We went to visit Raza with two volunteer workers from Balkan Sunflowers – an NGO which works to increase Roma and other minorities’ participation in the Kosovan education system. The organisation has an education centre in Plementina which is attended by around 50-60 Roma children for a few hours each day. The main school in the village is Serbian and all lessons are taught in Serbian. Roma people have their own language and so children struggle to keep up in classes. In 1989 Slobodan Milosevic banned all Roma children from schools, leaving the current generation of parents largely uneducated. Consequently many Roma parents place little value in education. All this leads to a poor quality of education and low attendance rates among the Roma community. Balkan Sunflowers provide some additional support to these children by helping them with their homework and teaching them Serbian.
Their overall aim is to integrate their learning centres with the Kosovan government’s educational structures, once the government has enough money. The volunteers and coordinators we spoke to seemed reasonably optimistic about their work. According to the coordinator of the Plementina centre attendance of their classes has tripled in the last 2-3 years, but it remains an area with huge room for improvement. An EU progress report estimated that only 10% of Kosovan Roma children attend primary school regularly and we were told that there are only around 30 Roma students in higher education in Kosovo.
After speaking with the people running the centre we went to visit Raza. The conditions of her life are a powerful example of just how neglected members of the Roma community can be in Kosovo. As we walked down a road in a village we approached a cluster of three buildings: two old houses with washing hang up outside and a smaller building which seemed no more than a ruin. We were told that Raza lived here. I assumed that the volunteer meant one of the houses, the volunteers entered the building I had thought a ruin. Inside Raza was crouched down on the floor. She is so small that at first I thought the person huddled up in a thick coat and with a scarf covering her head was a child, not an 83 year old woman.
The building, which is her home, is a single room. A tiny, dirty bed with a thin mattress and a bundle of old sheets stands against one wall. Next to it is an old rusted stove which looks unusable. On top of it lay some bread crusts, old food wrappers and empty plastic bottles. The floor is bare concrete and covered in dirt. In some places the concrete has crumbled away to exposure the soil below. More litter was scattered over the floor. There is no toilet or washing facilities and the room smelt of excrement.
There is one small window letting in a little light, but when the single naked light bulb hanging from the ceiling went out because of a power cut the room was dark. Raza, however, is blind. When we entered the room she was crouched down, feeling along the floor with her hands for some of orange peel. She is probably about 5’4’’ if stood up straight but her spine is so curved that when she gets up to walk outside she stands no higher than four feet. It took her around five minutes to walk eight yards from the middle of her room to just outside the front door and she was assisted by a stick and two people. She complained of being cold despite it being a hot day and said her stomach was causing her pain.
She has two children but neither of them live close enough to take care of her regularly. One of the Sunflowers volunteers tries to see her once a week, but with the commitments of her job she finds it a difficult to keep to this routine. We were told her neighbours do a little to look after her but from the squalid conditions of her home it is clear that what they do for her cannot amount to much. Not that they can be blamed. They are a large family with their own problems to face.
The conditions Raza lives in are by far the worst we have encountered in Kosovo. Life here is far from ideal. The education system here is over-crowded. Children go to school in shifts so that everyone can spend an equal time in classes. The health service is hugely under-funded. Its entire annual budget is €56 million. To put that into context, I was told by the Kosovan government’s Minister for Health that Macedonia, a country with a population of a similar size, has €500 million to spend on its health system. But despite this, the water-shortages, power cuts and high rate of unemployment most people in Kosovo seem to have pleasant lives compared to someone like Raza.
As in most of Europe the Roma community in Kosovo face many difficulties. The people are very poor and have large families to clothe and feed. The work is often unreliable and sporadic. Both Serbs and Albanians discriminate against them. We were told about a bus which takes people from the village to jobs in nearby towns has re-enforced plastic windows which are capable to withstanding stones being thrown at them. There is some political representation for minority communities in the Kosovan government, but in the case of the Roma there is no real unity between the communities scattered across the region. This discrimination, poverty and lack of widespread education has left Roma communities very isolated in Kosovo, and their plight is often overshadowed by the tensions between Serbs and Albanians. Raza's case may be extreme, but she is still an example of just how neglected a person can become in this environment.