Sometime in 2017, Safete Binaku was on one of her occasional visits to her hometown of Bokshiq, a village outside Klina. On the way, she stopped by Grabanica, a nearby village, and went to an old building she knew well. The Azem Bejta School was built in 1974 and had received little attention from the state in the last two decades. Binaku was in seventh grade at the school when, as she remembers it, on a rainy spring day in 1998, she left the school, the village and the country for good.
The first February massacres of the Kosovo war in nearby Drenica had echoed out, making it clear that hard times were coming. Binaku’s family decided to move to the safety of Sweden. They became refugees overnight, taking a well-trodden route of migration from Peja into Montenegro, continuing by boat to Italy, and then heading north.
In the past few years she would often recall remarkable moments from her childhood.
The Milošević regime forbade high school and university students from using public buildings, but it also segregated children in elementary schools. Binaku’s school was always attended by mixed pupils, but truly mixed social relations were just a recollection in the stories of relatives who attended the same school years earlier. In 1991, as a 6-year-old in the first grade, she remembers the invisible barriers that separated her from her Serb peers.
“Sometimes we would play basketball. We were on one side, they were on the other,” she said. “I reflected a lot recently, how we were highly conscious of each other and at the same time we didn’t have any contact.”
She thought about this again that day in 2017 when she stopped in front of her old school. But it was a different subject related to her school days in Kosovo that was pressing on her — the subject of children’s books.
She had long conversations with friends in Stockholm about the impact of books on their lives. With friends who, like her, migrated from Kosovo, she discussed the lack of organized classroom reading in Kosovo’s schools and how she only realized what she was missing when she started school in her second home. For these immigrant children, the experience of reading and discussing works of fiction together with classmates and teachers had been central to understanding complex ideas and it made their adaption to the new culture and the new language much easier.
But there was little focus on critical reading in their early childhood education in Kosovo, and from what they could tell from speaking to others, today’s classrooms continue to be characterized by this absence.
“While we were talking, we just said, ‘Can we go to Kosovo and explain to them the idea of reading?’” she said. “So we went and tried it. Children were so enthusiastic, and the teachers saw the effect. Everything changed.”
The Library Project Kosova was born.
Classroom reading is a matter of equality
Founded in 2017 by Binaku and a group of friends, The Library Project Kosova (TLPK) aims to build an active and engaged community through developing reading comprehension among children and young adults in Kosovo and motivating them to become lifelong readers and learners.
Binaku explains that they work with students and teachers to improve the level of reading comprehension and are working on increasing the number of books and spaces in which children have the opportunity to read freely and receive appropriate support.
The organization’s motto is: “Every child in Kosovo deserves access to books.” Photo: The Library Project Kosova.
“Ultimately we advocate for reading comprehension to become a fundamental factor in the curriculum,” she said.
She and the team have been collaborating with schools from almost every municipality to implement reading as a weekly classroom activity.
“Every child in Kosovo deserves access to books,” is the organization’s motto.
Binaku challenges the idea that cultural behaviors inherited from their households are to blame for children’s lack of interest in reading.
“In Kosovo they say that children are not like they are in Sweden. They don’t go take out books to read,” she said. “But in Kosovo there are no books in schools and that is why we are so passionate about our project. Books need to be where the children are.”
When Binaku migrated to Sweden she was shocked when her teachers weren’t satisfied with her answers and pushed her further to elaborate her opinions in class.
“They would just say ‘This is not your answer,’ and asked me what I was basing my thoughts on,” she said. “It would come so naturally to other children to argue their opinions. But I came from a system where I would just learn everything in a mechanical way without reflecting upon it.”
The country’s old, unreformed, rote teaching methodology — which fails to teach students critical reading skills, how to creatively solve math problems or explain phenomena scientifically — was exposed after the publication of results from the international education evaluation the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) in 2016 and 2018. Both times Kosovo scored in the bottom five out of the almost 80 participating countries and got last place in southeast Europe. Kosovo’s 15-year-old students’ performance was in the lower end of the range in all test categories.
The results confirmed the general belief and expectations about deficiencies in the country’s education system. For Binaku, organized classroom reading would be an initial intervention into a rotten educational system that hasn’t recovered since the damage it suffered in the ’90s.
The lack of real policies after the war, and even after independence, to fix the education system contributed to Binaku and The Library Project Kosova’s motivation to continue with their project. The challenges they face are massive. Strategic educational plans hardly mention reading skills and the allocated budget for reading and spaces that encourage reading is very low. Many libraries in Kosovo are poorly maintained and lack a sufficient supply of books, while others have closed due to low budgets.
Binaku’s focus on reading aloud to children is not just about learning, improved vocabularies or creativity. For her and her friends, classroom reading is a matter of equality.
“We experienced it first hand. I had my first contact with fiction books as a 14-year-old migrant child,” she said. “The Law on Education in Sweden states that the school is responsible for children’s reading. It is not parent’s responsibility. It is the state’s responsibility.”
