Making Changes - A personal and community awakening through education

02 Apr 2014

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Fushë Kosovë/Kosovo Polje – It’s a rare sunny day here in the Roma/Ashkali/Egyptian (RAE) quarter of Fushë Kosovë/Kosovo Polje; a welcome respite from a long spell of chilly, overcast winter weather.

It’s also the perfect day to skip school. Or, if you’re not enrolled in school – as is the case for nearly 15% of the school-aged children in this impoverished neighbourhood – it’s the perfect day to skip your two-hour literacy and numeracy class at the local The Ideas Partnership (TIP) center.

But here inside this sunlit classroom, ten young teenaged girls sit among four rows of old wooden tables. Pens in hand and eyes on the blackboard, the girls are oblivious to the laughter and community chatter emanating from the street outside.

Their teacher is Mirsade Salihu. A 36-year-old mother of three and active member of her local RAE community, Salihu is one of only four women among the 20-member “Community Changemakers” group that comprises one aspect of a three-part UNV-supported project being implemented by TIP in Kosovo’s Fushë Kosovë/Kosovo Polje and Obiliq/Obilić municipalities. Where the other parts of this project focus on directly delivering basic literacy and mathematics courses to particular groups in these municipalities, the Community Changemakers element targets a carefully selected group of individuals from these marginalized communities for special training in community advocacy, project-design and entrepreneurial skills, and broad empowerment capacities for themselves and their communities both.

Donning a zebra-striped headscarf, Salihu easily charms her students and Changemaker colleagues alike with her warm smile and frequent outbreaks into giggles and outright laughter. And indeed, she seems effortlessly comfortable in front of her classroom of transfixed young students, only two of whom have any previous experience in formal education. As she patiently reviews the fundamentals of simple addition, Salihu variously calls upon her students to join her at the blackboard, weaving interaction into the instruction process while carefully maintaining her students’ focus as though she’s been a teacher all her life.

But in fact, Salihu has been teaching for barely two months, and moreover is herself in the process of completing her own high school education.

Described by multiple colleagues and long-time neighbours as a passionate and especially sharp student in her younger days, Salihu’s high school education was cut short in the 1990s when conflict and, correspondingly, barriers in access to education prevented her from completing her formal studies in law. But last year, she caught word of TIP’s bursary scheme for local RAE individuals wanting to continue their education.

“I took the opportunity without thinking twice,” Salihu says.

She jumped back into formal studies via TIP’s bursary scheme in November of last year, and by January she had initiated her literacy and numeracy classes for girls as well as joined the UNV-supported project’s Community Changemakers group.

Her twice-weekly literacy and numeracy class for girls – which she devised herself and for which she personally recruited students – has rapidly become among the most popular and consistently attended at TIP’s Fushë Kosovë/Kosovo Polje center. As Salihu describes it, her passion for education and learning never left, but she was dismayed upon being forced to abruptly halt her studies in the 1990s and, in the years since, let the once fiery student inside her wane on the backburner.

“I woke up when I started my education again,” she says.

And her excitement to jump back into learning seems to translate into her teaching, for which she clearly has a natural aptitude.

“These classes really hit the target of what is very much needed here, since all these girls are really interested and really wanted to learn,” says Samir Statovci, manager of TIP’s UNV-supported project. “When last week we had to tell the students she couldn’t make it because she was sick, they didn’t want to leave the center because they were too excited for class”.

Already making an impact in her community through her effective teaching, Salihu’s enthusiasm seems to further fuel her evermore-active role as a community advocate and Changemaker.

“Mirsade was chosen to join the Changemakers group due to her noticeable passion and ability to advocate for her community,” continues Statovci. “She is determined to help enable those in her community to gain the basic skills required to empower them in the world beyond their marginalized neighborhood.”

Ambitious, eloquent and outspoken as a Changemaker participant, Statovci says Salihu both injects enthusiasm into the Changemakers group as well as helps her fellow Changemakers feel more comfortable to pro-actively participate in the project.

“In a way, Mirsade is a model Changemaker,” says Statovci.

Not only does she motivate her fellow Changemakers, but she’s also already making strides in her own community.

“In the future, these women will be young mothers, and they will be able to assist their children with schooling,” says Statovci. “And this will help in our overall cause to lower illiteracy rates in the community.”

So what’s next for Salihu?

“I don’t know, but I’m dreaming!” she says. “I hope to achieve something good that was until now impossible, but we’ll have to wait and see for it.”

And she says that being part of this Changemaker group is already offering her new skills and motivation that she’s excited to put into action further.

After a bleak period away from education, Salihu now exemplifies the all-too-often untapped enthusiasm and capacity amid her community to harness opportunities for herself and community alike. With this UNV-supported project only two-thirds complete and her training still in process, Salihu has already transcended her official label as a “Community Changemaker” member to truly embody the project’s spirit and transform its mission into effective action.

What’s next? Who knows – but dreaming is just the beginning.

A success story from a UNDP / UNV component within UN Joint project in Kosovo funded by UN Trust Fund for Human Security and implemented by The Ideas Partnership.

Story and photos by Sarah P. Murphy