border crossing

There are a lot of borders to cross in Kosovo, and each day i spend living and working in the Roma mahala i am learning about them, espescially when traveling into the Albanian community with Roma friends.  It’s not just the Serbian border to the north and east, where Serbia doesnt have immigration or customs because that would mean recognizing Kosovo as an independent country…but the borders of ethnicity, race, gender, poverty…the borders that the  trauma of war has left behind….

…..  today, the heat, the constant smell of burning trash and burning fields, being trapped in an enclave protected by police, the hyper-patriarchy, the trauma that war and poverty have created… are wieghing on me. its one of those days where Kosovo feels like a prison of sorts. I don’t mean to cry you a river of crocodile tears… and I don’t want to sound culturally inappropriate….i know im the one with the privilege of leaving (to another country or just to another neighborhood), of skin color, of passport and nationality…….im just tired..perhaps a coffee is all i need..

…… and don’t get me wrong, im actually doing great, the classes are wonderful! I really love and care about the kids… we have a lot of fun and were learning together. Im learning a lot about humility and patience. Im learning about the kids, their lives… what works in class, what doesn’t…how to be a good teacher…

Yesterday I had a day off and I was at the education center by myself, cleaning up and making room on the walls for new lessons and more art that the younger students and I make together. The classroom is pretty small, and there is only one small white board for writing and explaining lessons. I use big sheets of white paper for new lessons and I tape them to the walls of the classroom… sometimes it looks like the room is made of paper…paper and drawings of cats, dogs, houses, flowers, robots….things I make and a lot of stuff that the students make.

Anyway, while cleaning up the center I heard 2 girls outside smoking a cigarette just in front of the door. They come here to smoke because its one of the few places outdoors in Preoce where no one can see you, as the road dead ends at the school. Its also the place where some of the teenagers come to make out…so im told. (somehow ive become the holder of quite a number of teenage secrets in the mahala).

These two girls are students in the beginner English class.  I heard them talking about the lesson we did together last Friday.. “it’s a red house, it’s a blue star, it’s a pink flower” etc. I invited them in and we talked as best we could in English and Romanese. These two girls are best friends, bad asses, trouble makers, smoking at 13 years old..  total pottie mouths… we have a lot of fun in class together.

One of the girl’s father was murdered in 2001 “after” the war. He was one of 4 Roma men looking for work in Pristina, when he was kidnapped and killed by some members of the KLA.  She now lives with her mom and extended family and is currently my neighbor.

It was nice to see them outside of the context of the classroom, and to see that we were friends, as well as having our teacher and student relationship. They acted totally different towards me, as if they let their tough girl guard down because there weren’t other students around. Anyway, I feel like this one encounter has changed our relationship in class for the better…and they are actually doing their homework now. And just as wonderful…. they invited me to their homes for coffee!

Everyday most of my time is spent with kids, from classtime to just being in the street making up games to play… I actually have to hide to get any time alone. And sometime hiding means going into an Albanian community…

…I can walk down the road anytime to “another world”, to the Albanian petrol station and have a coffee or a pizza… it’s a 15-minute walk and most of the Roma folks I know have never even been there.

and on the football pitch…

..somebody is always burning garbage and toxic whiffs of it ride the slight breeze this morning. Its already 33 C. Its 730 am, I’m sweating and I’m hoping for rain. … I read that its pouring in Croatia!… please come this way storm clouds…PLEASE !

Every year there are two memorial football tournaments in Preoce. The first is a 10 day long Serb memorial tournament and the second is the 1 day Roma memorial tournament.

In the first, Serb teams from all over the area came to compete at the asphalt football pitch in the center of the village. In 2002 two Serbian men were killed when they drove over an IUD planted by the UCK (KLA) Kosovo liberation army (U.S backed Albanian Army).This was three years after the war had officially ended. This football match is in their honor.

Although the games were fun to watch with the Roma kids and family’s from the mahala ( Roma neighborhood), there was a very real apartied in effect.  Even though Roma and Serbs live together in the KFOR (NATO police force) protected enclaves of Kosovo, there were no Roma players on any of the teams, which everyone of my students made sure to tell me. The bleachers were full of Serbs cheering for their favorite teams, while all the Roma families sat or stood on the grass outside the fence of the football field. The separation was unofficial and yet complete. Very late in the games one night, I saw some of the Roma teenagers start to move warily from outside the fence into the corners of the bleachers, seemingly testing the waters to see what they could get away with.

On the last evening, during the finals of the tournament, when emotions were high, (as high as the level of intoxication), I stood near the corner of the bleachers (outside the fence) with some Roma boys from the neighborhood. A small army of Serb teenagers walked by repeatedly trying to stare us down and laughing, claiming their turf.. …. Although I looked them in the eye each time they passed, none of the Roma boys dared. After 15 minutes of this intimidation, I asked my teenage friends if they wanted to leave. All agreed we should go, so we walked back home together. On the way back home, Elvis *, my friend as well as one of my students, told me that this same kind of thing also happens at school. ….that fights break out, that Roma kids get laughed at. Its not that there isn’t genuine friendship between some Serb kids and Roma kids, there is, it’s the pervasive prejudice that the Roma face everyday that was so apparent that night.

*yup that’s right Elvis is a common Romani name in Kosovo, as Elvis Presley is said to have Romani blood, I don’t know if he ever identified with his Romani ancestry.

Roma Memorial Football Tournament

One week later was the Roma memorial football tournament, a one-day event, commemorating the brutal killing of two Roma men from Preoce. In 2001, there were 4 Romani men from Preoce who were in Pristina, the capital of Kosovo, looking for work. They were threatened and told to leave the city by some Albanian men. Some Albanians see the Roma as Serb collaborators during the war, although there is no evidence to back this up. It’s unclear to me if these Albanian men were members of the UCK  (KLA Kosovo liberation army).  Two of the Romani men were kidnapped and brutally murdered and two of the men escaped and now live abroad. The murdered men’s bodies weren’t identified until 2 years later by KFOR.

The tournament lasted about 8 hrs with the town of Lapiselo (with the red “FLY EMIRATES” jerseys) being the victors. Everyone got to play, (all males that is) from the little kids to the adults. It was great to see some of my friends playing, they are such good players…amazing! Unlike the Serb tournament, where lots of Roma family’s came out to watch, there were only a handful of Serbs at the Roma tournament. When I asked my dear friend Hisen why this was, his response “we’re just dirty gypsies to them”… and again its not universally true, as Hisen would say later, but just where were all the Serbs at the Roma tournament?

When the tournament was over, there was a celebration for the victors  at Hisen and Sadeta’s house. Everyone came back from the match with bloody knees (asphalt football pitch) and stories of the best goals and biggest mistakes.

Lapiselo!