Commonalities Among Differences

By Jacqueline Bhabha, FXB Director of Research

Post-conflict Kosovo is a delicate political context, fraught with ethnic landmines.  Within this complex space, the Roma, Ashkali and Egyptian communities live their own cultural and political divisions, but they are united by a common exposure to discrimination, stigma, economic marginalization and environmental harm.

Traveling the length and breadth of the small country, we spoke with parents, community members, local NGOs, international organizations, and institutions both north and south of the administrative border line marked by the Ibar River. We met returned IDPs in the Roma “Mahala” or settlement in south Mitrovica, families whose ancestral homes in Kosovo had been razed to the ground by the Kosovan Albanians in retaliation for perceived collaboration with the occupying Serbian forces during the war.  These resilient IDPs- had returned “home” to new houses built by the international community in their Roma Mahala after years in makeshift camps erected on lead contaminated sites in Northern Kosovo.  We met 36 Roma families still displaced from Kosovo after 14 years, living in dire deprivation, without sanitation, running water or weatherproof shelter in the tin container in Leposevic refugee camp in north Mitrovica. A member of our team commented: “These people are essentially forgotten. Most people in this camp have lived here since the end of war in poor, horrible dark corridors in small barracks located in an isolated location. Extended families live in tiny rooms within fetid, airless corridors. And yet their rooms are beautifully decorated to create a semblance of home.”

We met Roma representatives in the Serbian enclaves of Ferezaj and Gracanica; in Prizren, a flourishing multi-ethnic jewel of a town in South Kosovo near the Albanian border; and in the dusty, bustling, international agency hub of Pristina.

The Roma in Kosovo distinguish themselves in many ways from Roma living in the rest of Europe.  As our Roma rights expert perceptively noted: “Issues such as political refugee status, the experience of deportation from western Europe and the return and reintegration process in Kosovo, a different economic situations, and the dual pressures of political blame and racial discrimination intersect in the Kosovar Albanian-Serbian context.” As expected, the result is a divided community and minimal political participation or educational integration by the Roma minorities. Despite a system for reserving parliamentary seats for minorities, Roma civic engagement or effective policy advocacy is stagnant.  Both these failings have implications for the prosperity of the next generation. 

For the Roma, Ashkali and Egyptian school-going minorities, it is the commonalities of their educational experience that are striking.  They also reflect the experiences of their Roma peers in many European countries: children placed at the back of the class, low school performance, and low expectations by teachers and parents alike (though for different reasons).  Teachers demand less of the Roma children, they pass onto the following grade whether their performance justifies it or not; parents lack confidence (and often competence) to supervise homework, to advocate on their children’s behalf, to provide the motivation or support required for educational success.  The devastating but pervasive result: widespread “push-out” of young adolescents at the point of transition between primary and secondary school.   While official figures are difficult to find, an OSCE report from 2009 indicated that a mere two Roma students were attending secondary school under the Serbian curriculum.[1]  A baseline survey from the Kosovo Foundation for Open Society (KFOS – SOROS) in 2009 found that only 12% of the RAE community had finished part of or all of high school, and 2% had reached university.  The same report also found that illiteracy was highest among the Roma minority (24.3%) as opposed to the Ashkali (18.4%) and the Egyptian (18.3%) communities.[2]

Our interviews highlighted some distinctive risk factors irrelevant for other European Roma adolescents.  Each year for the last several years, thousands have been deported from West European countries to Kosovo to endure the most squalid living conditions.  In some cases, these young people were babies or toddlers when they fled with their parents during the war, claiming refugee status in Germany, Sweden, France, the UK, and Switzerland.  Despite the overwhelming evidence of massacres and grave ethnically motivated human rights violations, the majority of Roma Kosovan refugees were never granted asylum by the European host states.  Rather they were awarded various types of “tolerated” temporary protection (known as “duldung” in Germany).  

