Ghost schools, ghetto schools and segregated shifts
Segregation of Roma and Ashkali children in the Serbian parallel education system.
The sound of the bell rings out across the yard of Branko Radičević Elementary, a Serbian-run school in North Mitrovica. The last bell of the morning shift, half an hour before noon, puts into motion the noisy daily movements that flow like choreography: the clatter of wooden chairs and tables, backpacks flinging over shoulders and the joyful rush out into the schoolyard.
One by one or in groups, the children leave the school grounds for the next shift of students. The school, just a five minute walk from the city center, operates in two shifts.
The second shift of students, which attends the school from midday to the afternoon, enters the schoolyard and then waits for the sound of the bell marking the start of their school day. The scene is on the surface identical to the routine of the morning shift except for one key difference. The children in the first shift are Serbs. The children in the second shift are exclusively Roma or Ashkali children, largely bussed in from the southern part of Mitrovica.
This division appears to raise no eyebrows. When asked whether the second shift was only Roma children, a woman at a nearby shop, a man working at a construction site next door and a number of local parents answer in the same normal tone, “Yes, only Roma,” they say, though some, in place of “Roma,” utter racist slurs in Albanian or Serbian instead.
While the ethnic segregation of these children is a well-known fact of life in the north, it remains largely unknown across the rest of Kosovo. It is, however, common knowledge among educational authorities working in the Kosovar and Serbian systems as well as a number of international aid and development organizations.
Through our investigation, K2.0 confirmed the existence of similar types of segregation in a number of Serbian-run schools in other ethnically mixed cities and towns across Kosovo. In addition to the ethnically segregated school shifts in North Mitrovica, there is a nearly empty “ghost school” in Obiliq to which Roma children are bussed to from another town and a ghettoized satellite branch school for Roma in Gjilan. There are also indications of similar practices in Janjevë, Plemetina and a village outside Fushë Kosova.
Though these segregated school arrangements arise from different conditions and contexts in each town, decision-making in the Serbian parallel education structures and tacit acceptance by the official Kosovo education system allows this discriminatory practice to continue. But its root causes are persistent economic disenfranchisement of Roma and Ashkali Kosovars, the gaps in oversight that result from the dual system of education in Kosovo and, many people K2.0 spoke with assert, the Serbian state’s goal of artificially inflating the public jobs available to Kosovo Serbs.
Rights’ activists criticize local municipalities and both countries' ministries of education for failing to intervene.
There have been two parallel and separate systems of education in Kosovo since the end of the 1999 war. Alongside Kosovo’s official school system, Serbia’s Ministry of Education, run from Belgrade, operates its own school system in Kosovo that many Roma and some Ashkali children attend. The Kosovo system is predominantly Albanian, but has tracks available for Bosnian and Turkish language education in different parts of the country. The Serbian parallel education system operates in Serbian and uses the Serbian state curriculum.
Rights’ activists K2.0 spoke with criticized local municipalities and both countries’ ministries of education for failing to intervene in the Serbian-run schools’ practice of ethnic segregation, a practice that has been happening in some schools in Kosovo’s official school system as well.
In 2019, an Appeals Court verdict confirmed that Gjakova’s Mustafa Bakija Elementary School unlawfully discriminated against Egyptian children and segregated them from their Albanian peers between 2011 and 2013. The Gjakova case attracted mass national and international attention which, according to activists, temporarily put an end to similar practices that were occurring in other schools in the Kosovo education system.
But the human rights non-governmental organization (NGO) “Advancing Together” reports that they intervened a couple months ago in a segregated class of Roma and Egyptian children at the Xhemajl Kada Elementary School in Peja.
“Albanian parents refused to have their children in mixed classes,” said Bashkim Ibishi, the NGO’s director. “The teacher had a lot of pressure from parents to do that, but then the school’s management reorganized the classes. This is what happens often in different municipalities, but we tend to have a good collaboration in these cases and schools or municipal educational directorates act fast, which is not the case with the [Serbian-run] schools.”
