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Notes from Kosovo- Day # 4

Women for Women UK Major Gifts Officer Nora Russell traveled to Kosovo in June. She has written about her experiences and the women she met. This part 4 of 4 in her series. 

Day 4 – Thursday 24th

Our final day, and it feels like we have been here so much longer – everyone has been so accommodating and welcoming and the group are tired but also so happy to have met the women they sponsor. Our last trip before dashing to the airport is to visit a vocational skills class which is a mixed group of women from many different communities Albanian, Ashkali and Egyptian. I meet Igballe Behluli who recites a poem she has written about her schooling and leaves us with these words;

‘The End of Primary School’

At the end of primary school I received a message,

They are stopping me from going to school.

I was very sad, I started to cry.

The books and school bench was awash with my tears.

Walking down the road I tore up my notebooks in frustration.

I didn’t deserve this.

But truthfully, my father did not do this on purpose.

It was the war and there was poison in every school.

Now I am happy, my dream is fulfilled.

My children go free to school.

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Notes from Kosovo- Day #3

Women for Women UK Major Gifts Officer Nora Russell traveled to Kosovo in June. She has written about her experiences and the women she met. This part 3 of 4 in her series. Check back later for the last update. 

Day 3- Women’s Opportunity Center Opening

A gloriously sunny day started with the official opening ceremony, where the newly appointed Country Director of our Kosovo Office, Iliriana Gashi,  was joined by Carol Jackson from the Private Equity Foundation as well as Molly Cronin from Sharon Davis Design Studios.

The official ceremony featured speeches from Iliriana Gashi, Carol Jackson, Molly Cronin and Ramize Rexhepi, a graduate of Women for Women’s year long programme in Kosovo.

Carol said “I have been inspired by your resilience and determination. Our CEO Shaks Ghosh can’t be with us today but she sends her congratulations. The Private Equity Foundation was delighted to fund this centre and it will be a leading light for women in Kosovo. I know from my visit that this centre is an excellent hands. I have learnt so much about the amazing work of Women for Women International.”

Molly Cronin added that, “this is not just a building – it will be a safe space for women to meet and share and continue their learning.”

Iliriana thanked the trainers of the Women for Women programme: “Thanks to our trainers who go 4 or 5 times a week to remote villages, in snow or sunshine to deliver our programmes and support women with literacy and vocational skills.” After hearing Besa’s story earlier this week, I truly believe this too.

Next to speak is a graduate of our programme, Ramize Rexhepi , who chose to specialise in horticulture and food processing and has now set up her own women’s cooperative producing pickles, Burek and Ajar.

Ramize said,”In the beginning I was only interested in learning about gardening, but through the Women for Women course I decided to take some of my produce to market and on the first try I made 46 euros. It was so good to be able to buy things for my family and now I led a cooperative of women making food for sale at market. I can only say – Women, participate in as many fairs as you can!”

The ceremony was closed with a beautiful rendition of ‘Songbird’ by singer and UK supporter of Women for Women International  Laura Comfort.

After the ceremony I had the chance to catch up with Ramize and hear her story of moving from survivor of the war to active leader of a 17 woman strong cooperative.

Ramize cultivates everything she needs: cabbage, spinach, tomatoes, peppers, potatoes.  “I took part in all the trainings available, particularly the food processing course and a course on making 13 different types of cheese. The most difficult parts of the training was the literacy classes as during the war she had missed a lot of schooling.”

Now she is in a group of 17 women and they are trying to get funds to increase the ability for them to unify their production, so that the goods can be marketed easily and they can increase production.  When she first started taking produce to market her family were bemused, they asked “What is the fair for? They felt it was a shameful activity for a woman to sell goods at market and were worried people would laugh at me.”

Ramize laughs, “Now we have no problem and it is seen as normal, in fact now my family are always asking – when are you going to the next fair?”  Her father is so impressed that he has given the cooperative  5 km square to support the development of their business, which they hope to build a processing factory for pickling and preserving . She says her most profitable product is the jars of Ajar, a red pepper paste and Pinxhur and similar product that is made from tomatoes.

The guests then shared a lunch of traditional Kosovar food, catered by graduates of the Women for Women programme and were able to browse a women’s product fair, featuring handicrafts, food and honey.

Supporters then also had the opportunity to tour the new WOC facilities and visit different training activities and classes in a open house, including an opportunity to view our Life Skills classes, Vocational Classes and letter writing.

After the Opening ceremony we took a bus trip to the old city of Prizen, walking to the top of the City Fort, once built by the Ottomans. Our guide tells us how she and her family were unable to leave the city during the war (unlike many of the city residents) and that as an 8 year old child she watched how the city burned and the fear this struck in her.

Ramize Rexhepi, WfWI-Kosovo graduate, addressing the attendees at the inauguration of the first Women's Opportunity Center in Kosovo.

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Notes from Kosovo- Day #2

Women for Women UK Major Gifts Officer Nora Russell traveled to Kosovo in June. She has written about her experiences and the women she met. We will be sharing her travel notes over the next month, so check back next week for more. 