As peace returned to the region, irrespective of the simmering ethnic tensions and the harsh post-conflict environment, western democracies chose to send the majority of Balkan forced migrants back.  Even children born in the EU countries, children who were fully integrated into their German, Swedish or French lives, were “returned” to their parents’ war torn homelands completely against their will.   Reports abound of children who could speak only German or French, who had been doing well  in their previous schools, now unable to enroll or adapt to completely different educational situations, to peers speaking a language they did not understand, to environments incomparably worse than those they had known in Europe.[3]

The precarious Kosovo infrastructure is also ill-equipped to cope with these particularly vulnerable returned migrants. Schools are in no position to adapt their curricula and to train teachers appropriately; the families struggle to provide required documents to facilitate to school enrollment, and housing and income emergencies simply compound the hardships.  A German consular official we met argued that returned families were either welfare dependent in Germany for long periods or criminal offenders, and that in both such cases the host country was under no obligation to provide long term accommodation and support.  We countered that deportation should not be an additional sanction that doubly punishes those who serve the criminal penalty meted out on nationals.  Nor, we argued, should populations who have already faced the trauma of war, displacement and relocation be expected to face this again – at least not at the hands of wealthy democracies.  Our disagreements reflect a broader lack of consensus on this issue.

Many of the families we met told us they could not afford secondary education, let alone university training, for their children; they had no information on scholarship opportunities and they conceded that many girls still marry before they turn 18.  But all is not doom and gloom in this oppressive and unjust situation.  In most of the places we visited, however dark, some rays of light shone through.  In the dreadful settlement in Leposevic, we heard of a few resilient children and adolescents doing well in school, some even enrolled in secondary school; we saw children laughing,  playing together, gracious and hospitable to outsiders.  In the Roma Mahala in South Mitrovica we met returnee mothers trying to get skill training to advance their employment opportunities.  In Pristina we heard of Roma adolescents, placed in skill training schemes, who had been permanently hired by their companies because of the quality of their work.



[1]Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, “Kosovo non-majority communities within the primary and secondary educational systems,”, (OSCE 2009: pg. 8.

[2] ,” Nait Vrenezi, Jusuf Thaci, ed. Blerinda Idrizi,“The Position of Roma, Ashkali and Egyptian Communities in Kosovo,”, (KFOS: 2009), pgs. 34-35.

[3] “Rights Displaced: Forced Returns of Roma, Ashkali and Egyptians from Western Europe to Kosovo,”, (2010: Human Rights Watch).


Parallel Structures, Intersecting Communities: “Swimming in the Water of Discrimination”

By Jacqueline Bhabha, FXB Director of Research

After the end of the brutal war between Serbia and Kosovo in 1999, the new Kosovo administration adopted a system of parallel Kosovo-Serbia entities to cater to the needs of the different communities living within Kosovo.  These entities included schools, police forces and hospitals.  The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) helpfully defines parallel structures as “bodies and institutions that have been or still are operational in Kosovo after 10 June 1999 and that are not mandated for under the United Nations Security Council Resolution 1244,”[1] referring to the resolution that established the terms of the peace agreement following the conflict.

Pristina, the capital of Kosovo, and Belgrade, the capital of Serbia, continue to this day, 14 years after the end of the war, to operate these institutions in parallel, without cooperation or dialogue.  This situation, not surprisingly, creates a complex environment with significant ongoing impacts on the evolving Kosovan society.  School systems, for example, are conducted in different languages, teach different curricula (including, significantly, different histories), remunerate their teachers and staff at different rates, and observe different holidays.  Among the many consequences of this system are its impacts on the vulnerable Roma, Ashkali and Egyptian minorities (RAE).

Despite its shared history of membership with the Roma people across Europe, its use of Romane as a national language, its relatively positive experiences of the communist era and its phenotypical commonality, this tripartite minority is impacted differently by the new Kosovo reality, including by the parallel structure system.  The Roma population living in the northern and central part of Kosovo and in the Serbian enclaves speak Serb; their children attend Serb schools run from Belgrade, and, if they meet the eligibility criteria, as many do, they are recipients of Serbian welfare benefits. By contrast, Roma living in the South of Kosovo, together with the Ashkali and Egyptian communities, speak Albanian and shared the fate of the Kosovar Albanians during the war.  Their children attend Kosovan schools with the Albanian majority, and the only welfare support they can access is the much more limited social security provided by the Kosovo government.

