‘It’s a Roma begging ring organised crime’, ‘they make quite a lot of money; they’re not really that poor’, ‘they’re not from Kosovo, you know – they’re bussed in from Albania’, ‘giving them money just encourages them.’
Walk for more than a few blocks in Pristina and you will come across a dark-skinned figure huddled on the pavement muttering prayers to God and to passers-by, with hands outstretched for charity.
Many of these people begging have children cradled in their arms; many of them are children themselves.
When I arrived in Kosovo, like lots of people, I worried about what I could do in the face of such need, expressed explicitly from the street corner, asked of me directly.
I asked Kosovar friends, and people who had lived here a while.
Their answers, at the beginning of this article, will be familiar to you.
So perhaps there was nothing I could do; I was certainly dissuaded from giving any cash. I started carrying small packs of coloured crayons in my handbag to give to children asking for money – I reckoned that couldn’t count as supporting organised crime, or encouraging dependency, and at least it honoured the childhood of the kids who were approaching me.
But these kids weren’t from Kosovo, and they weren’t that poor anyway: my friends’ reassurances allowed me to walk through town with a light heart – and the occasional extra glow when I was able to give away one of my pathetic packs of pencils.
No-one likes having their comfortable certainties rocked, so apologies for the family I’m about to introduce you to. I met them in October, when we had some clothes and materials to give away and asked staff at the Balkans Sunflowers community centre in Fushë Kosovë whether there were families locally who might be in need. “Not all, no, but there are some people who could do with help,” we were told. We were taken by them to knock on the door of Hateme and Agron, an Ashkali couple who received the bag of clothes with polite thanks.
Just walking to their home expanded my understanding of Kosovo. Kids in this neighbourhood, on a cold autumn day, were running around barefoot in mud and through rubbish heaps. The rubbish is a dominant feature of their area – not just the drifts of plastic bags that make you tut on many a city street or road verge in Kosovo, but great piles of it, as high as the houses, with dogs snuffling through them, along with the occasional adventurous toddler.
I returned on another occasion to take some prescription ointment to Agron and Hateme for their son who I had heard had been badly burned, and they invited me in to their home. We went past the old car door panels which make an improvised fence around the home, past the overflowing latrine, the cold water tap outside which is their only source of water, to a single room, three metres by three metres, where the whole family lives and sleeps.
Inside, the children were eating their lunch off the floor – serious 9 year-old Gjelane, her mischievous brothers aged 7 and 6, the subdued 3 year-old who’d been burned, and a two year-old giggly sister, Elhame. The children are smaller than you’d expect for their age, and some of them have swollen bellies, the signs of malnutrition.
The family made polite conversation – asked me about my family and my work, and I asked them a bit more about themselves. They live on 60 euros a month of social welfare. That’s less than 9 euros per person per month; that’s basically not possible. So Agron goes out rooting through the bins in Pristina for scrap metal to sell on.
And Hateme begs, outside the Xhamia e Llapit mosque on Fridays, taking Elhame with her. I thought about what my friends had told me and wondered about the three year old’s burns – “Do you take Ramadan with you too?”
Hateme frowned like any mother would. “Of course not – it would be too uncomfortable for him with his burns, to sit in the cold.”
I’ve been back to visit Hateme and the kids a number of times.
I’ve had some more glimpses into their life, their compromises. I discovered that Hateme can’t read or write, though Agron can – he’s showed me his school leaving certificate. “Education is the most important gift you can have,” he told me solemnly.
“Yes; do your children work hard at school?” I asked. He looked uncomfortable. No, the children didn’t go to school.
“But you’ve just told me that education is the most important gift you can have.” I asked him. He gestured at his kids’ feet. “They’ve got no shoes. They can’t go to school like that.”
In November we sorted out shoes for the 6 and 7 year old boys and they have registered to start school in September this year, and already began catch-up classes run by Balkan Sunflowers to get them ready.
Gjelane has shoes too, but it turns out she can’t start school in September: two years have passed since she should have registered, and so she won’t be accepted unless she passes a test.
Until last week she couldn’t even write her name, so it’s not likely she will pass the test. By law, Municipal Education Departments should provide accelerated learning out-of-school for pupils like her, but at the moment such state-funded education isn’t available in Kosovo – you miss school for two years, and you’ve missed your chance forever.
Balkan Sunflowers are offering to help her as much as they can, and Gjelane is determined to learn the stuff her brothers are coming home with.
One Thursday we brought her a workbook for the first grade in school; when we returned on the following Tuesday she had finished every exercise. Her mum had started carefully tracing the alphabet too.
Her mum is pregnant again; I congratulated her when she told me, but she frowned. ‘I didn’t want to be pregnant. Look at the space here. Sixty euros a month?’ I don’t know how many families there are in Kosovo like Hateme’s.
I don’t know how many of the bundled women on the streets, with their hands stretched out to you, go back to homes like hers, facing the multiple challenges of poverty, illiteracy and institutions which don’t do what they are required by law.
I don’t say that giving money to Hateme outside the mosque on Fridays will solve the problems though I know it will mean that the kids will eat that weekend. But when I’ve visited Hateme I drive the ten minutes home to the capital in disbelief and shame that it took me four years living here before I met the people who had been calling out from Pristina’s pavements.
Elizabeth Gowing is a founder member of The Ideas Partnership, a Kosovan NGO working on educational, culturaland environmental projects. She can be reached at [email protected]