Today we got to visit Handikos community based rehabilitation (CBR) centre in Mitrovica. Handikos is a non-governmental organisation that runs rehabilitation centres in several locations in Kosovo, giving children with disabilities physiotherapy and psychosocial support and supporting them to develop and learn, outside school.
In Kosovo there aren’t the same possibilities to get special help and extra resources as there are in Sweden, but they are working to integrate children with disabilities in regular school classes. Therefore, the children can come to the centre after school to get extra support. It is very clear that there is a difference between Kosovo and Sweden when it comes to resources and Save the Children is making a very big difference for these children.
The centre we visited today is in northern Kosovo, in Mitrovica. Since the conflict ended in 1999, the city has been divided into two parts along the river Ibar. Mitrovica South is populated mainly by Kosovo Albanians and Mitrovica North by Kosovo Serbs. Relations between the two areas are still very strained. Valid Zhubi, Programme Implementation Co-ordinator for Save the Children in Kosovo, explained to us that it’s not advised to go to Mitrovica North with Kosovo registration plates on the car. It can be perceived as an offence by the Kosovo Serbs and can cause irritation. Due to this, our minivan stopped a short distance from the bridge that divides the city as a precaution and we got picked up by a different minivan, with Serbian registration plates, that took us all the way to the centre.
We arrived safe and sound but, outside the centre, a different kind of nervousness replaced the first one. Even though we had talked about the centre on our way there, and prepared ourselves mentally, we did still not know what to expect. We were super excited to finally meet some of the children who benefit from the IKEA Foundation’s donations—but how would the experience be?
When we entered the centre we were met with a lot of joy and movement. We were greeted by Mirjana Spiric, the manager of the centre, along with two co-workers and lots of children. There were also some psychology students who had been volunteering at the centre for some time and now seemed to be having a little farewell party, since they were finishing their internship. We said hello to the employees at the centre. It didn’t take many seconds before a boy came out from the room next door and, with excitement, ran up to us and greeted and welcomed us with eager handshakes. We later learned that the child has Down’s syndrome.
There are four people working at the centre—one manager, one psychologist, one informal educator and one driver who takes the children to the centre and drives them home afterwards, so that the children who can’t get there by themselves can still visit and benefit. The manager Mirjana is now working as a volunteer; there is simply not enough money for her to have a salary. You can really tell that she is dedicated to these children.
Mirjana takes us on a little tour through the small centre. There is a room for educational play (like puzzles and games) and a “toy library”, which is a room full of toys that everybody can play with. There is also one office corner, a kitchen and two small rooms where the children have physiotherapy.
The centre is pretty narrow, considering 30 children come here every day. But the kids are happy and greeted us with open arms. At first, we were a bit shy but we got more relaxed after a while and, after the tour, we started playing with the children, who were more than willing to let us join in on their activities. I noticed that the cultural and language barriers between us and different types of disabilities are easy to overcome. For the record, we had two Save the Children staff members Artan Bllaca, Programme Implementation Manager, and Jovan Vladisavljevic, Geographical Co-ordinator for Mitrovica North, who could translate for us. But high fives, thumbs ups and body language are just as good a form of communicating as anything.
We did puzzles, built things with blocks and played dominoes and Ludo. In the toy library we were drawing, playing with all kinds of toys and playing basketball. The children wanted to learn counting in Swedish and they also wanted to teach us to count in Serbian—we weren’t learning nearly as fast as them! There were two children without any disabilities at the centre, which didn’t keep them from having fun with all the other kids. Every child is welcomed, something that is increasing inclusiveness and friendship between children with and without disabilities.
What made the biggest impact on us during the day is something that is close to our hearts—both as IKEA co-workers and as people—togetherness. The focus of the centre is on Inclusive Education, and the sense of togetherness in the centre was visible even though we only played with the kids for a short while. The warmth and the thoughtfulness between the children was strong. One example that made a strong impression on us was while we were having cake. I was sitting amongst several children, and one of the children called out that somebody needs to help Ana to eat her cake, as she can’t eat by herself.
Naturally it causes pain in our hearts to see that the needs are so great and, of course, we wish that there were endless resources, materials and better premises. But what balances that feeling is that there are people who are helping these children to have a better life every day. They give them way better conditions than they would have had if the centre wasn’t there.
Four people welcome and take care of an average 30 children every day. The children develop and reach results that they wouldn’t have if they hadn’t had the help and the support they get at the centre, and they are having more fun—together!
We feel that there is so much dedication and such a will to make a difference, both for each individual child and for society. Experiences like this give us energy and a will to pass the experience and the knowledge on to our colleagues and customers, to make an even bigger impact. We see that there is room for improvement, and the conditions should be better, but we also see the huge difference that the IKEA Foundation and Save the Children are making in the lives of these children and their families. They are giving them possibilities for the future—most things are still to come.
After today, we are even more excited and thrilled to see and learn more and we are looking forward to the rest of the week.