Monday, June 8, 2015

The first 24 hours

(By Carolin Vahar-Matiar)

This evening when I caught sight of myself in the bathroom mirror, I scolded myself for wearing the same shirt so many days in a row. Moments later I realised that only 24 hours had passed since we arrived in Prishtina, and we still have 216 wonderful hours to go.

I’m Carolin, I’m a second year studying Anthropology and International Relations and I’m particularly interested in aid and poverty alleviation in developing countries. Originally from Germany, I moved to England when I was five years old and lived there until I graduated high school, took a gap year, and came to Amsterdam to study! I haven’t travelled much in the Balkans before, except for a backpacking trip with my parents five years ago or so…

Our schedule today was a bit hectic, but nothing compared last year’s I gather, and so incredibly interesting that I don’t think you’ll hear any complaints from the group. Our morning started, as no doubt every morning will, at the New Born sign just ten minutes walk from where Joon, Rebecca, Zoe, Henriette, and I are lucky enough to be staying with Bardha’s family. With our bellies full of lovely fresh bread and Kosovar white cheese which I’m planning on importing en masse, we strolled to the sign with the sun on our sleepy faces, stopping off to get much needed coffees (for the girls) and do forgotten physio exercises (form my knee).

Bardha tells me that the sign is repainted every year on Kosovar Independence Day. At the moment, it has been gifted to the people of Kosovo as a space to share their thoughts, and it is covered in grafitti style notes and messages. I have two favourite messages. One simply says “I have hope” whilst the other says “Dream but never sleep”.

Our first appointment of the day is with students at the Prishtina University. I notice a big poster outside that reads “We believe in excellence” and the AUC in me feels right at home. Moments later, I realise that it is a poster for some company or another.

The students we speak to are all from the law faculty and incredibly welcoming. Speaking to some people our own age is a nice way to ease in to ten days of meetings and interviews and it’s very interesting to hear their perspectives. They seem very tolerant to Serbian students and tell us that they want to build a better future and not allow for repetitions of what happened in the past. Towards the very end of our meeting, however, they do a bit of a u-turn on us when one announced “I think in the future we [the Albanian people] will be in one state and that state will be Albania”, his friend chiming in “Greater Albania”.

After the meeting we had lunch altogether in a restaurant and, just as on the plane journeys, I sat and got to know people who I’ve never really run into at AUC before. I always loved school trips because you get thrown together with a lot of random people and this is just the same. The whole group is lovely and I’m really looking forward to the rest of the trip!

For me the most interesting thing at our second meeting, at RIDEA, was that the spokesperson kept telling us that the Serbians in northern Kosovo are being “held hostage”. He believes very strongly that they are being prevented from integrating by Belgrade. He is also quite unhappy with the EU, saying that they are failing Kosovo by not speaking with one voice, and more pressure needs to be applied to the non-recognisers.

But our final meeting was my favourite, at the LGBT community Qesh. The people we met there, particularly one of the founders Millie, and current Executive Director Lola, were incredibly inspiring. They have made really great improvements for the LGBT community in the last decade by raising awareness, providing a platform for individuals to report incidents, and providing a safe place for the community to come together and be themselves when maybe they cannot or do not want to come out to their friends and family.

What was also really nice to hear is that they have now managed to stay in the same location for over a year, when they used to have to move regularly because they received threats. It was really sad to hear some of the things that they have gone through, for example “At one point it was our regular Friday night: go to a club, get kicked out, go home and write a report, write a press release”, and having to regularly change phone numbers because of threatening phone calls. But it must also be wonderful for them to see how dramatically things have improved in their own lifetimes, even if there is a long way to go.

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