Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Reflections on Kosovo

What I like most about traveling, especially to places that most Americans would never dream of visiting, is the opportunity to see and absorb the differences. It's one reason why I like to rent a car and travel out to the country side in many of the places I've been to - it allows you to see life through the eyes of the locals more so than simply visiting the largest city in a given country. In the same way that visiting New York City does not give a visitor a true impression of American life, visiting and staying in a country's top city is often limiting, not just from a sightseeing standpoint, but from a day-in-the-life standpoint.

So with that said, this being my last day in Kosovo, I've been reflecting on what I've seen and there's plenty of differences to write home about. Many of them are not so positive, but Kosovo is not a wealthy place and that can be seen in daily life. But that was also what I was signing up for - the opportunity to live in a developing country for some time, doing without the comforts we are familiar with in the US and in Western Europe. It's certainly not on the same scale as living in Africa, but it's not France or Norway either.

Observations include:
  • Smoking - This being my ninth Europe trip in seven years, I know that smoking tends to be more prevalent in European society. With that said, and after being warned before arriving here that "there's a lot of smoking," I don't think Western Europe measures up to the Balkans. The Skopje, Macedonia In Your Pocket Guide says that people in the Balkans are "born smoking." That sums it up well. In Kosovo, men (rarely women I've noticed), go from establishment to establishment with a carton of cigarettes trying to earn a living. It's a habit easy to start here, and even easier to sustain since a carton of cigs is as cheap as a can of soda. When you sit down to eat at a restaurant, the ash holder (is there a formal name for it?) is brought to you just as quickly as your drinks. Indoors, outdoors, in the car, while eating, while working, in the morning, in the evening, smoking is part of Kosovar daily life no different than brushing one's teeth or changing one's clothes.
  • A je lodh? - This is Albanian for 'Are you tired?' a greeting that goes hand in hand with 'How are you?' You'll hear it in the same sentence as Qysh je (How are you) or by itself. To American ears, it's somewhat humorous and one of those cultural differences worth embracing.
  • Dogs and cats - Kosovo isn't the first place I've seen stray dogs and cats wondering around looking for food. Poland seems to have a similar problem and I recall making a mental note of it the two times I've been to that country. There seems to be more in Kosovo, however, which seems logical. There's obviously a root cause for the problem, poverty and an overestimation of what it takes monetarily to care for a pet are my guesses, but without doing the research, I am only speculating.
  • Poverty - In Kosovo, you'll sit outside at a restaurant and a girl perhaps 10 years old will approach you and give you a hug in the hopes of winning a few euro from you. This happened in our second week here to a classmate as we sat outside a restaurant. We had no idea what the intent was and we all thought it was cute until we finally figured it out. Other times, an elderly person, Roma or not, will approach, stand there with their hand held out hoping you'll give something. People ignore these beggars and they eventually go away empty-handed and continue on to the next outdoor establishment. In one case, a begger went from table to table and placed a piece of paper with writing on it on each one. I asked what it said, and was told that the person was asking for money. The establishment takes no action against these people asking for money, and because I can't remember the last time it happened to me in New York, my guess is this is something establishments in New York would never tolerate.
  • Roads - From traveling in the former Soviet bloc, in places like Poland and Slovakia, I knew what to expect from the roads here. I figured they would be narrow, bumpy, two-lanes only with a lot of passing and slow-going sitting behind trucks and farm equipment. I was right and I was wrong. Somewhere in June, perhaps it was when I rented a car and drove to Albania, experiencing the driving first-hand, I declared out loud that the roads in this part of Europe are worse than up north. Part of the reason is that Kosovo is not flat; roads curve around quite a bit, making passing more difficult and the whole driving experience more draining. 
  • Searching Through Dumpsters - In Kosovo, and no doubt in other places around Europe, it's not only stray cats climbing around dumpsters, it's also teenaged Roma. They climb inside a dumpster looking for food or anything else they think is usable. I've seen this a few times and captured it once with a few photos.
  • Dusty streets - It didn't take long for my new casual shoes, bought for the trip, to become old casual shoes. Walking in a developing country means getting a little dirty.
  • The weather - The weather in Kosovo is fantastic. While reports of 100 degree heat were coming out of New York, Kosovo's hottest day never felt nearly as hot as what people in New York were dealing with this summer and will continue to deal with through August. Without the humidity, the heat feels completely different, more like California's heat. The evenings are usually pleasant where an air conditioner was never needed. It may be what I will miss most about spending the summer here, especially after I return to New York where I am certain the air conditioner will be on full blast.
Overall, it's been a positive experience. Kosovo is an  interesting place, not just because of its status in international relations terms, but for its culture, its history, and its future prospects as an independent nation. As it grows and builds up its tourism infrastructure, the word will get out and more people will visit, creating more economic opportunity for the Kosovar people.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Kosovo: Repatriating Europe’s Most Vulnerable Population

Ramiz Bardosana had been living in Germany since 1991. His children were in school and he was a model citizen, never causing trouble for the German government or with the law. But he was there on Duldung status, temporary “Tolerated” permission to live in that country subject to renewal every three months. On April 12, 2011, he was forcibly returned to Kosovo.