The educational system in post-conflict Kosovo is, by common consensus, quite weak – lacking infrastructure, qualified personnel and adequate budgetary allocation.  At present it is in a very early stage of development, transitioning from home based schools under Milosevic’s rule (since all the Albanian schools were closed down, forced to offer instruction in Serbian only), to a period of brutal war, and only more recently to the reconstruction of a public space for education. The school system certainly has its limitations, including offering shortened classes to allow multiple sessions to be held in the same school building each day, underpaid teachers, and outmoded syllabi.

Compounding these deficiencies, the two systems depend on different documentary evidence to establish eligibility for receipt of services.  For the Serbian schooling system, Serbian identity documents are necessary prior to enrollment, documents that have to be issued by authorities in the Serb enclaves and are not readily available in municipal offices across the country. By contrast, children in the Albanian (Pristina-run) schools can enroll without documents and are given several months to submit them.  We also learnt, surprisingly, that some identity documents have limited validity – we were told by members of the Serbian speaking Roma community, for example, that their children’s birth certificates expired after 6 months and that renewal was too cumbersome, time consuming and expensive for them to undertake. The system of parallel structures underscores the complex history between Kosovo and Serbia. Now, as both countries cast their eyes towards EU accession, a window of opportunity for progress, negotiation and concession exists.  A new agreement between Kosovo and Serbia will be released soon addressing their relationship, but the issue of parallel structures for education and health is unlikely to be resolved in this new agreement.  We discussed the issue with many people, including politicians, community leaders, and activists.  A senior Kosovan politician suggested to us that the concessions of a dual system were, from the perspective of the Kosovan majority, a “small price to pay” for peace. “The Kosovo (Albanian) education curriculum is not that great anyway,” he added.

Another politically connected member of the Kosovan Albanian elite disagreed.  He argued that Kosovo should move towards supporting only one system – an Albanian system – and that Serbian speakers, whatever their community, should learn Albanian if they wished to succeed in the new society.  For the Roma, Ashkali, and Egyptian communities the issue of parallel education structures is equally divisive.  In both systems, primary school is free and secondary school is elusive for those who cannot afford textbooks and transport.  However, families receive stipends from the Serbian administration for each child who attends the parallel school.  We found that these stipends are a large incentive for some families to keep children enrolled in the parallel system.

In Mitrovica, a Serb controlled area in the northern part of Kosovo, some parents talked about the imperative of keeping their children enrolled in the parallel school. They explained that their children had always attended Serbian schools, and therefore knew how to read and write in Serbian. The fact that the Albanians had forced them out of their homes in the south during the war no doubt coloured their opinions.  Within the majority, “we always swim in the water of discrimination,” a Roma organizer told us.  And even if their children spoke Albanian, many could not read and write it, so attending school in Albanian would be difficult if not impossible.  A young Roma father-to- be told us: “I was educated in the Serbian system and of course my son will be too.”  But didn’t he want his son to be fluent in the majority language, we asked? In a nod to the complexities of this society, he answered: “Yes, of course, and in Romane and English too.”

Our experiences interacting with Roma, Ashkali and Egyptian community members, as well as their representatives, gave us a particular lens on the parallel administrative system, which has implications for Roma identity, both cultural and legal.  Different education systems reflect and in turn generate different affiliations, loyalties and attitudes.  A national symbol that to one community is a sign of safety and reassurance suggests hostility and threat to another.  This bifurcated reality creates obstacles to unity within the minority community and can, particularly in a tense post-conflict situation, pose challenges for the construction of the multicultural society that Kosovo aspires and claims to be.

Kosovo Day 1: Obelic and Gracanica communities

By FXB Kosovo Field Team

Kosovo is a small landlocked country of about 1.8 million people, approximately 90% of whom are Albanian Kosovars. The remaining 10% are composed of Serbian Kosovars (about 7% of the population) and minorities including Roma, Ashkalie and Egyptians (3%). By organizing a fact finding mission to Kosovo, the FXB Center aims to expand its research into instances of insecurity and safety of the Roma population and to explore the educational, training, and employment barriers for Roma children and adolescents, as well as the drivers of their success.

The field team who is in Kosovo on behalf of FXB will draft a report based on field documentation in Pristina, Mitrovica and Prizren, and on interviews conducted with the main stakeholders related to the Roma, Ashkali and Egyptians communities.

