Without fail, each time I return to Pristina from a visit to Prizren, I take my seat on the bus feeling relaxed, happy and energized. It’s not just that Prizren is a nice place to visit (although it is – it’s a lovely town with lots of historic charm set among lush green hills; it’s often referred to as “the jewel of Kosovo”). But more than being happy to have a little break from “the big city,” I’m consistently delighted and impressed by the group of fifteen women and girls who are creating Prizren’s contribution to the Kosovo Roma, Ashkali and Egyptian advocacy quilt that we’ll complete before the end of my fellowship.
They are all members of the Iniciativa 6 center that seeks to empower Roma, Ashkali and Egyptians (primarily children and youth) through education, health and vocational training programs.
Last week was my third visit to Iniciativa’s home base, located out of the city center in one of Prizren’s several Roma mahallas (neighborhoods). The place, a repurposed family home situated between two vacant lots, radiates positive energy – it’s full of laughing children playing and smiling teenagers and adults happily working on painting the attic, cleaning the kitchens or doing some craft project. At first glance, it could easily pass as Kosovo’s answer to 19 Kids and Counting. (Although that could just be me going through TLC withdrawal…)
When my new Albanian translator, Odeta, and I arrived this last time, a Turkish KFOR unit was distributing a shipment of school notebooks to a crowd of little Iniciativa members. The kids, pumped up from the combination of foreigners, free books and probably some candy to go with it, mobbed us. They pulled at our clothes, demanded autographs, threatened to rip apart the bags of snacks we’d brought for the meeting. Odeta looked like she was worried about making it out of the crowd alive. But I’ve learned that even though it might appear chaotic at first, the people at Iniciativa always have a plan. Sure enough, within seconds we were plucked out of the mob by the older girls to head to the meeting room upstairs and get down to business.
The purpose of this visit was to buy the materials they’ll need to make the quilt squares. So a group of seven of us set off for the city center, toward the bazaar. The 22-year-old group leader, a woman who’s always got a plan, told me she could get the best deal on fabric – as long as I kept quiet and didn’t let the shopkeepers think I was an international with euro-lined pockets. So when we got to the marketplace I resisted snapping photos of the stalls jammed with shimmering fabrics, heavily embroidered wedding vests and sequin-covered everything. The leader looked back at me every few feet and winked, reminding me to keep our secret. The other girls giggled. We all crowded into a stall stocked with enough beaded finery for 300 spangled Kosovar weddings, and after a few minutes of the leader haggling – success! We walked out with an armload of fabric, enough for all their quilt squares, at a third of the price that I’d seen for the same stuff in Pristina.
Sure, this was just the start of a two-hour odyssey through the avenues and back streets of Prizren to pick up the rest of the materials, but she knew exactly what she needed and how to get it at the best price. Thriftiness is another quality I admire, so I was happy to go along for the ride while the girls – literally – danced and sang their way through town.
During my meetings with them I get treated to enthusiastic smiles from the girls, lots of giggles, warm hugs from the program director Drita. But the amazing thing isn’t their good natures, but how well they work together, and with such a sense of purpose. Those who know me know that I’m a fan of structure; these girls have me beat. The girls’ group, “Oaza” (oasis), made up of 15-20 girls and women representing 2 or 3 generations and a wide range of educational and family backgrounds, has been working together on various projects for about 6 months, and cooperates seamlessly. With all their cheeriness, the word I hear most is “serious” – they are serious about their projects, education, their futures, helping others in their community. Drita and the group are always eager to get to work and excited about making it meaningful. Seeing their energy, it’s hard not to be completely optimistic about the future of Roma, Ashkali and Egyptian women in Kosovo.
I always feel like I’m in very good company in Prizren. I need to come up with an excuse to go see them more than once a week!
Posted By Samantha Hammer
Posted Jul 5th, 2011