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.