People from the minority groups Roma, Ashkali and Egyptians are having difficulties to make a living in Kosovo. In the city of Mitrovica, the unresolved political situation in the ethnically divided city also affects their ability to integrate. Sida therefore supports a project aimed to strengthen them to establish their own businesses, get further education and invest in their children's schooling.
"The lack of jobs and livelihoods is one of the biggest problems for this group of people. That is why we focus on supporting them to start up and run their own small businesses," says Sibylle Aebi, working at the organisation Danish Refugee Council’s (DRC) office in Mitrovica.
Since 2009, Sida supports the DRC project with the objective to better integrate the Roma, Ashkali and Egyptian communities in society. While relations between Serbs and Albanians have seen some improvements in Kosovo, the integration of minorities remains a challenge; especially noticeable in Mitrovica – the city that became the symbol of Kosovo's ethnic division after the war in 1999. During the end of the war, most Sakhalin and Roma people escaped from the area Roma Mahalla in the southern, Albanian part of the city – for fear of reprisals – to the Serbian northern parts where they ended up in refugee camps.
The Ashkali identity was strongly established after 1999 as a way to show their pro-Albanian identity. Unlike those who consider themselves Roma and speak Romani, the minority groups Ashkali and Balkan Egyptians speak Albanian as their first language.
After decades of living under difficult circumstances, displaced RAE people were able to return to Roma Mahalla in the beginning of 2007. The district was destroyed during the war 98-99, and the reconstruction of and return to Roma Mahalla was the largest return project in an urban area in Kosovo in 2007-2009. DRC has been one of several agencies to provide housing solutions, infrastructure and assistance packages to returnees. However, it takes more than housing to build up a new life. That is why Sida’s support in Roma Mahalla focuses both on economic and community development, in order to help returnees integrate successfully in south Mitrovica.
Less jobs due to prejudice
Unemployment is high in Kosovo and prejudice causes reluctance towards hiring Roma, Ashkali and Egyptian people. One initiative within the economic development component of the project involves offering them support to set up their own businesses. In addition to counselling, practical and minor financial support, this involves providing information about business registration and accounting. The latter is far from established knowledge within Roma and Ashkali communities, where many people lack higher education or even the ability to read and write.
"One good example of entrepreneurship is the laundry service set up by an Albanian and a Roma woman together, in the southern part of the city. They have managed to make the business thrive, which is very positive, especially given that many Albanians in are generally reluctant to purchasing services from Roma people," says Sibylle Aebi.
The Social Business Incubator in Roma Mahalla provides not only social incubation services for companies, but also offers vocational skill training programmes, where Albanians are also invited to participate.
"The key to integration of a minority group is to have support from both sides, she continues. Just as the minority group must be willing to integrate in society, while accepting the responsibilities this involves, the majority group must be willing to give them a place there. So we work a lot with the leaders of the municipality, with the ultimate goal of them taking over the integration work while we should no longer be needed."
Homework support helps children succeed
Another part of the community development project is to support children and give them the opportunity to get a good education. Many children grow up in families with parents who have only spent a couple of years in school, thus unable to help their children with their homework. Parents often don’t encourage the children to study either, knowing there are no jobs to find. DRC has therefore started a Learning Center in Roma Mahalla, where children are offered tutoring and homework help in addition to the public school, (which only offers half-day teaching). Today, 260 children are registered at the Learning Center, which is a threefold increase compared to when it was opened. The center also holds the city's only preschool for 3-4 year olds, enabling these children to prepare for school start. The majority of Roma children will still cross the bridge every day to go to school in the northern, Serbian part of Mitrovica. Serbian is often the second language for these children, after Romani. Extra support to Albanian language classes is therefore important to help the children succeed in school in the area where they live.
"We have also seen positive progress in parental involvement in the Learning Center's activities, as well as more meetings between parents and teachers. This suggests there is an increasingly better understanding of the importance of children’s education."
The integration of Roma and Ashkali in Mitrovica is a long process, while every small progress may be very significant. One the DRC programmes has aimed to get companies to employ Roma and Ashkali people, while given financial subsidies. Two years later, more than 65 per cent of those who received on the site training in waste management are still employed.
"It takes time to change people’s values. But when Albanian colleagues see that Roma people are capable employees, it makes it easier to let go of the prejudices they grew up with and rather see the individual," concludes Sibylle Aebi.
About the project:
Sida supports DRC 's four-year project for the RAE groups ( Roma, Ashkali and Egyptian communities ) with -approximately 10 million SEK. The aim is to integrate the minority communities in Mitrovica, with a focus on providing the inhabitants the knowledge and tools they need to support themselves.
The main target groups are families living in Roma Mahalla and in 2Korriku/Sitnicko Naselje. Both areas are located in the southern Albanian part of Mitrovica. The support should also help provide the conditions necessary to allow returnees to build sustainable livelihoods in the Roma Mahalla and integrated into 2 Korriku / Sitnicko Naselje. Vulnerable Albanian and Serb families are also included as beneficiaries in order to balance the project, and local authorities are involved to improve their ability to cater for the RAE communities’ needs.
Examples of results achieved:
- An ever increasing number of RAE children go to school and participate in the additional educational classes offered in Roma Mahalla, which also show an increased positive attitude towards education among the parents .
- Women and men have gained the skills and confidence needed to start their own businesses. E.g. a PET and plastics collection for a recycling company, a laundry service that caters to Albanians and a canteen in Roma Mahalla, serving food to the RAE communities and Albanians who participate in vocational training.
- Increased community involvement and strengthening of relations between RAE and the municipality leaders of the Albanian part of Mitrovica.
- Increased confidence in women who have become more aware of their rights and their abilities. One example is the women's group 'Vullneti in Grave' that started as a handicraft working group in Roma Mahalla, but later evolved into a business where women are selling their bags and other handicrafts in the shops and markets in Pristina.
Examples of results in numbers:
- 17 companies have been established with the support of project
- 113 RAE individuals on-the-job-trained, 28 of which have found employment
- 410 individuals supported with livelihood and income-generating opportunities , (including 118 women and girls, 7 women permanently employed)
- 269 children attending homework support classes
- Over 500 children and youth have taken advantage of recreational activities
- 70 adults participating in literacy classes