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OSCE mission supports project to help Kosovo's Roma returnees

Kosovo, 17.3.2008 11:26, (OSCE)

A room turned into an Internet cafe with a few computers and tables for cards and dominoes is where the Roma returnees in Avdullah Presheva neighbourhood in Gjilan/Gnjilane, Kosovo, hang out.

Explaining why he decided to return, the cafe owner, Beqir Kurteshi, says that everybody loves their place of birth. In 1999 he fled to Bujanovac, southern Serbia, and then to Belgrade. Now he's back.

"This last New Year's Eve I celebrated in my own house after almost nine years and I felt like I was born again," he says.

Beqir, 32 and a father of four, used the financial aid that his family received on their return to open the Internet cafe, hoping to generate income for them. "But business is very slow," he points out, "as the main problem faced by Roma is unemployment and thus lack of money."

Enabling returns

Gjilan/Gnjilane municipality launched the project in March last year. It enabled the return of 19 Roma families - 91 people - in November 2007.

To ensure the smooth implementation of the project, a task force was established which included representatives from the municipality, the OSCE Mission in Kosovo, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees and Mercy Corps, as well as Roma community leaders. They met regularly to discuss and monitor progress.

The reconstruction of houses and infrastructure was financed by the Kosovo Government's returns fund, while Mercy Corps provided each family with 2,000 euros for income generation and 800 euros worth of household appliances.

Outreach campaign

The OSCE Mission's main contribution to project was supporting an outreach campaign to displaced persons. "We advised the Kosovo Property Agency, which is in charge of adjudicating property claims, to conduct an outreach campaign and inform displaced persons of their right to claim their property," says Shkendije Geci, National Property Officer at the OSCE Regional Centre in Gjilan/Gnjilane.

The OSCE helped the campaign by placing advertisements in newspapers in Kosovo and Serbia and by distributing brochures informing displaced persons of their rights and where they could turn to for assistance.

"More importantly," says Jose Arraiza, Chief of the Mission's Property Section, "the OSCE's behind-the-scenes work and lobbying with the authorities to regularize informal settlements like Avdullah Presheva is what made the whole undertaking possible."

Beqir and his family are among a total of 48 Roma families who have so far returned to Gjilan/Gnjilane; 29 families returned in 2005 with help from the American Refugee Council and the Dutch Government.

Remaining challenges

"However, many more families still live scattered throughout Serbia and the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia," says Shkendije. "While some 17,000 members of minority communities have returned, thousands still remain displaced both inside and outside Kosovo," she adds.

Aware of the remaining problems, the OSCE Mission, in co-operation with the Spanish NGO Movement for Peace and the Kosovo Ministry of Spatial Planning, organised a conference in November 2007 that discussed sustainable property restitution and solutions to displacement. Its slogan was: "You are displaced, your rights are not."

The conference's final document notes that the exercise of property rights is still one of the main challenges for Kosovo: "Lack of funding and instances of obstruction by local authorities make property restitution through the Kosovo Property Agency a challenging process."

Economy and education

While the Gjilan/Gnjilane authorities support the return process, they share the financial problem. The municipality has been able to improve infrastructure and secure financial aid from donors for returnees, but finding jobs for them remains a problem.

"As regards employment, returnees will be in the same position as members of all other Kosovo communities," says Hamdi Ismaili, Municipal Projects Manager.

With this in mind, the municipal authorities have agreed with the local court to apply an accelerated procedure and equip the returnees with identity cards so that they can, if need be, apply for social aid.

"Ours was a very good start," says Galip Iseni, Roma community leader in Gjilan/Gnjilane. And as the municipality prepares to initiate the reconstruction of 25 more houses in March 2008, Galip's next worry is the integration of Roma children in the local school system.

The municipality, says Hamdi, is already planning for it.

by Mevlyde Salihu and Nikola Gaon
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