Kosovo Roma activist: Albanian children won't play with Roma children any time soon
Shpresa Agushi was born in Prizren, Kosovo. She is a married Roma woman and the mother of three children. As she herself says, Prizren still remains one of only a few multi-ethnic places in Kosovo where Albanians, Roma, Serbs and other national minorities live alongside one another and get along together. Her Roma family lived in the Albanian quarter of Prizren, spoke Albanian at home, and attended Albanian schools. She then married into a Roma family in Gjilan, where the environment and her life were different. Most of her neighbors were Roma and the family spoke Romanes at home, so she had to learn the language to fit in.
The year 1999, when NATO units bombed Kosovo, changed her life and made her into a Roma activist, which she still is today. She and her father-in-law first worked in the Romano Amalipe (Roma Friendship) organization, which operated on a totally volunteer basis. She did her best to help people in the Roma mahalas of Gjilan. In 2001 she founded her own NGO, Rromane Romňa (Roma Women), which aims to improve the situation of Roma women in Kosovo, to fight for their freedom of speech and their rights in the Roma communities. This organization, together with other women activists and associations, has formed a network which is meant to provide a basis for common work on protecting women's rights in Kosovo. It has been supported by UNIFEM (United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and Empowerment of Women - now known as UN Women) and the Kosovo Center for Gender Studies.
In 2007 Shprese Agushi was awarded the Freiheit und Menschenrechte (Freedom and Human Rights) prize in the Swiss city of Bern for her selfless struggle for the rights of Roma in Kosovo. This international recognition has previously been awarded to figures such as the Dalai Lama.
How and when did you get engaged in the fight for the rights of Roma groups in Kosovo?
I started working for the Roma community in 1999 after the bombing ended. In Gjilan, where I live, there were rising problems with Roma security. My father-in-law was recognized by local Roma as the community's representative, and he and I saw it was necessary to help our people. NATO and other international organizations came to Kosovo uninformed and unprepared, and in the beginning they were not able to provide Roma with sufficient protection and support. They mainly had no information about the life of Roma people in Kosovo and their problems - they had come to help Albanians and Serbs and knew nothing about the life of minorities here.
I was the only Roma woman in Gjilan at that time who knew English. It was necessary to discuss these issues and speak with the internationals. More and more institutions asked for our collaboration. We worked voluntarily, it was not important to us to be paid, and to this day that is still somewhat true. As long as the situation for Roma people remains as it is, you will never be able to count on donations. You must first change the situation, you must fight for the truth, speak out. However, it is good that donors have started to view us more and more favorably and are following the activity of Roma nonprofits here. We first established collaborations with the US KFOR units and then with the UNHCR.
You say you have collaborated with many transnational organizations. Were there any complications in working with them?
In the beginning, yes, they had no idea what kinds of people live in this country and what their needs are. We started losing faith in them and then we stopped expecting any help from them, but it got better. There were those among them who wanted to really get the job done and help people irrespective of their nationality. Sometimes we had problems with interpreters. One KFOR sergeant worked here who was from a mixed family, one of his parents was Roma. He took an interest in the Roma situation in Gjilan. There were many burned-out Roma homes, and the sergeant asked a local Albanian interpreter what had happened to them, and the interpreter told him the Roma had burned the houses down themselves and then left. The sergeant couldn't understand how someone could burn down their own home. He met with several Roma people to talk with them and was terribly angry. He felt himself to be Roma and was terribly offended. He asked them, "What kind of Roma are you, how could you do something like that?" The Roma people then explained to him it was all a lie. Who would be so crazy as to set their own home on fire and voluntarily live on the street? The Albanian interpreter had interpreted the situation as he saw it, in short. When you feel hatred, you speak in your own interest, you say evil things. However, I don't want to say that all Albanians do that. There are both bad and good people in our country and it doesn't matter what their nationalities are. You cannot say all Albanians are evil and all Roma people are nice. They are all just people like anyone else.
How did you resolve this interpretation problem?
After that happened, I made sure that whenever someone came from KFOR or any other international organization, I was the one to speak with them. I interpreted precisely what our people said. Our lack of English meant we couldn't speak for ourselves, present our point of view, our truth.
What kind of aid did you provide to the Roma specifically in Gjilan?
In October 1999 I started working at the International Rescue Committee as the coordinator of their Roma commission for food distribution. The Roma in Gjilan had no freedom of movement in town, and I was supposed to deliver food and other aid to their homes. I walked from house to house, from door to door. It was not easy for me, it was winter, and I had many other problems. I come from Prizren and moved to Gjilan when I married. Many Roma people here did not know I am a Roma woman, because I have light skin and speak Albanian… People from the IRC and UNHCR advised me to speak English at first so it would not be immediately apparent that I am a Roma woman, for my own safety. When Albanians heard me speaking Albanian, they were angry and asked me why an Albanian was helping Roma people. "You have to help us, not them, because Roma people are evil, they should be killed," the Albanians told me. They said terribly evil things.
People the world over probably know what happened to the Albanians and Serbs during the war. What happened to the Roma remains suppressed. What were their lives like during the war and after it?