Day 2 – Wednesday June 22nd 2011

Life Skills Training in Henc

Henc is a small village, with a few shops and a primary school – which is where we meet. This year is the first year Women for Women has worked with women in the village and in fact it is the first year any NGO has come to offer support. We met a class of women who have recently enrolled on the programme and are here for their second week of training. They are so positive, so excited for the opportunity to learn, and they want to know all about our lives. What do we do in the UK, what can we achieve. Julie shares her day to day life with then and it seems pretty normal to us all but to these women, who before this programme very rarely left the house, for them it is almost unimaginable. Their stories are heartbreaking and many of us cry. When they find out that one of our group has recently met the sister she sponsors you can see the excitement in their faces, stretching their heads to see this lucky woman. Besa tells us that it is often not the money they care for but the letters that is held so dear. Besa leads the class in some of the key words that they will hear repeatedly during the course of the year, safe (this is a safe place, to share all you want to, it is confidential it is a place of friendship), sister (your sister is the woman who sponsors you, who you may not ever meet, but who is always supporting you and cheering for your success on the other side of the world), participation (here Besa wags her finger – ‘you must participate! Participation is not just about turning up to class and signing you name! It is taking part in the discussion, sharing and listening and learning together), listening (particularly active listening) What wonderful words to remember  and guide us in life let alone a one-year class. I wonder what they will feel like and think of the programme one year on?

One of the women comes up to me and says ‘Thank you for bringing me here, this is the first time I have had the chance to come and visit the school where my children go, it is only 500 metres away but I never go out, the children always go on their own.’

By the time the class is over the local kids have heard who has taken over their school for the day and are waiting for us outside for pictures and shy smiles.

In the afternoon we head to a village near Mitrovica, a town which is still divided between Serbs and Albanians and where some of the most brutal atrocities of the war took place. Mitrovica is the town where everyone was a refugee, and men were taken out of their homes and shot in front of their families regardless of age.

Here we are greeted by the most amazing spread of delicious food and drink and are hosted by an all women’s Bee Keeping Cooperative. The Cooperative has grown from some initial funding from the Herman Miller Foundation and with support from our Income Gerneration Coordinator, Faruk Beqa.  The Cooperative is made up of 40 women from Runik and 35 in Prekaz and together they have survived through their first winter with their beehives only making a few loses.

Initially, the cooperative lacked everything they needed to start a successful business, from protective clothing to a computer. By pooling their resources and money saved from their sponsorship contributions they have been able to set up an office with computer and printer and to hire equipment that they all share such as the centrifuge for separating the clear honey out from the bees wax and the lower quality honey.

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Notes from Kosovo- Day #1

Women for Women UK Major Gifts Officer Nora Russell traveled to Kosovo in June. She has written about her experiences and the women she met. We will be sharing her travel notes over the next month, so check back next week for more. 

We meet the group a group of exited supporters and including representatives from the Private Equity Foundation and Neal’s Yard Remedies, at the departure lounge in Gatwick, London. The short (3 hour) flight to Kosovo is filled with expectation and the knowledge that as soon as we land it will be all systems go! As we fly over Kosovo, you can see the strips of land, divided into thin sections. I am shocked to learn that in this country of such fertile land, 80% of the food is imported and in the past year food prices have risen 50%. For the average family on an income of 250 Euros per month this has had significant effect upon their ability to afford the ‘luxuries’ of school books and a nutritionally balanced diet. More and more families rely upon remittances form relations working abroad.

I meet Faruk Beqa, WfWI Kosovo Income Generation Coordinator and Vehbi Kllokoqi, the Income Generation Manager and they take myself, Lauri Pastrone and Simon Wheeler, our photographer to visit the local Green Market. The Income Generation staff teach women to grow vegetables for their own family nutrition and then to expand and sell some of their produce in markets like this one. Vegetables fetch 10 times more than standard crops of wheat and corn which are more staple and popular with farmers.  Main crops include vegetables, strawberries and cherries in June. They also teach our participants how to grow onions, potatoes, carrots and cucumber and peppers, a favourite for pickling in preparation for the harsh winters. Cabbage is also popular as it is the main ingredient of a local cabbage & salt water drink prepared especially for the winter months.

The day ends with a beautiful and traditional meal of many courses on the hills overlooking Prishtina and as the sun sets Besa, one of my Kosovo colleagues takes courage in telling me her own story of experiencing the war, which officially started in 1997, but which was the result of many years of segregation of the two communities – Serbian and Albanian Kosovars.

Besa was 16 years old when the war began, she was living with her parents, her nine year old brother and her grandmother. When Serbians entered their home they were given 3 minutes to pack and leave. Her parents were taken to a village and Besa, at 16, took on the responsibility of getting her grandmother and brother across the border into Macedonia. They took a bus. And then the bus broke down and they walked across the border, setting up a makeshift shelter amongst the other 500,000 refugees who had fled Kosovo into Macedonia. They stayed there for 5 days until they were able to take a place on Germany’s quota for refugees. Besa says she chose Germany as it was the closest to Kosovo and easier to get home. She was always thinking of returning home.

Whilst in Germany she heard that there had been a massacre in the village where her parents had been taken and not knowing whether her parents were alive or dead she waited by the phone to hear of news of them. The phone lines were cut when Nato bombed the Post Office and all main communication routes. Besa refused to go to school in Germany although she sent her younger brother and she says he was hysterical, crying and having nightmares every day.

Finally she heard the good news that her parents had survived the war and were safe and after 9 months they were able to return to Kosovo and found her parents. Besa now leads our women participants in life skills training classes.

Seeing the tears in her eyes, I thank her and tell her she is brave for telling her story, and she shrugs her shoulders and says; ‘This is everyone’s story. Everyone at this table has a similar story.’

To me this is amazing, she is the same age as me; could quite easily fit into my friendship group in the UK and yet at 16 she wasn’t studying for exams or going gooey over her first boyfriend. Instead she was fleeing for her life, responsible for two vulnerable family members and without her parents to turn to for help.  She sits opposite me with such resilience and composure and now she is working to change the lives of women who have similar stories every day.

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