Many of the families that have children in segregated schools are deeply economically disadvantaged. Serbian social welfare laws, such as the Law on Social Protection of Serbia and the Law on Financial Assistance to Families with Children, apply to those holding Serbian identification documents residing in Kosovo. Many Roma and some Ashkali families in Kosovo register for these documents in order to receive the approximately 30 euros a month that is given for each child that the family has registered in a Serbian school, along with potential unemployment payments. For these families, this money can be the difference between making it to the end of the month or not.
Through an extensive investigation and conversations with students, parents, activists, teachers and school authorities, K2.0 mapped out and verified the school segregation of Roma and Ashkali children in Kosovo, and dug into the complexities that enable the pattern of institutional racism against these communities to continue.
“Segregation is unlawful and the institutional response toward every case where segregation is identified needs to be monumental,” said Isak Skenderi, the director of the NGO Voice of Roma, Ashkali and Egyptians, which works on education, employment and social justice issues for the three communities. “Regardless if the education is done in an [Albanian-language or Serbian-language] school, any case of segregation defies the European Convention on the Rights of the Child, which we signed as a state based on Kosovo’s Constitution.”
Segregated school shifts in North Mitrovica
Every weekday at 11:30 a.m., more than 100 children from the Roma Mahalla in the southern part of Mitrovica wait for their school buses in front of a learning center managed by the Roma and Ashkali Documentation Center (RADC), an NGO that has worked with the neighborhood’s communities since 2004.
Before heading to formal schooling at the second shift in North Mitrovica, the majority of these children take part in free lessons that RADC teachers give each morning. Serbian education authorities organize the daily buses from the Roma Mahalla to the elementary school in the north.
With 8,000 inhabitants, Mitrovica’s Roma Mahalla was the second biggest Roma neighborhood in Yugoslavia before the war in Kosovo. Only Šuto Orizari, outside of Skopje, was bigger.
When the war ended in June 1999, peace remained out of reach for the neighborhood’s residents. Across Kosovo many Roma, Ashkali and Egyptians were accused of collaborating with the Serbian regime of Slobodan Milošević and in the aftermath of the war were attacked or driven from their homes by Albanian groups. Mitrovica’s Roma Mahalla was no exception and after the neighborhood faced attacks, it emptied out overnight.
Like the Roma Mahalla, the Branko Radičević school building was transformed in the period after the war. In the fall of 1999, after the majority of Kosovo Serbs had fled to the north or out of Kosovo altogether, a number of Serbian elementary schools that were located in the south moved north as well.
Five of these schools maintained their administrative staff, structures and distinction, but were housed together at the premises of the Branko Radičević school building. Students who already attended Branko Radičević continued their education there in the morning shift, while the afternoon shift was filled by the five elementary schools that had moved north.
Serbian parallel education
Serbia runs parallel governmental structures in Kosovo. While many are, at least on paper, integrated into Kosovo’s official system through the Brussels agreements, the parallel systems for health, education and culture are still kept largely separate.
Over 100 schools across Kosovo are funded by Serbia and use the Serbian educational curriculum. Many of these schools, particularly the ones south of the Ibar River, are also funded by Kosovo, meaning staff sometimes are on two state’s payrolls for the same job.
The EU-facilitated dialogue on the normalization of relations between Kosovo and Serbia has largely avoided addressing issues related to education.
Roma rights activists say that the “political” nature of the situation is used as an excuse by local and international authorities to dispel responsibility when they bring up issues such as school segregation.
After the war, around 600 residents of the Roma Mahalla moved north of the Ibar River, the geographic landmark in northern Kosovo dividing the largely Serb northern tip of the country from the rest, and settled in the vicinity of the Trepça mining complex in improvised United Nation (U.N.) camps.
After a number of exposés, it became clear that this area was highly contaminated with industrial waste and the people living there suffered serious lead poisoning. The U.N.’s own advisory panel has called for the organization to apologize to the victims and pay compensation, but the U.N. has avoided responsibility for years. In 2007, the process of returning these internally displaced people to their former residencies in the Roma Mahalla began.
Many Roma children from the camps in the north, together with other displaced Roma and Ashkali children, had enrolled in Serbian-run schools after having been driven from the Roma Mahalla. After the long delayed process of return to their old neighborhood in the south was complete, many families continued sending their children to school in North Mitrovica.
According to a 2020 report from the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), there are 352 Roma or Ashkali students registered in the schools within Branko Radičević’s premises, of which 290 reside in the Roma Mahalla.