 “The police arrived at seven in the morning without advanced warning. I was given no time to collect my belongings; I didn’t even take my jacket. I was forcibly returned to Kosovo, given eighty euro on the plane, thirty for me, fifty for my daughter,” Mr. Bardosana told me as we sat on his front porch in Gjakovë, surrounded by his family.

 To come in close contact with the Roma, Ashkalia and Egyptian (RAE) communities in Kosovo, to witness their living conditions and to hear their stories of desperation, is to remind us of what we are capable of doing to each other. Indeed, the human race continues to find ways to subjugate populations simply for being who they are.

I’ve been fortunate to meet with several members of the RAE communities during my brief time in Kosovo this summer and have learned first-hand the difficulties they face. 

But it’s not just the adults who are suffering under the government of Kosovo’s Readmission Agreements, bilateral arrangements that regulate the repatriation process for those who have failed to achieve citizenship elsewhere in Europe. RAE children, born and socially integrated in Germany, fluent in the German language, have been forcibly returned only to encounter a fierce language barrier, social exclusion, and an end to their schooling.

 “My daughter was in primary school, my son in the ninth grade. They both speak German. My son can understand some Albanian, but he can’t speak it,” said Mr. Bardosana when I asked about his children who have not been able to attend school in Kosovo.

 Mr. Bardosana and his family live with his brother and his family, only one example of the crowded living conditions forcibly returned RAE must cope with in Kosovo. Many returnees sold their property to finance their emigration to places like Germany. To be forcibly returned to Kosovo means having to stay with a relative, an unsustainable proposition for many.

 “We are six people living in a small house without a toilet. We have to heat bottles of water to wash ourselves,” said Shpëtim Boneshta, a Roma gentleman struggling in Gjakovë.

Were you all forcibly returned? I asked.

 “No,” replies Mr. Boneshta, “my wife returned voluntarily because of a statement made by the former Roma member of Parliament. He said voluntary returns would receive benefits. It’s been more than two years and she has received nothing.”

Mr. Radoviq, center, suffers from paranoid psychosis
 In Pejë, Pastrit Radoviq, who like Mr. Bardosana was returned on April 12, 2011, suffers from paranoid psychosis, a condition diagnosed by a German doctor who prescribed medication. “The German police arrived at four in the morning on April 12 of this year. I received no warning letter. After arriving in Kosovo, I went to a doctor who wouldn’t treat me because he said my surname sounds Serbian. I can’t get the medication I need to manage this illness,” said Mr. Radoviq.

Many of those returned, unemployed with very little hope of finding work, are not receiving any social assistance from the government. In an interview with Etem Arifi, the Ashkali representative in Parliament, and Qazim Rahmani, political advisor in the Ministry of Labor and Social Welfare, I was told that a gathering of a board of directors within the Ministry of Internal Affairs, charged to reach a decision on social assistance requests for forcibly returned RAE, meets once every three months, denying a family in urgent need of assistance with the help they so desperately require to manage their day-to-day lives.

“We are a minority here. We are oppressed and left aside. The government of Kosovo does not give priority to RAE because they want to make the Kosovo state equal to Europe,” Mr. Rahmani said.

 But Islam Caka, director of the Department of Asylum, Citizens and Migration and a member of the Board of Repatriation within the Ministry of Internal Affairs, disputes the claim that the board of directors meets once every three months.

“If the request is complete, the review of the file does not take much time. Board meetings can be held at any time and immediate actions can be taken,” Mr. Caka said.

There are some returning from Germany who are eligible to receive limited financial assistance, but it is not coming from the government of Kosovo. The URA 2 project, an arm of the German government, offers those returning from select regions of Germany pre-determined financial assistance once they arrive in Pristina.

“Everyone is eligible for social counseling no matter where they are returning from in Germany. Those who return voluntarily receive a little more assistance than those who are deported. Otherwise, there is a budget per person for those who are returned from four specific regions in Germany. Why only those regions is a political decision for which I am not able to speak to,” said Birgit Budde, residential adviser in the Pristina-based URA office.

