"It would be a shame for you not to meet the children!" Elizabeth Gowing had said enthusiastically via email. Twenty-four hours later, we were in the village of Janjevo, surrounded by its youngest citizens. Elizabeth and fellow workers and volunteers of The Ideas Partnership were setting up shop in a rental house in town, which wasn't exactly ready for their arrival. The children began to help carry bedding, dishes, personal affects out of the dining room to turn it the dining room into their summer classroom. The Ideas Partnership was there to get them prepared for and enrolled in school for the very first time this September. Everything about it excited the kids - the attention, the newness, the promises of games and classes, the foreigners. A group of older residents, all in their 20s plus a confident 15 year old, were there to sign up volunteering. The energy was high, filled with enthusiasm, nerves, expectations, trepidation. Just like the first day of school. This is the world of non-profit organizations, NGOs and Kosovo.
Google search after google search kept leading us to Elizabeth Gowing - known simply as "Elizabeth" throughout Kosovo if our countless interactions with people are any indication. Her articles for Balkan Insight came up while we were looking for homestay options, transportation advice, even for the name of a good gourmet store in Pristina. An English woman who has lived in Kosovo for six years, she's already mastered the art of Kosovar hospitality, putting herself out there so completely as to offer her personal email address in a number of published pieces. Of course, we used it, asking a long string of questions in the hopes that maybe one or two would get answered. What we wound up with was an immediate, lengthy response, a wealth of information and a glimpse of Kosovo that we never, ever would have gotten otherwise. Elizabeth is not just a published memoirist and poet, a journalist and advocate. She's a beekeeper - and upon meeting her, I couldn't refrain from making a lame joke about her being as busy as one.
She is one of three founding members of The Ideas Partnership, an NGO that focuses on helping Kosovans protect their cultural heritage and environment and educate their youngest citizens. There are somewhere around 4,000 non-government organizations (NGOs) registered in Kosovo, but only around 10% are actually active. Still, there are loads of internationals here to work and volunteer and to visit with one of these organizations felt like a truly Kosovar experience. Since The Ideas Partnership is
particularly active, there were a lot of options for our involvement - but so little time. Maybe the Sunday Roma language class or the Tuesday evening team-building session? Elizabeth knew that the perfect use of our limited time was to go to Janjevo with them on their maiden voyage. She knew that the children would make the biggest impression on us and that our presence would make the biggest impression on them.
The education program is most likely dearest to her heart, and most demanding of her time. It began in Fushë Kosovë, just 5 kilometers outside of Pristina but a world away. Most big city residents have never visited the town, which shows a level of poverty hard to imagine over foamy machiatos. She said that when photos of the area and the children were shown to some acquaintances in Pristina, they had responded in disbelief, "That's not Kosovo." The organization's mission, sparked by one little girl's story, was to enroll the Roma, Ashkali and Egyptian children of the town into the local school. This involved working with the kids, their parents and the school system that had not made it all that easy for them. 'Step-up' classes prepared them to be students for the first time, lots of passionate diplomacy worked to change the system to allow entry and extra-help after-school sessions keep the children successfully enrolled. It was - and is - a success, swarming with local and international volunteers. Now, they are copying the model in a brand new town - Janjevo. And we were there on the very first day - on 'ground-breaking,' so to speak. Step-up classes begin this Monday.
Janjevo is historically Croation, so Serbo-Croat speaking volunteer Katarina (from Belgrade) has been laying the groundwork for weeks. She's visited almost every family, trying to get a truthful number of non-school-going children and gauge the reasons. She has met with the town's different leaders - the figureheads of the Albanian, Roma, Muslim and Orthodox communities. In a joint meeting between the Roma leader and the three women we accompanied to Janjevo, he spoke German with Elizabeth, French with Aurelie (an executive director originally from France) and
Serbo-Croatian with Katarina. I would have loved to have been a fly on that wall. Something like the conversation at the urinal of the United Nations. Of course, most importantly, Katarina had gotten to know the children themselves. When our van pulled up, they swarmed so closely and banged on the sides so loudly that I felt like a Beatle (or a Bieber or whoever the kids are listening to these days). Katarina! Katarina!
they shouted. The Ideas Partnership had officially arrived.
The children were fascinated by us, mostly because we were hanging around idly as the others talked logistics and made introductions. The boy in the red collar, Cuka, was a charismatic ringleader who used every English word in his arsenal on us. Photo! Photo! We clicked and showed him. Deleta! Deleta! if his eyes were closed. Facebook! he said and then wrote down his email for us (and his password, which I assured him I didn't need). At the end of it all, after saying I had nice eyes and hair, he patted Merlin on the back and said he had a good nose and good teeth. With a firm handshake, he said the nicest thing of all: You are a good man. So are you, dude. So are you.
The children aren't the only ones with potential in Janjevo, the town itself is just waiting to be appreciated. It used to be a wealthy mining town, but is now mostly abandoned. They say that only one third of the houses are occupied. The historic house of Stefan Gjecovi Kryeziu, ethnologist, historian, national hero, has been renovated and is supposedly going to be turned into a museum at some point. Other houses are simply falling into disrepair as each day passes. They retain signs of their former luster and the surrounding mountains and lack of modern architecture make the place feel even more magical. Elizabeth and partners talked about the draw this setting could have for volunteers, how wonderful it would be if they could offer teachers a place to stay in a fixed up traditional house. The potential for tourism is high and the leaders of the town mentioned their desire for it to Elizabeth, who reported that our presence (as two Americans with cameras) put big smiles on their faces.
While tourism could help the town's economy, we were far from the most important foreigners arriving in Janjevo that day. Elizabeth, Katarina and Aurelie are doing such important, impressive work. Economic stimulation is great, but intellectual and creative stimulation of the town's forgotten young people is even better. We left wishing we had more time to give, more help to offer. But we are really thankful to have at least been welcomed to tag along for the day - to see The Ideas Partnership at work and all of these wonderful children at play.