Bekim Syla, the executive director of RADC, has worked with residents of the Roma Mahalla since the founding of the organization in 2004. He said that people living in the Roma Mahalla are discriminated against in many ways and that “school segregation just adds to another layer of discrimination.”
“We witnessed for years that nobody cared about the segregation in Branko Radičević,” he said. “We raised [the issue] with local authorities in Mitrovica [in the north and the south], the school, the ministry, government, internationals and… nothing,” Syla said.
Locals in North Mitrovica say they don’t remember the exact date or year, but not long after the schools from the south relocated to their new premises in the north, the Roma and Ashkali children found themselves alone in the second shift.
A teacher from North Mitrovica said that the impetus for segregating students was pressure from Serb parents who started to remove their children from classrooms and schools that they felt were dominated by Roma children.
Avni Mustafa, director of the NGO Roma Versitas Kosovo, has for years seen how schools receive frequent requests from parents to not have Roma, Ashkali and Egyptian children in their children’s classes. Mustafa says that though school directors are required to reject requests for ethnic separation that would break anti-discrimination laws, certain schools grant them.
'Roma are afraid to stand up in North Mitrovica. I am afraid to stand up in North Mitrovica.'
- Sebastian Šerifović
Mustafa’s colleague at Roma Versitas, Sebastian Šerifović, says that the legal gray zone created by the Serbian parallel structures allows these requests to be more easily approved, and that the Serbian schools in the north, which can avoid legal oversight even more, are able to establish the overt segregation that is seen at Branko Radičević.
“Segregation in the north is so easy because there is no system that runs everything. Neither Kosovo nor Serbia run things,” he said. “Roma are afraid to stand up in North Mitrovica. I am afraid to stand up in North Mitrovica.”
K2.0 spoke with two Serb teachers who have worked with Roma and Ashkali children from Branko Radičević’s second shift. They were less critical of Serb parents’ demands for classrooms without Roma and Ashkali students and repeated common negative stereotypes and prejudices.
“Roma have lower results and are less efficient and show less interest in learning. Their lack of discipline affected other kids, and Serb parents weren’t satisfied,” one teacher said.
The two teachers rejected the idea that these notions are prejudiced or racist. One said, “It is not racism because we know that Roma have a different lifestyle. We don’t want to change their lifestyle but educate them and teach them learning and reading.”
Another teacher who works with the Roma and Ashkali children in the second shift, M.D., said that he sees the division of children at school not as segregation per se, “but a social segregation for sure. They are segregated but this is because of the society they come from.”
He suggested that it was the responsibility of Kosovo’s Ministry of Education to provide schooling for these children, who largely come from the south. “They needed to do this but they didn’t,” he said. “Maybe they didn’t do it because they didn’t want to mix those children with the Albanian ones.”
Roma activists that are familiar with the situation in North Mitrovica claim that the segregated school shifts and the maintenance of separate school administrations functioning within the same school building are at least partly an excuse to keep an inflated number of teachers employed in the school system. Teachers from the north said that they are only responsible for teaching one class module to one grade.
One additional complicating fact is that the children from the Roma Mahalla who attend Serbian schools in the north predominantly speak Romani or Albanian at home. Most know little to no Serbian when they start school.
“The biggest obstacle is the language. Children don’t understand what they have to do,” said one of the RADC teachers. “There are no translators in schools, and they know maybe to write and read a bit but nothing more. You cannot explain mathematics or biology without sufficient knowledge of the Serbian language.”
Around 120 Roma and Ashkali children from the Roma Mahalla currently attend RADC classes. Three groups attend the Serbian school in the north and receive additional classes in Serbian at RADC, while a fourth group, which attends school in Albanian in the Kosovo school system, receives additional classes in Albanian.
Lack of Cooperation
NGO learning centers play a huge role in providing supplementary classes for Roma, Ashkali and Egyptian children. Many families from these communities have faced generations-long exclusion from the education sphere, and as such, the learning centers at times step up and take on parental roles in communicating with the children’s schools.
But the majority of the learning centers that K2.0 spoke with said they were unable to establish contact or cooperation with Serbian-run schools.