The Roma, Ashkali and Egyptian (RAE) communities have different traditions and also different languages: the Roma generally speak Serbian, and the Ashkali and Egyptian speak Albanian. The Roma community, we were told this morning by Roma community members, feels pulled between Albanians, who see them as pro-Serb, and Serbians, who are suspicious of them as Albanians. “Roma are between two fires because they are…treated like Serbs by Albanians, and treated like Albanians by Serbs,” says Shahira Gashi, an Obelic community member.

Meanwhile, Roma have lower life expectancy, less access to jobs (there is over 90% unemployment among the Roma communities as opposed to approximately 40% for the rest of the population), and greater difficulty staying in school and reaching university-level education.

The field team visited two Roma communities on the first day. The first was the Roma and Ashkali neighborhood surrounding the town of Obelic, which is located next to an electricity plant, a factory, and a coal mine. The air pollution was visible. The second Roma community was located in the town of Gracanica, a small Serb enclave near the Kosovar capital of Pristina. Gracanica does not share the environmental issues observed in Obelic.

A few issues that emerged from our meetings with community members:

(a)    Access to documentary proof of identity remains a huge issue for the Roma community. Vineta Berisha, a member of the Obelic community, is the mother of seven children and explained the difficulties she faces with documentation. “I have seven kids; six are in school. My oldest daughter is a volunteer at the Center [Balkan Sunflowers Center], and she is in her second year of medical high school. The others are in primary school, but one doesn’t have a birth certificate and it would be impossible for her to enroll in school,” she says.

When asked why she doesn’t renew the documents, Vineta told us it would take too much time, hassle and expense. Her family’s documents are under the “Serbian” administration, and the only issuing authority for documents under this system is located in Nis, a town in the south of Serbia that is a long and expensive journey from Obelic. As a result, her own ID has been expired for seven years, and she cannot renew her child’s documents either.


Roma mothers at the Sunflower Balkan NGO.

(a)    Lack of access to or prospects of employment is a considerable worry. On her son’s prospects after schooling, Shahira Gashi, another member of the Obelic community, says: “The situation is hard. We can’t predict the future so we don’t think about it.” There is corruption and discrimination in access to public jobs, including positions posted for minorities. RAE view the international community as their only support. “The Kosovar Albanians have their politicians to look after them, the Kosovar Serbs theirs, and we only have the International Community,” comments Bajrush Berisha, a community leader in Obelic.

(b)   Discrimination against RAE remains a constant in Kosovo, but there is optimism among the RAE communities. Afrim Osmani, from the NGO Balkan Sunflowers in Gracanica, is a brave community leader who seems hopeful about an improvement in the educational prospects for Roma and progress in Kosovo more generally, yet when he speaks about the historical inequalities faced by the Roma and continuing manifestations today, he exposes his deep sadness and resignation. “As a child, I was always a great student, but people always called me ‘tigan’ [Gypsy]. My mother was Roma, and my father was Ashkali… I swam all my life in discrimination – today is the same and so it will be ‘til the world ends.”

(c)     Access to higher education is a major issue for RAE young adolescents. “Kids get more out of education [now], but they don’t have the family conditions to make it to the next level. My oldest son can’t go to university because I can’t afford to pay things like entrance fees and living accommodations,” says Sabit Mustafa, an Obelic community member.

(d)   While young girls in RAE communities generally still trail behind boys when it comes to education, the Balkan Sunflowers Educational Center in Gracanica has succeeded in raising the level of education for both girls and boys in the community. According to Afrim Osmani, in 1999 about 20 Roma kids were enrolled in primary school and only one in high school. Nowadays, more than 110 RAE kids go to primary school, and 11 to 12 RAE adolescents attend high school. A big achievement for the community is that half of those who attend high school are girls, a dream that was not possible a couple of decades ago. But generally, in regard to girls’ education and early marriage, the treatment of girls and women depends a lot on the families or different RAE subgroups. Afrim explained that some families or subgroups understand the importance of education and sending kids, both girls and boys, to school, while others follow more traditional practices and keep their daughters at home. Some, he discussed, marry their daughters when they are 13 or 14 years old.

