Having endured 10 years of oppression and the largest expulsion in Europe since the Holocaust, it is not uncommon to hear the Albanians of Kosovo draw parallels between themselves and Jews.
So it was little surprise to Greta Kacinari that Jews would be among those lending a hand in Kosovo, the war-torn southern province of Yugoslavia.
Despite the near absence of Jews in Kosovo, the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee has rebuilt many of its schools.
“I know a lot of Jews, and I know they have helped each other in times of need,” said Kacinari, principal of Elena Gjika Primary School. “But the really amazing thing to me is there’s also something in their blood for them to help people who are in a similar situation as Jews were in during their history.”
Kacinari’s is one of 14 primary schools in Kosovo’s capital, Pristina. All of them here and in the countryside have suffered years of neglect and vandalism, and later, war. Meanwhile, as the Balkans have convulsed with one crisis after another this decade, Jewish groups have not only assisted the small Jewish communities in the region, but they have emerged as key supporters of the overall relief effort.
Leading the way is the JDC. It pitched in $1.25 million for the Albanian refugee camps in Macedonia and Albania earlier this year. Then, when it expressed an interest in Kosovo’s primary schools late this summer, UNICEF asked it to help rebuild the infrastructure of all 14 in Pristina. The JDC also selected a school in the southern city of Prizren, home to a tiny Jewish community of 40.
Since its arrival in Kosovo in August, a small, dedicated team of Israelis has spent $1.1 million of JDC funds to replace broken glass, doors and toilets, among other projects.
“When you say it 10 times — ‘We’re here to help the people because we care’ — it loses its strength,” says Israeli Nir Baron, JDC’s administrator in Kosovo. “But that is why I’m here, and to make sure everything gets to the right people.”
There are certainly plenty of needy recipients. Since 1989, Kosovo and its 90-percent ethnic Albanian population lived within an apartheid-like system ruled by the Serbian minority. Albanians were kicked out of universities, high schools and most primary schools. In response, the Albanian community created a parallel school system, operated mostly out of private homes.
In schools like Kacinari’s, the Albanians were allowed to remain. But anywhere from 750 to 900 schoolchildren were forced into half a wing. As there were only nine classrooms, teachers and students came to school in three shifts, from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. Meanwhile, the 350 Serb students had access to 25 rooms, the gymnasium and luxury items such as microscopes.
When the Serb teachers and students left school at 2 p.m., the heat was shut off. The Albanians continued into the night in the cold, Kacinari says.
“I don’t wish for anyone in the world to live through the conditions we lived through for 10 years,” says Kacinari in fluent English.
Repression against the province’s 1.8 million Albanians grew progressively worse, leading to NATO’s intervention this spring. Three months of U.S.-led airstrikes finally forced the Serbs to end the repression, but forced relocation — known by the euphemism “ethnic cleansing” — resulted in an estimated 1 million ethnic Albanian refugees, 5,000 to 10,000 killed and tens of thousands of homes, businesses and schools burned.
As Serb forces withdrew, much of the Serb community went with them. In their wake, they trashed the schools.
So the JDC’s top priority was glass, to keep out the cold. Some 20,000 feet worth was bought for the 14 schools in Pristina alone. Workers installed it in one week. Next came replacement of doors and locks, many of which were said to have been kicked in and intentionally destroyed by Serbs.
As Baron tells it, the Kosovars are growing wary of well-meaning relief workers who promise but don’t deliver.
“That’s why we only promise what we can deliver,” he says. Baron notes the challenge for humanitarian groups is to judge where the greatest needs are. By virtue of having larger populations, the cities tend to draw most of the attention.
Some needs, such as physical reconstruction, are obvious. Other ideas came to the JDC only after it further familiarized itself with the communities. The organization recently gave away 15,000 pairs of shoes in Kosovo — mostly to orphaned children — and 3,500 backpacks for students.
The JDC and ORT have also donated 45 computers: 15 in Pristina, 15 in Prizren, and 15 in Skopje, Macedonia. The JDC has also hit on an idea for back-to-work vocational training for Albanians, to train them how to make tables and chairs for the schools. Then there’s the shortage of dental technicians: The JDC may bring some in, says Baron.
Finally, the JDC has allocated some discretionary funds for school officials to determine their own needs. Kacinari, for example, used the cash to buy items such as chalk, pens, notebooks, a screwdriver and light bulbs.
“We Jews know about occupation and foreign authority,” says the 32-year-old. “If I’d been liberated, even if someone wanted to help me I’d still want to defend my pride. Like, ‘I’ll tell you my needs and you can help me if you want.’ Just because someone gives you money doesn’t mean that they should own your soul.”
The JDC did in fact make one condition for its aid: that Albanian school officials not discriminate against Serb and other minority children. Kacinari boasts that in her school, there are 200-plus ethnic Turkish children, learning in their mother tongue.
Says Baron, “We told them we will not collaborate. If a Serb or Gypsy child wants to come to school, to us they are all just children.”
But he added, “These people are hurt and the feeling of revenge in the streets is very strong. I don’t know if you can blame them. To put hate aside is very difficult, as anyone from Israel knows.”
But Baron himself has found there is something contagious about bringing relief in a crisis.
“This work here has immediate rewards,” he said. “If you give a kid shoes or a school bag, it’s good for the soul.”
Kosovo’s Jews Battle for Survival
“Ah, the ironies of life,” says Votim Demiri. His mother escaped from the train that carried her family to death at Bergen-Belsen. Later, she became renowned for fighting with the Yugoslav partisans against the Nazis.
Fast forward to this spring.
A Serb offensive in Kosovo forced Demiri, the president of Prizren’s Jews, and close to 1 million Albanian refugees to flee their homes. Demiri, his wife and three children returned and hid until three months of NATO airstrikes persuaded Serb forces to withdraw.
So, today in Prizren, whose troops are keeping the peace? The Germans.
“I wonder what my mother would say if she were here to see it,” says Demiri, 52. Her mother died in 1994.
The Prizren Jews are battling for survival. Kosovo, legally still a part of Yugoslavia, is wracked with violent crime, and saddled with 70 percent unemployment.
One Jewish family of four has already emigrated to Israel, aided by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, and a second family is seriously considering it, Demiri says.
Prizren, a city of roughly 150,000, is a historic trade center in the Balkans. Jews are said to have lived here for centuries. There is no synagogue in town, though a Star of David adorns the minaret of one of the town’s old stone mosques. “I have no idea where it comes from,” concedes Demiri.
However, deep roots may not be enough to keep the Prizren Jews here. They also need jobs.
Today, the community is basically comprised of two large, extended families. Mixed marriages are common: Demiri’s father, for example, is Albanian, and his wife is “something between Albanian and Turkish.”
Yet Demiri’s Jewish identity is sufficiently strong enough that his 22-year-old son would like to visit Israel to learn Hebrew. And concern for the welfare of others during the crisis has bound the community even more tightly tog
Most Jews and their Albanian neighbors today eke out a living, accepting food staples like flour and cooking oil from humanitarian groups.
Actually, admits Demiri, his family is getting along fine: He’s been reinstated as the director of a local textile factory, a job he lost when Milosevic and his lieutenants purged all “Albanians” from leadership positions in 1989 and 90. What his people need, Demiri says, are not handouts, but machines to start up small businesses.
“We don’t want to live from humanitarian aid forever; people in Kosovo know how to work hard to make a living,” he says. “But I want to make it clear: We’ll need plenty of time.” –Michael J. Jordan, JTA