Isak Skenderi, of Voice of Roma, Ashkali and Egyptians, said this resistance to cooperation is not new. “We, as a Kosovar organization, very often we were not recognized by school representatives as a legitimate organization or partner,” he said.
Current and former teachers who asked not to be named said that while some individual teachers in the Serbian system coordinate with the learning centers, most are afraid of there being any written record of their cooperation with Kosovo-registered NGOs.
Reports from international organizations like the Roma Education Fund suggest that students learning in segregated schools have worse academic outcomes compared to their peers. Activists say that this lack of coordination creates additional barriers to the academic achievement of these children.
The teachers at RADC said that the differences in educational outcomes between children that attend school in Albanian and those that attend school in Serbian are clear — children at RADC who attend school in Albanian consistently perform better.
K2.0 reached out to the Serbian education authorities in North Mitrovica for comment but has not received a reply.
K2.0 tried to speak with a wide range of families in the Roma Mahalla but only two people agreed to speak, one Ashkali woman and one Roma man who both asked that their names not be used. The woman said she enrolled her daughter in the Kosovo school system because it seemed like a practical decision that would open employment prospects that require Albanian language competency.
“We are not doing bad. My husband works and we have some income,” she said, before pointing to some nearby houses where the children attend the Serbian school system in the north. “If you enter their houses, you will see they are poorer. Maybe they cannot get on without the money they get from having their children in the Serbian schools.”
The man from the neighborhood told K2.0 that a few years ago they were approached by representatives of the Municipality of Mitrovica from the south who asked them to enroll children in the Kosovo school system.
“Can they provide the support if we bring children to your school?” he told us he asked the Kosovo education representatives. “We are maxhup here and maxhup there,” the man said, referring to the ethnic slur he hears on both sides of the river. “At least some can afford bread with the Serbian schools.”
Most people that K2.0 approached in the Roma Mahalla declined to talk about school attendance or the neighborhood’s children. Human rights activists that work closely with these communities suggest that this is due to the fear of being publicly affiliated with Serbs or of being accused again, as they were after the war, of being Serb collaborators.
This narrative of Roma complicity in Serbian atrocities against ethnic Albanians, which led to the type of revenge attacks that cleared out the Roma Mahalla, has been condemned as factually baseless by the European Roma Rights Centre.
But what the Roma man told K2.0 about financial incentives to attend Serbian schools is also what many educational staff in the Kosovo system reported hearing from other Roma parents.
Bresje (near Fushë Kosova) and Janjevë are both places where one school building hosts Kosovar and Serbian curricula under one roof. Staff at these schools claim that they’ve asked Roma parents to withdraw their children from Serbian schools and enroll them in Albanian-language classes in the Kosovo school system because these children are generally in Albanian-language environments in their homes and local neighborhoods rather than Serbian.
“Once while we were praying in the mosque, I met this Roma man whose kids attend the Serbian-language school, which is on the second floor [of the school]. I asked him to send his kids to Albanian-language school,” said an employee of the Shtjefën Gjeçovi Elementary School in Janjevë.
“Can you give the help that the Serbian school on the second floor gives to us?” was the answer, the school employee told K2.0.
“Choices are for the privileged, not for those who are on the edge of survival as Roma are,” said Avdula Mustafa, who works for Roma Versitas Kosovo.
“The question shouldn’t be, ‘Why are you not taking kids to our schools?’ but rather, ‘Why are we not providing the same help as the Serbian state?’” Mustafa said. “We know that families send their children to segregated schools in order to get the benefits of the Serbian social welfare system. Why does the government of Kosovo not step in so these children don’t have to go, for example, to the north?”
Kosovo’s current government introduced a social support policy for families last year, which provides monthly allowances of 20 euros to families with children up to the age of two. Families with children between the ages of two and 16 receive 10 euros a month per child.
Though this is a first for Kosovo in terms of social welfare, there are no substantial policies to address the high level of impoverishment and unemployment among the Roma, Ashkali and Egyptian communities. Kosovo’s recent social support payments are significantly less than the Serbian welfare payments.
The unemployment rate for people from the Roma, Ashkali and Egyptian communities in Kosovo is above 90%. Members of these communities often work in the informal sector, in insecure, low-paid and low-status jobs in seasonal construction or agricultural work, woodcutting or scrap collection. Some families end up pulling their children from school to help make ends meet.
