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Children sinking in a sea of problems

Schools are in the front line as Germany repatriates thousands of refugees, reports Carolyn O'Grady


Last year Irfan, aged 15, was repatriated to Kosovo from Germany, where his family had fled to escape the Balkan conflict in 1992. What he found shocked him.

"The streets were all destroyed; I had no house and the education was bad," he said. The fact that he didn't speak Albanian made things difficult - other children laughed at him. Now he's adapting. "I've made friends, my family are building a house and I hope to go to university to do geography."

Irfan's friend Valmir, 15, was five when he left for Germany. He returned in 2000. "I found it very strange, very backward. Germany feels like my home. It's my dream to go back," he said.

There will be many more Irfans and Valmirs. This month Germany began the repatriation of up to 50,000 more Kosovars who were evacuated or fled from this now UN-administered region.

They return to schools already swamped by immigration from Kosovo's rural areas, which suffered greatly during the Balkan conflict. The population of the capital Pristina alone has tripled since 1999. With unemployment hitting 60 per cent, and Europe's lowest percentage of students in higher education, returnees could be forgiven for dreaming of elsewhere.

"Lack of school buildings is our biggest problem," says Agim Veliu, Kosovo's minister of education, science and technology. Many primary schools (for five to 16-year-olds) have 3,000 pupils working in three or four shifts - each about three hours long.

"We need to invest E60 million (pound;38m) in building over the next five years to have a maximum of two shifts in all schools," Mr Veliu says. "But the budget is shrinking every year."

"It is a sea of problems," says Naxhije Doci, the energetic and exuberant director of primary schools and nurseries in Pristina. Sometimes the problems appear surreal: after the war a village school near the capital suffered an infestation of snakes, which proved impossible to eradicate.

The education system has, however, scored at least one victory: the majority of staff are now qualified after a training programme. Sadije Ademi-Ahmeti is a teacher at Pjet r Bogdani school in central Pristina. The school, badly in need of refurbishment, was built in 1962 for 500 pupils, and now caters for 1,540. Classrooms, often bare except for desks, have been divided in two and toilets have been removed to make more room.

"There's not enough facilities. Too much work has to be squeezed into too little time," she says. Teachers still use blackboards; books often don't meet curriculum requirements; electricity sometimes fails.

But, along with the other teachers who earn an average of 150 euros a month, she still manages to convey enthusiasm and calm in the face of difficult conditions and a plethora of changes, which has included a restructuring of the entire education system to switch from a rigidly teacher-centred to a child-centred approach.

"Initially there was resistance," says Ms Ademi-Ahmeti, "but now teachers firmly support the changes and children say they never want to return to the old ways."

Carolyn O'Grady went to Kosovo as part of a pilot project run by Albanian Youth Action (AYA) to bring volunteer teachers to the region for summer schools. AYA would like to hear from schools and teachers interested in this project. Email or phone 0208 674 0800.

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