She believes that the shared experience of reading fiction puts children of different social and economic backgrounds on the same footing and that the learned skill to think critically about the content of stories can narrow the gap between the privileged and disadvantaged.
Filling the schools with books
“Just look at this video and you will see,” Binaku says.
The video shows more than twenty children, approximately age 10, at the Azem Bejta School sitting around their tables in a circle impatiently waiting for their teacher to reveal a surprise. The space is filled with joyful shouts when they hear that another children’s book from their favorite “Pax” series was translated from Swedish to Albanian. Written by authors Åsa Larsson & Ingela Korsell, “Pax” became an instant hit in Sweden with its mixture of Nordic folklore, magic and real-life drama.
The Library Project Kosova collaborates with the Kosovar publishing house “Magjia e Librit” to make sure this popular series gets translated from Swedish into Albanian. The “Pax” books are just some of the 200 titles that have been purchased since 2017.
For the last four years, Binaku and the rest of the team have been working with the Azem Bejta School to implement the reading hour concept, where children read fiction together and then discuss the story together, as well as providing the school with books in classroom sets. Soon, they started a conversation with teachers and students on what seemed like a far-fetched idea — the creation of a school library.
School libraries are not common in Kosovo, but TLPK has sparked interest in establishing them across the country. Photo: The Library Project Kosova.
At first they were just reading aloud with the children, who were captivated by the new activity. But the main challenge was to provide an ideal reading environment, as well as a place to store the books.
“We didn’t expect anything else either, based on the fact that the concept [of a] school library didn’t exist in Kosovo,” reads a TLKP presentation document.
A spacious unused room at the Azem Bejta School with a high ceiling and large windows that let in sunlight all day became the school library. It is fully owned and maintained by the school and open to students, teachers and the community all year around.
“It functions as a place to read, lecture, hold book talks and many other school events — a place for students and staff to find peace and serenity,” reads a statement from TLKP.
TLPK has provided books for around 20 public schools across the country. Photo: The Library Project Kosova
The school’s children all contributed to the library design. They drew the types of plants, curtains, lamps, furniture and bookshelves they wished to fill the space. Their ideas were transformed into three different designs, and they became the youngest voters in the country’s history when they voted for their favorite option to be realized.
The once empty space today has around 150 different books in its collection. With 30 copies of each book, children in the same class can all read the same book at the same time.
Expanding the mission
The eagerness of the children at the Azem Bejta School galvanized Binaku and TLPK to expand the project.
“Witnessing the enthusiasm of our young readers we got motivated to extend the reading classes to other schools in Kosovo,” she said.
The story of reading classes, children’s tales and a school library made the unknown school of Grabanica an overnight inspiration for many other elementary schools across the country. Students and alumni volunteers in urban and rural schools got involved in TLPK and took it upon themselves to spread the word, reach out to new schools and start organizing reading classes.
Meanwhile, TLPK had started providing supplemental training to teachers on the latest techniques to help children read, understand and analyze literature. The focus of the training was to help children develop questions about what they’re reading, make text summaries, clarify words and paragraphs they don’t understand and to predict what will happen next in the story.
“During the training, the material is presented in detail and is followed by activities and exercises which aim to help teachers understand how to apply and use the material,” Binaku said. The TLPK team is also bringing in pedagogical experts involved in Sweden’s children’s reading program to design additional teacher training materials.
The Library Project Kosova has used the same logic and approach in all the schools that joined the program, providing around 20 different schools with books for each class as well as support materials for teachers.
Now Binaku and the team are putting all their energy into creating a network of circulating libraries that schools can take advantage of. Teachers will be able to borrow class-sets of books and librarians will be there to support them and the children during the selection process. In this way TLPK can more easily expand the reach of their books by making them available to many schools on a rotating basis.
“The plan is to create circulating libraries as additional parts within public libraries of the municipalities where we work, and gradually have Kosovar institutions taking over the whole process,” she said.
In 2022 TLPK will establish their first circulating public library in Mitrovica along with continued development of their reading corner program in schools across the country.
“TLPK will also include six new schools that are attended by a great number of children from ethnic minorities,” she said. “The dream is to extend reading to every school in Kosovo and we are hoping to collaborate with the Ministry of Education and city libraries.”
The exact dimensions of The Library Project Kosova’s future remain unclear, but for now, Binaku said, “tales such as The Little Prince, Harry Potter, and Anne Frank’s Diary are reaching children in their schools and households for the first time.”
Feature image: The Library Project Kosova.
This article has been produced with the financial support of the “Balkan Trust for Democracy,” a project of the German Marshall Fund of the United States and the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Opinions expressed in this article do not necessarily represent those of the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Balkan Trust for Democracy, the German Marshall Fund of the United States, or its partners.