“You know what the truth is?” Mustafa said. “The Roma would have left by now if it wasn’t for the social welfare from the Serbian state. They would migrate as the majority [of Roma] already have.”
Šerifović agrees with his fellow activist, “This is not about being Roma. This is about being poor.”
The ‘ghost school’ in Obiliq
Another elementary school named after the Serbian romantic poet Branko Radičević is located in the center of Obiliq, a small town outside Prishtina. Locals call it a ghost school; activists say it is another example of the school segregation that Roma children in Kosovo face. Aleksandar Popović, the school’s director, says the school is an important historical landmark that can pave the way for Serbs to return to the town.
This Branko Radičević is located between the municipality building and the Ismail Dumoshi Elementary School, an Albanian-language school in the Kosovo school system. While Ismail Dumoshi Elementary’s schoolyard is full of children, Branko Radičević Elementary’s is practically deserted. In the halls of the school there is a poster, prominently displayed, of six major literary figures from Serbian history. The school has zero Serb students.
“I counted the children just a few days. There are no more than 10,” said a security guard who works nearby.
“There are 18 children in this school,” said director Popović. “All of them are Roma.”
Popović, who has been the school’s director for 11 years and who travels every day from Gračanica to his workplace in Obiliq, tells the story of a school that was once named “Bratstvo” (“Brotherhood” in Serbian, a reference to the communist Yugoslav-era motto “Brotherhood and Unity”) and had thousands of children — Albanian, Serbian, Roma and from other communities — learning under its roof and at satellite units in surrounding villages.
Albanian children were expelled from the school in 1992 during the Milošević era and joined the Albanian parallel education system, which throughout the decade was run on a voluntary basis largely in private homes or basements because the Serbian authorities, among other things, barred Albanians from using Albanian in public institutions.
In the wake of the shattered dreams of a brotherly and unified Yugoslavia, the school changed its name in 1997 to Branko Radičević. After the war, the majority of Serbs fled the town. Many of those who stayed, which included around 50 Serb children and their families, cleared out in the aftermath of the March 2004 riots that swept across Kosovo. During the unrest, groups of Albanians burned roughly 90 homes and 40 apartments in Obiliq belonging to Serbs. A number of local Roma were also driven away and had their homes looted.
According to Popović, since 2018 all of his school’s students are Roma. He explains that currently there are five classes. The class for the youngest students has five children in total between first and fifth grade. They share the same room while a single teacher rotates between the students. The 13 other students are divided between 5th and 8th grade.
Popović said that the school has a staff of 20 teachers. This is more than one teacher per student.
Serbia provides a few hundred million euros each year to maintain their parallel systems in Kosovo. Critics argue that the system is a way to hand out jobs to Kosovar Serbs and to keep them loyal both to Srpska Lista, the overwhelmingly dominant Serb political party in Kosovo, and the government in Belgrade. Schools and healthcare in particular provide a large number of public jobs.
It is common for employees of Serbian schools in Kosovo to be simultaneously on the payroll of the Serbian and the Kosovar systems. Sahit Zeqiri, the head of Obiliq’s Municipal Directorate of Education told K2.0 that the staff of all Serbian schools in the municipality are on Kosovo’s government payroll, with the exception of Branko Radičević.
'Branko Radičević is not a school. They mistreat the Roma children and manipulate them
with a monthly scholarship.'
- Sahit Zeqiri
He and Rexhep Zeka, who led the directorate until a few months ago, said that they removed Branko Radičević staff from the payroll.
“Branko Radičević is not a school,” Zeqiri said. “They mistreat the Roma children and manipulate them with a monthly scholarship. Those children are not from Obiliq. They are from Plemetin and are taken from there everyday with a van just to keep the school open.”
Like the case in North Mitrovica, most of the children who attend Branko Radičević in Obiliq speak Romani or Albanian at home and have trouble adapting to the Serbian-language school environment. Popović too mentions the problems caused by language. “Those who attend lower classes speak Romani and Albanian language and can barely adapt,” he said, adding that by the time the students reach the higher grades, they have a better grasp of Serbian.
Zeka said that the Directorate of Education removed the staff from the payroll a few years ago after they found out that only Roma are attending the school.