With the advent of the Action Plan of the Republic of Kosovo for the Implementation of the Strategy for the Integration of the Roma, Ashkali and Egyptian Communities, 2009-2015, signed on March 2, 2010 by Prime Minister Thaqi, those in civil society who work to advance the interests of RAE communities are eager to see the words on paper become reality across Kosovo. But the field interviews with those who have been forcibly returned indicate a process rife with bureaucracy, little communication between ministries or between the ministries and municipalities, and little to no sustainable support, monetary or otherwise, from the government of Kosovo once URA assistance has been used in full.

“Kosovo does not have the funds to support returns,” says Shpresa Agushi, who runs her own NGO advocating for Roma rights, “Housing and unemployment are major issues and we are not seeing any big changes.”

 Xhevahire Dervishi-Rexhepi is the municipal community officer in Ferizaj. When a returned member of the RAE community approaches her office for help, she is responsible for collecting the required documents from the individual so she can send a social assistance request to the Ministry of Internal Affairs.

“I cannot send a request to the Ministry without all the required documents. I am committed to supporting the people who seek help, but without civil registration and legal documents such as birth certificates or documentation of land ownership, I can only hold the request until the individual provides full documentation,” Ms. Dervishi-Rexhepi said after we met with several Roma individuals whose requests for help have gone unanswered in Ferizaj.

 When asked about the repatriation process as a whole, Mr. Caka stressed that while the government does face some challenges, he believes the Action Plan is being implemented successfully.

“Presently, the weakest link in the process is at the municipal level. We need to intervene there and make some improvements. With that said, we recognize that we are responsible for the citizens of Kosovo; we treat each citizen equally. The mechanism is in place to reintegrate these people quickly because we do not want a passive population,” Mr. Caka said.

As Mr. Caka rightfully pointed out, the government of Kosovo is the first and only government in Europe to put a plan in place to address the inclusion of RAE communities. It is significant given that the issues that RAE face in Europe are not new. Take for instance the Decade of RAE Inclusion, 2005-2015, a well-intentioned but under-funded initiative with close to a dozen countries participating. While not a signatory to the Decade, the government of Kosovo, armed with the determination to create a state where visions of prosperity and democracy are not just buzzwords but principles to live by, can seize this opportunity to become the model for how best to integrate its most vulnerable populations.

Indeed, the Action Plan’s goals and objectives are lofty and could be transformative if implemented and carried out carefully. Civil society commends the government of Kosovo for envisioning and drafting the Plan in the hopes of creating a fairer, all-inclusive society. With that said, despite Mr. Caka’s assertion that a mechanism is in place, my interviews suggest there are two gaping holes in the repatriation process that could be addressed immediately with only a small measure of political will and monetary expenditure.

 First, upon landing in Kosovo, returnees should be handed a one-sheet in their native language; it should list all the civil registration and legal documents required by the Ministry of Internal Affairs to process a request for social assistance. This would mitigate, if not eliminate, any surprises in relation to the Ministry’s requirements, thereby expediting the request and getting it into the proper hands sooner.

Second, we call upon the Ministry of Internal Affairs to re-examine their current processes and allocate the necessary funds in order to implement a comprehensive, turn-key repatriation process, beginning from the moment the family lands at the airport. Each family or individual should be met by a knowledgeable representative who can provide guidance on the repatriation process, alert the family to the documents they will need to file for assistance, and who could make themselves available for additional consultation in the future should the family need additional assistance. The representative should also conduct field visits on a quarterly basis during the initial year the family is returned to Kosovo to determine their progress and make recommendations where applicable.

I am not naïve. I know Kosovo is dealing with many complex challenges, the issue of RAE communities only one of them. But I call on those who are in a position to make a positive difference to do just that. I urge you to take this opportunity to show the rest of Europe that the government and the people of Kosovo can bring about transformative change where everyone living within its borders, regardless of ethnicity, can contribute to the country’s growth and create opportunities to build their own individual prosperity.

As Ms. Agushi correctly sees it, “We are citizens of Kosovo. We should be seen first as Kosovars, not as Roma, Ashkali or Egyptian.”

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Meeting with URA, German Migration Office

In speaking with members of the RAE community in the field, the name URA (in Albanian means bridge) was mentioned numerous times. Those who are returned from Germany, either forcibly or voluntarily, and originate from four specific regions in Germany, are eligible for assistance from the Kosovo Returns Project (URA).