The war brought much pain to all people in Kosovo, be they Albanians, Serbs or other minorities. During the war most Roma people remained hidden in their homes, stuck between the two warring sides. Some fled the country. After the NATO bombing was over in 1999, international organizations did not provide any protection or support to the Roma. Kosovo Albanians began burning down the homes of Roma, Ashkalija and Egyptian people. They started beating people up, murdering them, raping women. The Albanians attacked the Roma, but it is important to emphasize that only some Albanians did this. Our people were afraid to leave their homes, they lost their jobs. Out of fear, many Roma people started leaving Kosovo in large numbers. They went to different countries - Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia, Western Europe - or into refugee camps inside this country, they created new ghettos. They did not leave voluntarily, they did not want to leave their homes, but when you see that you, your neighbors and your relatives are under constant attack, you must find a solution for your family.
When did the situation start to improve for Roma people?
By 2002, Roma people had their freedom of movement back here in Gjilan, but it wasn't real freedom. People were still afraid to walk down the street. They knew which places they could walk in safely and where when they needed to get to school, to a nearby shop. With time the situation started to change and it gets better every year.
Why did the Albanians attack the Roma after the war? What were the reasons?
The people who attacked the Roma had hatred inside them. They didn't care whether anyone was guilty or innocent, they just saw us as Roma and that was enough. Roma people were accused of supporting the Serbs during the war and collaborating with them, but the Albanians made up that reason for their own purposes. In reality there was no collaboration between the Roma and the Serbs. Some Roma people were forced to join the Serbian Army. I would be very glad to be able to tell you that the only Albanians who participated in the violence against the Roma were those who had been harmed by Roma people during the war, but unfortunately that was not the case. The majority of Albanians who committed this violence were people who just heard bad things about Roma people and went to take revenge on them without thinking. I am not claiming that all Roma people are good. Each individual is responsible for his or her behavior. I believe some Roma people offended their Albanian neighbors, or stole from them, but I do not believe they killed anyone. I have not seen a single Roma person charged with murder at the Hague.
Can you describe the problems Kosovo Roma people face today?
There are many problems here. Some are common to all citizens of Kosovo, but some concern Roma people to a greater extent. The biggest problem for Roma people in Kosovo is unemployment. The country's overall employment rate is 40 %. Among Roma people, it is as high as 98 %. The donors and governments always give the same answer to this: They have to address the employment of all of Kosovo's citizens. Yes, that's true, but that means they see us as merely 3 % of the population - as negligible. Social support is another problem. Only families with children under five can get welfare benefits in Kosovo. We have families with several older children who can't access welfare but are also out of work. Add to that the insufficient housing conditions of many Roma people, the impossibility of their rebuilding their ruined homes or returning to them, problems with paying for electricity and water. Many families live for months without power. The children are experiencing barriers to their access to education. The families have no money to pay for school supplies or tuition. There are big problems with health care, because there is no health insurance operating in Kosovo. You have to pay two euros per doctor visit, pay for your own medicines and everything else. If you don't have money, you don't have health care.
How do you view the situation of Roma people deported back to Kosovo?
This is an enormous problem. These people are being forcibly returned. They are driven to the airport and deported to Kosovo but they can't return to their former homes here, so they have to seek out their former neighbors or relatives just to have a place to live. The majority of them are provided with no humanitarian aid. It's terrible. We expect 35 000 people to be returned to Kosovo this year. We don't know how to help them. We are a nonprofit organization - sometimes we have funding for projects, sometimes we don't. Now we are expecting an influx of people who have lived abroad for more than 10 years. We don't know what to do with them. The main problem will be the younger generation, people born abroad who went to school there, who don't know local languages. They will have no opportunity to finish school here, they will have to stay home, which means yet another group of illiterates is being cultivated here. I agree with the returns, but only if all the rules are implemented: Giving people educational opportunities, employment opportunities, housing, everything else, not just dropping them off in the street.
Do you target your work at a minority within the Roma community?
Exactly. The situation of Roma women is very hard. They are constantly forgotten. We are doing our best to change that. I criticized the European Commission for not concerning itself with the problem of Roma women in Kosovo as an independent issue. The projects designed always concern the Roma, Ashkalija and Egyptians generally, nothing targets women in particular.
What is the security situation like for Roma people in Kosovo now?
As far as security is concerned, the situation is much better. Attacks on Roma do sometimes occur, but not like before. It used to be constant. The problem in the security area now is that Roma people have lost faith in the Kosovo Police. I know cases in which Roma people have gone to the police to report assault or theft and were essentially ignored. The police ask if the victims saw someone, if they know who it was. If you tell them who it was, maybe they will do something. If you don't know, they tell you they can't find the guilty party. If they wanted to, they could find a solution, but when they don't want to, that's something else entirely…
Do you believe better times will come for the Kosovo Roma?
We have been fighting for our rights for the last 12 years. The position of Roma people may be changing somewhat, but not enough. Freedom of movement continues to improve, as do protection and security, but despite that, anything could happen at any time. The situation is also changing because we are patient with the Government. When we negotiate with them, we say "if you want to achieve this or that, you have to do this and that". However, no one right now knows how to resolve the hatred that remains between people in Kosovo. We are all good people, but hatred between the nationalities can still be felt here. It will take many more years for this problem to go away. You don't decide to be born Albanian, or Roma or Serb. The only thing you can choose on your own is whether you will be a bad person, or a good one. I know many Albanians and Serbs who are good people. They work with us, we respect one another, we help each other - but in Gjilan, Albanian children will not be playing with our children on the main street for some time to come, and the only reason is that they are Roma.
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