“When we got the information that those children were being manipulated, the Directorate of Education didn’t recognize it anymore as a legal school. We removed them from the payroll and don’t want to participate in that abuse,” Zeka said.
K2.0 spoke with Kosovar Minister of Education Arbërie Nagavci about the general findings of our investigation. She said, “The issue of Serbian schools is a very complex political issue as they are schools not controlled by Kosovo’s institutions.”
Contrary to assertions from NGOs and activists who say they’ve been raising the issue with education authorities for years, Nagavci said, “We don’t have any information that there is segregation,” and, “we don’t have these reports from schools, but now we’ll try to do anything we can and intervene in this.”
She added that the ministry now plans to send inspectors and recommendations if needed to relevant municipalities and schools. When asked about Kosovo’s role in covering payroll for Serbian-run schools and whether this gives Kosovo some degree of control or oversight she deferred, saying that the responsibility rests at the level of the municipality to deal with this issue, based on the Law on Education in the Municipalities.
“This Law on Education in the Municipalities is a result of Ahtisaari Plan, and was exclusively created to give extensive competencies to Municipalities with a Serb majority,” she said.
Policies addressing the ongoing school segregation must take into account the challenges impoverished Roma families face.
Isak Skenderi, the director of the NGO Voice of Roma, Ashkali and Egyptians, said the vulnerable position of impoverished people from these communities “is manipulated and exploited.” He describes how after the war many Serbian schools in Kosovo continued to function despite having almost no students. “In order to justify the existence of these schools and to continue receiving teachers’ salaries, there was the need to populate the school, and they used children from the [Roma, Ashkali and Egyptian] communities,” he said.
According to Roma Versitas Kosovo’s Avni Mustafa, “This is what enables segregation. You have one professor per grade, meaning more [Serbs] employed in Kosovo. More people in the system. Simple as that.”
Skenderi said that during his work, he has encountered cases where teachers would directly pay children or their parents small sums of money to keep them in school and thus justify the continued existence of teaching positions at the “ghost school.”
“We had cases, I am not sure if it happened in the last two years since the pandemic started, but before the pandemic I know that some children in Serbian schools would have financial offers to continue in a specific school,” Skenderi said. “I heard about the Obiliq case and also other schools that have a low number of children. Otherwise, those schools would be closed.”
Skenderi was careful to note that he thinks the conversation about these financial handouts must start from a place of empathy. Policies addressing the ongoing school segregation must, he thinks, take into account the challenges impoverished Roma families face and help them get out of the vicious cycle of poverty without further stigmatizing them.
Janjevë and Bresje (Fushë Kosova)
Activists claim that similar types of school segregation are occurring in Serbian-run schools in Janjevë and in Bresje, a village near Fushë Kosova. Like in other cases, the need for support from the Serbian welfare system leads many Romani-speaking or Albanian-speaking Roma families to enroll their children in the Serbian-run system, where they are largely separate from their non-Roma peers.
The director of the Kosovar school in Janjevë told K2.0 that his school has 212 students, all Albanian, while the Serbian school operating in the same building has 46 students, most of whom are Roma, alongside a handful of Croats.
In Bresje, Albanian, Ashkali, Egyptian and some Roma children attend the Albanian-language school “Daut Bogujevci” in the Kosovo system, while a group of primarily Roma children attend the Serbian-language school “Aca Marović,” which operates in the same building.
Avni Mustafa has heard from communities in Obiliq how the current situation arose.
He says that after 2004 when most Serbs left Obiliq, the town’s Serbian school suddenly had almost no students and was in “competition,” according to Mustafa, with the Serbian school in Plemetina, a village a few minutes drive down the road from Obiliq. “Some Roma from Plemetina decided to send their children to [the Serbian school in] Obiliq because children were getting scholarships. Scholarships are awarded from teachers. It is a small amount of money,” Mustafa said.
While Obiliq has few Roma or Ashkali, Plemetina is an ethnically diverse place.
The Serbian-run elementary school “Sveti Sava” in Plemetina, attended by Roma and Serb students, shares a school yard with “Pandeli Sotiri,” the Albanian-language elementary school under Kosovo’s school system that is attended by Ashkali and Albanian students.