Reclaiming Roma Adolescence Project: Interviews with Roma and non-Roma adolescent researchers

Image“It is not important who you are, it is important to have that wish in your heart, and every time you go down, to have the power to go up. And you will know you have to rise again… a lot of negative things will happen to you but you overcome it. Everything is possible if you wish it. To rise in your career is important, and to find someone who can support you: your mother, your friends, a teacher. My mom, who has only primary school [education], supported me – she pushed me to learn English, to become an opera singer, and indeed English helped me to go to high school. I went to the academy and people thought I wouldn’t sing Mozart, but I do.”

– Natasha Tasic Knezevic, a Roma opera singer with the National Theater in Belgrade, during a training session for the Reclaiming Roma Adolescence Project on June 22, 2013.

Organized by the FXB Center for Health and Human Rights, the Center for Interactive Pedagogy, and Save the Children-Belgrade, the Reclaiming Roma Adolescence Project is a participatory action research initiative with Roma and non-Roma youths aged 15 to 24 in Belgrade, Serbia. The aim of the project is to address the marginalization of the Roma community by creating and empowering the next generation of youth leaders. Earlier this year, 21 adolescents, both Roma and non-Roma, were selected to participate as researchers. They were enrolled in training and educational sessions before beginning their fieldwork.

Margareta Matache and Carrie Bronsther, members of the FXB Roma project team, spoke with the adolescent researchers in Belgrade about their motivations for joining the project, their experiences thus far, and their expectations and hopes for the study. While all the researchers are actively engaged in the project and excited about their involvement, each brings a unique perspective.

Tafilj said, “I like the project because I work with Roma people, my people. Other people helped me and I want to help others too.”

Sofija explained, “I think that we fight for the right of Roma people and Roma children, young people mainly, and that is really important. I look at school, and I look at my school and my class, and I see that Roma kids are very, well, they are not …with the other kids, they are discriminated against, and that’s very sad. I really want to fight it, and I really want them to be treated like the other kids. I think that is not fair because they don’t have the same grades, the same amount of time invested in school, [so] they get lower grades and professors don’t pay attention to them like they do to the kids from the general population.”

Milica also shared her motivations for joining the project. “I didn’t even know that much about [the Roma issue]. I mean I witnessed certain problems the Roma people have, but I was not as informed… It was strange because we did act differently towards them. Roma were set apart and I did not understand it, it was just automatic, you know, and now when I think back to it, I actually see how they sat at the back of the class and how we look differently at them. Back then, it was just you treat that people that way. What is good about me is that my parents had a very healthy attitude about it. They told me that I should not act that way and I actually changed the way I acted.”

Sofija, 15 years old, said: “I am very proud that I have this job at such a young age. The challenges are my lack of experience with young people and social work, but I think I can cope with it… I think that main challenge will be good communication with Roma and the general population when [we] talk to them about education, or ask kids about school and why they left.”

“During the training we got information on what terms to use, how to act in certain situations,” Milica added. “Of course it’s scary for those who get their first time [in the field], but… it works if we communicate properly in strange situations. I think we all get to learn a lot more during the process, and I think it is very positive.”

The researchers, who have been engaged with the project for one month, articulated their expectations and hopes for the long-term outcomes of the study.

“I am glad to meet all the young people in this project. I enjoy very much working with them, and I think each and everyone is trying to do something,” Tafilj said.

Milica said: “We should work to get informed and find ways to help with it [discrimination] when we see it. We will try to achieve as much as we can in this project. I don’t expect something miraculous to happen but I expect some sort of change… [Roma] is a sensitive topic, because people think that if they cannot help themselves, why they should help others… It is very hard to approach the Roma subject.”

Sofija, like Milica, hopes for some type of change, even if it’s small. “I don’t expect any miracle to happen, and of course I want discrimination and racism to come to an end, and of course it does not work like that. I would really want us to leave a mark, little change, something; it does not have to be a lot, just something that pays it off. I would love to see changes mostly in schools because that is where the problem is. The teachers should treat Roma children the same as the general population, that is really what I would like us to impact the most.”

Mirsad, on the other hand, said, “I would like some miracle to happen, some change with discrimination, or racism and other things that make problems in the world because we must understand people who have different cultures and languages, like Roma. We can do good.”

Finally, Mirsad hopes that this research will “give attention and political action to Roma… to give some opportunities to make good in Serbia.” 

The researchers are thoughtful, motivated individuals, and the project organizers are excited to see them conduct research, analyze the results, and work for change.