Hope lives in Peja

Countryside and mountains - Rachel Lucas
Countryside and mountains – By Rachel Lucas

Nestled in the valley of the Rugova Mountains in western Kosovo is 232 square miles containing 76 villages and the town of Peja/Pec’. Peja is one of the municipalities where Save the Children and the IKEA Foundation partner to deliver educational influence and aid.

Just over the border from Montenegro, this community was active in trade of the finest milk and cheeses in the region. Since the war in 1999 that burned many homes throughout Kosovo, and took far too many lives, the trade has suffered greatly. However, the people of Peja remain a proud, tightknit community.

KOSOVO map from the dwelling in Peja  - Rachel Lucas
KOSOVO map from the dwelling in Peja – By Rachel Lucas

Before 1999 there was not a single pre-primary inside the schools in Kosovo, but today that number is much higher, thanks to the initial steps and efforts taken to establish and refurbish 380 pre-primary (5-6 year olds) classes and education programs by Save the Children through the support of IKEA in 2000.

The program in Peja helps realize the rights of minority and disabled children, and ensure an inclusive and safe learning environment. Utilizing funding from the IKEA Foundation, Save the Children has also created a child-friendly manual to combat violence in Kosovo. Violence in families has been on the rise in Kosovo since the war, due to the post-traumatic stress that the country does not have the infrastructure in place to diagnose and effectively treat. The Didactic Manual in Prevention of Violence has been distributed to 23 of Kosovo’s 38 municipalities, including Peja. Created jointly with the Ministry of Education in Kosovo, the manual is used to facilitate one class annually in the participating municipalities, and beginning in 2015 Save the Children will start to train the teachers on how to effectively use the manual.

The work of Save the Children in this school is altering the lives of the Albanian children in Peja by providing something money can’t possibly buy: hope! There are also tangible tools in place for the children to allow their voices to be heard.

While in Peja we visited the pre-primary and primary (grade 1-9) school of Ramiz Sadiku and were greeted immediately by an illustration of the rights and responsibilities of the children and educators at the school. Not far from there, we see a special comment/complaint box for the children to have a say in their environment. This theme of giving the children a voice is something we have experienced within each of the municipalities that has a Save the Children presence.

Comment box for the childrens concerns - by Rachel Lucas
Comment box for the childrens concerns – by Rachel Lucas
Rights and Responsibilities poster - by Mary Ganska
Rights and Responsibilities poster – by Mary Ganska

I was fortunate enough to spend some time in the classroom in Ramiz Sadiku, and while there I couldn’t help but draw a comparison between the smiles on the children’s faces with the larger picture of Kosovo’s reality. Beautiful and vibrant with character and color on the surface, but hidden inside is suffering and struggle that is not likely to be completely remedied anytime soon.

Warm welcome - By Rachel Lucas
Warm welcome – By Rachel Lucas

While we do not speak one another’s language, my new friend Endrita (pictured below) did not have to utter a word to connect with me … all it took was Play-Doh and the innocent acceptance of a five-year-old. Joining in part of their curriculum, we sat and created symbols of springtime side by side.

New friends ( Endrita on Right)  - By Rachel Lucas
New friends ( Endrita on Right) – By Rachel Lucas
New life (playdough) - By Rachel Lucas
New life (playdough) – By Rachel Lucas

My mind couldn’t help but drift to the symbolic nature of the season, “new life” and the opportunity to grow into something beautiful. Endrita makes up part of only 10% of children in Kosovo who are enrolled in any type of pre-school (0-6 years) education program. While this is a small number, it is one that again represent “hope”. There was a day when this 10% was far less, and as perceptions change so will the lives of the empowered youth.

Along side Entrita’s teacher with 25 years’ tenure was Besim Haliti, a support educator at Ramiz Sadiku. Support educators are selected and placed by Save the Children and local municipal officials, and given training and salary for the first three years in their school. The agreement with the local educational system is that after the three years the municipality will take responsibility for their payment.

Besim is there to support the inclusion of children with disabilities who are enrolled at this school. Down’s syndrome and developmental or learning disabilities are among the main struggles of the children here, and Besim works with all of them individually at least twice a week.

I am continually impressed with the proactive thinking of Save the Children and the educators alike. For example, Besim also supports the teachers in Ramiz Sadiku to some extent with the other 765 children in the school. As overwhelming as this may sound, it is crucial to make sure the child does not feel like he or she is getting special treatment and being singled out in the classroom. The goal of true inclusivity could not be met otherwise.

Thanks to the continued efforts of Save the Children, one additional support educator will be granted for grades 1-5 to ensure the quality and consistency of the children’s experience. Save the Children will also pay the salaries and contribute to the training of these additional support teachers.

Continuing to advocate for inclusivity in schools will help tip the scales in the favor of these children and ultimately help them achieve a much greater potential, one that even they may not be convinced is their right to achieve.

Entrika shares her small classroom with a set of twin boys named Erolind and Elmond. They come to Ramiz Sadiku daily, but their struggle does not end with the school day.

The boys are two of five siblings living in Peja with their mother and father. Their father, Muharrem, has an 8th grade education and their mother has none to speak of. There was a great deal of tension in Kosovo in the 1990s and Muharrem fled the country to Germany, where he worked as a maintenance man in a school for some time. Although he was very close to achieving his residency in Germany, he returned to Kosovo to be with his elderly mother. Muharrem couldn’t have known then that he would marry and have five beautiful children who would get the opportunity to attend the pre-primary program in Peja.

Muharrem and his family are living in poverty conditions, getting only 75 euros per month for the family of seven, including a five-week-old baby. Even though the twins’ mother has no formal education, the maternal instinct cannot be taught and she is rich in that. As their mother and rock of the home, she sits with her boys every night to show interest in what they are learning, and often learns along side of them.

In speaking with Muharrem, he reminds us that his children are his priority and although the school provided the books for the children, if they require materials like pencils and other books or additional items like notebooks to write their poems in, he will provide them without question using the little funds he has. He values knowledge and education and remarked how he enjoys the “company of smart people.” The man’s eyes smile and he expressed with candor how he does not consider himself a smart man and is small in knowledge compared to the people of the world like us. I for one think he is one of the wisest men I’ve had the pleasure to meet.

Wisdom lives in Peja - By Rachel Lucas
Wisdom lives in Peja – By Rachel Lucas

I’m reminded of our Values at IKEA when Muharrem tells us that even when he was in Germany he tried to live every day by learning new things and acquiring knowledge, rather than being flashy or obtaining “things.” The legacy is clearly passed on to the young boys as they use random items like screwdrivers and cassette tape as makeshift toys with large smiles on their faces and tell us how they cannot wait to go to class tomorrow!

Joy of the boys - By Rachel Lucas
Joy of the boys – By Rachel Lucas

As I leave Peja today, I reflect on its beauty, not only aesthetically but also that of its people. Although I wonder silently what is in store for Muharrem, his wife and newborn, I am comforted by the fact that Save the Children and their local partners, through the IKEA Foundation, are increasing the efforts that they want to take in these areas; so they are in great hands. I am fortunate to have been exposed to such humanitarian efforts, and it’s something I will never forget.


    Rachel Lucas