Activists like Mustafa think that Plemetina’s children should all attend school in Plemetina, rather than some of them being bussed to a different town to justify keeping an empty school functioning.
“It is logical, right? The children are from Plemetin yet they go to Obiliq,” he said. “The bus takes them to the school every day.”
Popović denies that teachers give students money to attend his school, but he confirms that the majority of children attending the school are from Plemetina.
“Five children here are from Obilić, but the others are from Plemetina,” he said. “But they are not children originally from Plemetina. They are children from the Plemetina camps, and some live in social housing buildings and some have houses built there.”
The Roma and Ashkali families that live in social housing in Plemetina are among the most impoverished communities in Kosovo. They were displaced during and after the war and moved to Plemetina from different parts of Kosovo and have lived for years in the village’s refugee camps.
Popović rejects criticism that the out-of-the-ordinary school set-up represents segregation of Roma children. Instead, he asks rhetorically whether there were any attempts to enroll these children in Kosovo-run schools in Plemetina.
“I don’t think that other possibilities are better. Just worse. Here in Obilić, there are many Serbian families that didn’t sell their properties. There is a chance for them to come back. Why don’t they? You should ask the Ministry of Return and Communities,” he said. “If the school closes, where should we send those children whose families will come back? Then we would need to send them to Plemetina and close this 100-year-old school.”
There are persistent anecdotes about ethnic segregation in the Serbian-run elementary school Sveti Sava in Plemetina as well, though K2.0 was not able to fully confirm them. Mustafa from Roma Versitas Kosova says that he and other local parents from Plemetina are aware of cases where some classes had only Roma children.
School authorities from Sveti Sava told K2.0 in a statement, “We cannot comment very much on this. When there are only Roma in one class it is because there are more Roma than Serb children attending the school and sometimes Roma are divided into two classrooms while Serb children are in one mixed class.”
According to Sahit Zeqiri, the head of Obiliq’s Municipal Directorate of Education, there are 108 Roma and 81 Serbian children attending Sveti Sava.
The ghetto school in Gjilan
A small schoolhouse sits in the Roma neighborhood of Gjilan, reminiscent of the segregated improvised schools Albanians were forced to attend in private homes during the period of the 1990s parallel education system.
The Roma children of the neighborhood are enrolled at this schoolhouse, the Serbian-run Vuk Karadžić Elementary School, located inside the private home of a Roma family. From its architecture to the small yard, it looks like any other house in the neighborhood.
The school is another example of a Serbian-run school institution that kept its institutional identity but has been physically relocated after the war. Moving from the building known today as the Thimi Mitko Elementary School in Gjilan, after the war, Vuk Karadžić Elementary moved to a different building in the Serb village of Šilovo, a five minute drive from Gjilan’s city center.
Despite the school having its main building and management located in the village, it has smaller satellite units that are officially part of the same institution. One of these is located in Gjilan and attended by fewer than a dozen students, mostly Serbs. The other one, attended by almost 70 Roma children, is in the Roma neighborhood.
The organization Voice of Roma, Ashkali and Egyptians has run a supplementary learning center in the neighborhood for years. Skenderi, the NGO’s director, said that the existence of this ghettoized school is a result of discrimination towards the community.
He says that the school was formed in the period after the war when Roma children who were enrolled in the Serbian education system were attacked by Albanians on their way to school. In response, the community opened a school inside their own neighborhood in order to avoid what had become a dangerous commute.
Teachers at the school confirmed this story, stating that parents’ decision to enroll their children there is based on principles of safety and well-being.
“For parents it is much easier and safer to have their children not away from the neighborhood,” said one Serb teacher. The teachers are employed through the Serbian education system, use the Serbian curriculum and generally commute to the neighborhood from nearby Šilovo.
Though the school is part of the Serbian education system, there is evidence of cooperation between the school and the Kosovo education system. The owner of the building told K2.0 that the municipality of Gjilan pays the monthly rent.
K2.0 reached out to the municipal education directorate in Gjilan for comment but did not receive a reply.
Skenderi insists that the house-school made sense only when the safety concerns were pressing and that an intervention has been needed for years now.
“Although the reason to open the school is a safety issue, the damage that this decision brought is huge,” he said. “The question is why is this not changing? Why don’t parents decide differently? Why is the school not getting transferred to its original premises?”
