’

‘If you don’t know how to read or write then people cheat you’

‘I want to become a doctor’

‘If you don’t know how to read then when a letter comes from KEK [the electricity company] you have to go to your neighbour to ask them to read it for you’

‘When you know how to read and write you can get a job’

In the bottom group they copy out a sentence each.  I collect the papers in, planning to present them to the Ministry.  At the bottom of Emine’s she couldn’t stop herself. With a little heart she has doodled the word,


Well, Zoteri Minister, if you can give a commitment to these children being educated by your institutions by the beginning of September, I will send you a letter myself, and I will doodle more than one heart around the word 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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Letters and numbers, oh my!

I’m Lisa Smith, one of the volunteers in Fushe Kosove and the guest blogger for this posting.

LETTERS and NUMBERS, that’s what’s on my mind…subjects that have become close to me, painstakingly so at times, these last few months of helping out with the 1:1 program. Whether from helping the kids learn to write them, or searching for tracing worksheets for those all so difficult ones like G, K, R, S, U, M, N & W, and 2, 3, 5 and 8 (who remembers there were so many!), or forming them in my mind as I drift off to sleep, they seem to be everywhere.

How we take for granted the ability to create precise lines and squiggles on a piece of paper, or to know the symbols on a keyboard, in order to communicate what we think, feel and want to share.  And, then, something like volunteering with underprivileged, uneducated children brings it into clear focus.  Even a few minutes of helping these kids hold a foreign object in their hands and then getting them to make it conform to some sort of abstract shape, though at times a test in patience, is always a joy to behold. To witness their initial bewilderment, dogged struggle and eventual success, is never to take written communication for granted again.

Today is my last day helping out and I will be sad to miss the continuation and culmination of the program come August.  On Tuesdays and Thursdays I’ve seen this ragtag group of kids waiting impatiently outside on the street for classes to start, and then watched them remove their worn, torn, dirty shoes and place them oh so neatly on the concrete steps, wash their hands, exchange smiles and greetings, and then eagerly dash into their rooms to start their school day.

I’ve watched them progress from writing LETTERS,  to joining them into words and then into sentences.  I’ve watched them progress from writing NUMBERS as numerals, to writing them while saying them in Albanian, and then saying them in English.  And just this past week, I’ve watched their faces light up when they got the concept that NUMBERS are also represented by words!

So, here’s to LETTERS and NUMBERS, and to the Fushe Kosove kids who are learning them, and to the world of communication and possibilities this ability to read and write will open for them.

And, yes, here’s to the volunteers who help lead the way…one tricky LETTER and NUMBER at a time.

*Any comments promoting or endorsing this program are purely intentional.

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Childhood in scraps. Mentor’s half-hour education

You’ve seen those kids working on the streets – pesky children with squeegees and cheek at the traffic lights, children with dirty faces and no smile sitting outside the mosque, children with half-healed scratches scrambling into dumpsters.  You wonder at where they’ve come from, where they’re going to. Now imagine that one of them walked unannounced into your classroom (all primary colours and perky posters, careful lettering and star reward charts) and you had just 30 minutes with them one-to-one.  What would you teach them?

It’s not a hypothetical situation – today Mentor turned up at our school.  It was the afternoon sessions when Avdyl takes his classes consecutively and I and other volunteers take children 1:1 (I haven’t committed to daily class teaching in the afternoons like Avdyl because I want to have the flexibility to have meetings to do the lobbying work we need to get the policy changed on the registration of these children’s, but today I was free to stay at school).  Mentor hasn’t been to our classes for 5 weeks, and he’s only attended 8 times in total; I officially took him off the register some weeks ago. He’s fourteen and he works hard – I’ve bumped into him on the streets a couple of times, and he’s been bent double under a vast sack of scrap metal, stooped like a child out of Dickens.  I have no idea what trigger in Mentor’s chaotic life of rusted edges leads him suddenly to turn up to school this afternoon.  But the numbers are low this afternoon, and there are two of us volunteers available to work 1:1 with children so I suggest that Mentor can spend the full half hour with me. Mentor has a lopsided smile which he beams on me at that suggestion.  Excellent. So where shall we start?

The enormity of the range of options available to us for this half hour dazzles me momentarily.  It’s like going into a supermarket when you’re hungry.

A bit of writing, I decide, and then some maths (simple, practical things like counting in hundreds through 1000, counting in 10s from numbers that aren’t multiples of ten) and then a book. Mentor’s maths isn’t bad (I shouldn’t be surprised – he spends his days working for real euros and cents, not the little cardboard cut-outs I’ve made for the children here) and his writing is painstaking. We have less than 10 minutes left to do some reading.  I take him to the boxes of books we have – information texts, mythology, picture books… ‘What would you like to read?’ I ask.

Mentor’s a hulking big guy, with a voice just breaking. He spends most days hunched under a sack of sharp metal shards from the bins of Pristina. I don’t know whether to laugh or cry when he picks out the translated version of Eric Carle’s Brown Bear, Brown Bear, what do you see?

We read it through together to the end. Mentor sounds out the words conscientiously, and starts to get the repeating pattern.  He has a small intake of breath as each page turns to reveal the extravagant bright poster-painted images; red bird, blue horse, goldfish.  I’m wary of drawing attention to this, breaking the spell, reminding Mentor that he’s 14 and might as well be a working man.

At the end I ask him ‘Will you come to school tomorrow?’, and he barks back gruffly ‘yes.’  But I’m not sure he will, and I think I’ve understood why he chose this kindergarten text to read with me.  Today’s learning with me has been a little scrap that Mentor can melt down and piece together with the others he’s salvaged over the months; one brief, delayed rare instalment of a childhood.

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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