It is so hard to believe that today was our last day in Kosovo with Save the Children. Our visit today was in Mitrovica North, a northern municipality. We were briefed on the situation in Mitrovica on our drive to the city; the northern side is Serbian while the Albanian Kosovar population lives in southern Mitrovica across the Albar River.
The Serbian government funds and runs the schools within Mitrovica, which makes it a sensitive context for Save the Children to work in, and means they need to be extra careful to ensure everyone knows they are there for the children and that political matters are left at the door. Their focus is entirely on the children within the schools and centers they help support.
Part of the reason Save the Children has kept the trust of the people in the northern municipalities is because they’ve had a presence since 2000 and throughout the conflict. Due to the sensitive nature of things in this city, we were briefed to keep photography to the minimum when on the street. For an area that has had conflict in the past, and still struggles regularly with fighting, we had to remain sympathetic to the sensitivities of people. This meant that we were asked not to take pictures while outside of the facilities to ensure we wouldn’t inadvertently add any sparks to a situation that can easily flare up.
Save the Children is the only international organization working in the area, and they provide a very important role in helping schools with their programs and raising awareness of children’s rights.
Our first stop was to the HandiKOS center, and it was great to see another center dedicated to inclusive education for children with disabilities. The director was called away at the last minute due to an illness, but we met with the program coordinator. She was hospitable and showed us their wonderful facility.
This particular building was built in 2008 with the support of both Save the Children and the European Union, and in a city that has seen little infrastructure development it stands out within the neighborhood. As we pulled up, a little girl named Aleksandra was on her way to school. She attends a mainstream school, but comes to the center for mobility development work and physical therapy. She lightened the mood immensely when she admonished her mother to hurry and help her walk faster to get out of the sun.
Compared to the facility we saw on Tuesday, this one has so much more space for the children and their needs. What also makes the center unique is that it houses a toy library; this was created through a partnership between Save the Children and UNICEF. The program coordinator explained to us that any child—with disabilities or without—is welcome to come to the center to play with the toys. There are seven staff currently working there each day with the children, and they are open five days a week. They also have two rooms for physical therapy, but because of funding they no longer have a full-time physical therapist. Instead, the staff all help with the children who need assistance.
Our group split into two and went to talk and play with the children. I sat down to work on some puzzles with a boy who has Down’s syndrome. We started the puzzle and I quickly realized he was in a silly mood; we would get the correct puzzle pieces in place and then he would take a piece back out, place it somewhere wrong, and crack up at the resulting mixed-up puzzle. The staff had a technique when working with him because he had a very strong grip and wasn’t always aware, but they would link pinkie fingers and shake instead of gripping hands. There was no separation of children with different disabilities; instead, all of the children played together, and the teachers kept working on what each child wanted to focus upon while they were there.
We next went to a preschool that was built by Save the Children and funded by IKEA in 2002. The director warmly welcomed us and thanked us for coming, and hoped we could see how well they were taking care of the building. I felt very humbled because the truly important thing is the work that she and her team are doing for their 176 students. She explained that the pre-primary education that occurred there is completely free of cost, and the only thing that parents have to provide is lunch for their children. Even the materials and supplies are covered through the generosity of Save the Children, IKEA, and the government programs that fund it. Even with the building, they still have to have some students go to school in the larger primary school building because they can only accommodate 140 students.
I am taking away a huge appreciation for the complexity of the situation here in Kosovo and knowledge of how Save the Children is actively working to improve the lives of all children within Kosovo regardless of ethnicity or disability. My mind is full of memories and moments that I hope stay clear so I can hold onto them tightly for many years to come. Even the things the children have taught me—from Albanian phrases and Serbian songs to seeing the kindness extended among the children to students from minority or disability groups. The immense hospitality of Kosovo and its resilient people will be forever held in my heart.