No surprise, the new director of URA here in Pristina was very kind. I haven't meant too many Germans are aren't wonderful people, at least on the surface. What was significant about the meeting was this sense that URA is indeed a helpful assistance organization for those returned, something that I wasn't so sure about after meeting with the struggling and suffering RAE individuals in the towns we went to in June.

Everyone who is returned receives emotional counseling, regardless of the region they originate from in Germany. But only those from four specific regions receive financial assistance, which is a per person budget, not per family, but per person in each family budget that is available until that budget is exhausted. Returnees from the federal states of Baden-Wuerttemberg, Niedersachsen, Nordrhein-Westfalen, and Sachsen-Anhalt fall within the financial assistance bucket. Those who return voluntarily receive additional benefits, namely, assistance in starting up a business. Asked why only certain regions, the woman said it is a political decision and not something she can speak to directly.

One question I wanted to have answered was what seemed to be the ruthless way the German civil police approached the RAE at the moment they were deported. Reports of arriving at odd hours, giving the people no time to collect their belongings, etc, had me imagining scenes from world war II movies when the Gestapo yelled at Jews to raus! raus! schnell! when they were being deported. This is not the case apparently, as I was told that the RAE individuals all know what's coming. They are informed of their status in the country ahead of time, have an opportunity to leave before the actual deportation incident occurs, and, I was told that many RAE arrive at the airport in Kosovo with luggage bags, which if true, would indicate that they have some time to pack and bring their belongings with them to some degree.

I am not doubting the stories RAE individuals shared with me, but it is important to gain as many perspectives as possible to build context around the entire situation. For certain, the RAE families are living in extreme poverty with very little hope of improvement.

With regards to the Ministry of Internal Affairs, the woman at URA did say that in her experience with them, they seem to believe that everything is moving along swimmingly with the Action Plan, something that she knows is simply not true because she, as well as some of her colleagues, have been out in the field and have seen first hand, like myself, that these people are living in squalor.

Therein lies a major point: the Ministry does not send people out to the field to check on returnees. They do not appear to have their finger on the proverbial pulse, and unfortunately, this is not an area I asked the gentleman about during my short visit with him at the Ministry. That should be an additional recommendation to be made to improve the process of 'reintegrating' RAE, if integration is even possible.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Interview with Ministry of Internal Affairs

Having the Ministry of Internal Affairs accept an interview request about the plight of the RAE communities, I think, is a big deal. The organization I am working with said they had requested meetings with the MIA numerous times without much luck in securing an interview. I didn't approach the ministry from an NGO angle, however; I went at them as an American graduate student conducting research on RAE in Kosovo. That got me the interview, and today I had about 20 minutes with the director of the Department of Asylum, Citizens and Migration and a member of the Board of Repatriation.

Not surprisingly, the gentleman does not see the same picture as those who are working on it from a civil society level. I felt very fortunate that he was giving me his time, so I did not push the issues that I feel need pushing. I'm a guest here for a very limited time, so I chose to take what he said with a silent grain of salt rather than asking follow up questions to his assertions.

Some of the things he said reveal an indication that the government has its heart in the right place. For example, "we are responsible for the citizens of Kosova. Everyone is treated equally." It's a wonderful thing to say, but of course, this is not what's happening across the country to minorities, especially those in the RAE communities, who suffer discrimination across all facets of daily life on earth.

When I asked what he thought the MIA could do better, he gave what I think is a very honest answer. The weakest link in the process, in his view, is at the municipal level, an area where they would like to intervene and make some improvements. This is consistent with what I've heard elsewhere. Apparently, some municipal officers are not clear on how to prepare a social assistance request that would be sent to the MIA, so the requests do not get sent, or they get sent with incomplete information, dragging the process out even longer.

He also admitted, when I asked if he felt the country has the capacity to handle returns, that there are some problems the government has to face. He admits they can only give so much support, but also said the goal is not to have "a passive population." Meaning, he wants to get the children enrolled in school and the adults employed, rather than having them do what they are doing now, sitting at home all day, waiting for social assistance to sustain them. What is not clear then, is how they plan on doing that, even with their Action Plan.

Discrimination among the majority population remains a major obstacle, not just in Kosovo, but in Europe as a whole. In my view, there needs to be a major campaign put forth to educate the majority population about RAE. And with that, an incentive for hiring and enrolling, and with that, a zero-tolerance policy against anyone who discriminates against RAE in a way where the evidence of discrimination is clear, like school segregation, for instance.

As a whole, he believes the Action Plan is successful so far, another statement that does not reflect what we saw out in the field. Changes for RAE communities is slow, continuing their isolation from the majority population, and continuing their cycle of poverty.