K2.0 emailed a number of offices within the Serbian education ministry as well as the Office for Kosovo and Metohija, the Serbian government office responsible for Serbian administration in Kosovo, to give them a chance to reply to the content of this article, but none have responded.
Discrimination and exclusion beyond Serbian schools
As the examples from North Mitrovica, Obiliq and Gjilan show, there is overt school segregation of Roma and Ashkali children in the Serbian-run school system in Kosovo. But the Kosovo school system too falls short of an inclusive approach to educating Roma, Ashkali and Egyptian children.
Kosovar institutions are still working to remove the stain of segregation from around 10 years ago. Though the case in Gjakova got the most attention, Roma, Ashkali and Egyptian children in Fushë Kosova and Ferizaj were also being kept in separate classrooms from their Albanian peers.
In Gjakova, a court verdict concluded that with the classroom segregation at Mustafa Bakija Elementary school between 2011 and 2013, the “Municipal Education Department of Gjakova discriminated against Roma, Ashkali and Egyptian children on a racist and ethnic basis.”
The court granted each affected individual 2,741 euros as monetary compensation. But according to Armend Behluli, who works for the municipal Communities Office in Gjakova, “The damage was already done, and sometimes it is a very spiritual damage.”
“In Gjakova, children and parents didn’t know what ‘segregation’ means, but they just knew that they are being divided based on ethnicity and that gives you a very bad feeling about yourself,” Behluli said. “It gives a bad feeling to parents as they take their children to school to get educated.”
Activists from across Kosovo report that poor treatment of Roma, Ashkali and Egyptian children by school staff remains an ongoing problem and that neglect and other forms of discrimination are still widespread.
'When I was going to school and there was anyone calling me 'cigan,' the feeling wasn’t good.'
- Avni Mustafa
“The majority of schools have this concept of integration that is different from inclusion. If you brought the child to the school it doesn’t mean that you have included all children equally. The concept of inclusion remains still unclear for directors and teachers,” said Muhamet Arifi, director of the Roma, Ashkali and Egyptian education NGO Balkan Sunflowers Kosova. Arifi has previously commented for K2.0 about how children from these communities are often told to sit in the back of class and are not encouraged to participate in extracurricular activities with other children.
All the activists K2.0 spoke to see these patterns of discimination taking place today and say that a number of schools in the Kosovo school system have in recent years created classrooms where Roma, Ashkali and Egyptian students are segregated from their peers. They report that only through persistent monitoring, pressure and complaints by activists and parents from the Roma, Ashkali and Egyptian communities have these segregated classrooms been halted.
Avni Mustafa from Roma Versitas noted that segregation isn’t only a problem because of academic achievement; it causes long-lasting psychological damage.
“When I was going to school and there was anyone calling me ‘cigan,’ the feeling wasn’t good,” Mustafa said, referring to an ethnic slur for Roma. “And we were in mixed classes. Imagine children who are in a segregated class, how this will work on their self-esteem.”
“This is not just a violation of children’s rights, this is a violation of human dignity,” said Mustafa’s colleague Sebastian Šerifović. Despite being outraged at the segregation, Šerifović isn’t optimistic that discrimination will stop if segregation comes to an end.
“Does it make a difference?” he asked. “Of course there are other problems but again you have children who are [in mixed classes], and have the same problems with discrimination.”
He recalls the time his son came home from school and asked him what “cigan” means. “My heart broke because I didn’t raise my child to teach him about ‘cigan’ or discrimination,” he said.
He concluded that unequal treatment of the Roma, Ashkali and Egyptian children is a reflection of how society and the state sees these communities.
“And then people ask the question: ‘Why do Roma live in communities? Why don’t they integrate?’ Really? It is you who are isolating them,” Šerifović said. “Society is isolating them and then you expect them to integrate? How can they integrate if they don’t trust you?”
Feature Image: Ferdi Limani / K2.0.
This publication was published with the financial support of the European Union as part of the project “Citizens Engage”, implemented by K2.0 in partnership with GAP Institute. Its contents are the sole responsibility of Kosovo 2.0 and GAP Institute and do not necessarily reflect the views of the European Union.
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