By Mirthe Klein Haneveld
We have been home for a week now. I have listened to all my classmates presenting their final projects and sharing their personal experiences, and it seems that this trip has changed us. Yesterday, when Thomas was speaking about the stories he heard from the LGBT- and Roma, Ashkali and Egyptian communities, he told us how shocked he was. Gay men never coming out because they would be rejected by everyone they know, young children being beaten up by their teachers just because they belonged to the Ashkali community - he said: “I come from a background where these things did not happen. I did not realize that this existed.”
From Roos sharing her frustration about the homophobia she encountered, to Chiara telling about the poverty she saw, we all have our moments of realization. That is the power of being on a trip like this. Reading books about a place is one thing, listening to people who are living the reality is something else. It means seeing the frustration of someone who meets people from all over Europe, but cannot leave and travel to any of these countries herself. It means feeling the tension in the room when a student tells a highly charged story about his youth and his views on the political situation. It means seeing people tear up as they tell you what happened to their family. Yes, this trip has changed us. We have grown as our world has grown.
One shared frustration is that, back home, no one really seems to understand where we have been or what we have been doing. The people we know either have no clue about Kosovo’s existence and exact location, or envision a country somewhere to the east, pictured in grey tones, where you only find things such as bombings and guns and war. In the project I have worked on with Babs and Nienke, we try to move past this one-sided image that exists of Kosovo in many people’s minds. When we asked over 20 people to tell us what they think everyone should know about Kosovo, this is what we heard: Kosovo is safe, new, young, rich, poor, helpful, spontaneous, powerless, polluted, impatient, friendly, diverse, ambitious, corrupt, fun. Kosovo is both Serbian and Albanian, both full of potential and devoid of opportunities, both “a big black hole” and “a state of many colours”. Kosovo does not have a single story to offer, it has many.
Single stories. There is no need to be separated by 1600 kilometres as the crow flies for them to develop. My moment of realization had to do with this. Before this trip, I had never been to a place where divisions were so clearly marked. You drive through a city, and suddenly the posters have text in the Cyrillic alphabet. All at once, the black double-headed eagle has turned white, and moved to a red-blue-white tricolour. These borders are invisible, but powerful – such that crossing a bridge can become something you simply do not do. If you live in different places, speak different languages, write in different alphabets, support different football teams, celebrate different holidays and visit different religious buildings, single stories can pop up just as easily.
Yet, there are things that unite the people of Kosovo. All communities have suffered from the violence in the past, and are missing people up to this day. Another thing we heard everywhere is that there is a lack of opportunity, a lack of work, a lack of jobs. The people of Kosovo all want to work towards a better future, and maybe this will eventually bring them together. It can be reconstructing destructed or abandoned religious sites in a group, or learning English to acquire a valuable skill and an official certificate for your CV, or participating in business training in order to start your own small business and make a living. Activities that benefit your own situation, family and future, but maybe also allow people from a whole variety of backgrounds to meet each other. Maybe through working together, they even get to know each other, just as a side effect. Because there is no better way to challenge a single story than getting to know someone. There is no better way to learn and grow than through sharing an experience. That is something I found out during this trip to Kosovo – by listening to its people, and by sharing the experience together as a group.
I don't know what Kosovo's future holds, but I do know that it has so much to offer. Energy, ideas, hospitality, nature, culture - and of course, that good macchiato. I hope that, with time, the better times everyone is wishing for will come, and that, eventually, all people will get to enjoy them together.