By Marijn Mado
The face of a young boy flashes by. I stop walking and look back over my shoulder. The boy is wearing an ironed shirt, drives a small red mountain bike, and has properly washed hair – but he is nevertheless bafflingly familiar. Certainly, this must be the boy of the picture that has been hanging in my dorms room for over two years. On this picture, taken during the pilot Kosovo trip in spring 2014, he is not only much skinnier, but he also wears a shabby sweater and has holes in his too long pants. Back then this poor kid was not a unique sight in the Roma, Ashkali and Egyptian community, located on the outskirts of Prishtina. The deplorable conditions these communities live in, including muddy roads, leaking houses and a lack of both good healthcare and education, left a deep impression on us all. It motivated the students of the first Kosovo trip to organize bake sales and a charity run at AUC, in order to raise money for “The Ideas Partnership,” an NGO that is doing invaluable work for these communities. Visiting this NGO again was very special, not in the least because the kindergarten we financially contributed to had become reality: a colorful and clean place for the children to play.
In a way, the clean face of the young boy symbolizes some of the visible changes we observe at our return to Kosovo, more than two years later. To name a few positive developments: destroyed houses in Prizren have been renovated and rebuild, NGO’s like “The Ideas Partnership” have expanded and visa liberalization has become a reachable reality. At the same time, many issues have barely developed, and some of the changes are quite ambiguous. What does it mean that the bridge in Mitrovica is no longer barricaded by a pile of stones, but now by a European Union fence? And also, did the conditions at the Roma, Ashkali and Egyptian community really improve, or did the sunny weather of this trip – as opposed to the rainy and muddy circumstances last time – trick us in thinking so? After all, it has only been two years, and changes are clearly hard to track and evaluate. Maybe the washed boy is no more than an incidental improvement on the surface, which clouds the deeper problems Kosovo still faces. But perhaps a little optimism is in place, as it may be true that worn out shoes are gradually being replaced by new ones.