What returnees need most urgently

For their countries of origin, people who emigrate appear to have vanished. This creates a huge problem for the thousands of people returning to the countries of the Western Balkans. Not only do they generally have to start again from scratch; often, they also do not have the documents that could secure them and their children a fresh start. Thankfully, there is one organisation in Macedonia that is helping returnees resolve their issues – both big and small.

As far as their native countries are concerned, people who emigrate without informing the authorities, which is relatively common in the Balkans, have officially vanished without a trace. For returnees to most Balkan countries, the situation quickly becomes a nightmare when they are simply ignored by public authorities. Kosovo is so far the only country with an established practice of registering returnees without a lot of paperwork. For children born in foreign countries, however, the situation is particularly difficult. It is a problem regularly faced by youth worker Marina Mechmedow, who works for the Roma Community Centre in the Macedonian town of Kumanovo. ‘There is not much that people without a personal identification number can do: in the eyes of the state, they just don’t exist,’ she explains. They do not have papers or a birth certificate and when they do, they often cannot afford to have them translated. ‘In such cases,’ says Marina Mechmedow, ‘the children cannot be registered at school.’

But things are set to change in Kumanovo. The nongovernmental organisation DROM, which means ‘street’ in Romani, has been struggling to improve the living conditions of Roma here for over twenty years. Since 2015, its staff has increasingly focused on the challenges faced by returnees. They receive support from the GIZ regional project Social Rights for Vulnerable Groups which aims to strengthen the social and human rights of disadvantaged groups in the countries of the Western Balkans. With the help of the project, DROM was able to open a child day care centre for disadvantaged children in one of the city’s community centres. Currently, around 30 three- to five-year-old children come to the day care centre. Professional kindergarten teachers take care of them and they have books and toys at their disposal which are things that most of these children do not have at home.

Workshops for returnees help raise awareness of opportunities and rights

‘We thought about what returnees needed most urgently,’ says Miki Ristovski, a project coordinator at DROM. ‘This is how we set up the day care centre.’ In particular, the centre extends its services to families whose children are not accepted into state day care centres because they do not have the proper documents. ‘We believe,’ says Miki Ristovski, ‘that if we foster their talents at an early age, children will also do better later at school.’

‘The children who come here are from the local Roma communities, which tend to be socially isolated,’ says Marina Mechmedow. ‘At school, they will first have to learn Macedonian, which immediately puts them at a disadvantage to the other children. That’s why I only speak Macedonian with them. But as I am Romni and speak Romani, it’s easier for me to talk to their parents and gain their trust.’ Organising parent workshops is an important aspect of the work with returnee families.

The GIZ regional project ‘Social Rights for Vulnerable Groups’ and DROM have jointly developed a concept for this. Once a month, at least fifteen people – men and women – meet for two days to discuss their problems and receive information and advice. Marina Mechmedow is involved here too. ‘The workshops are designed to be as open as possible and take place in a friendly atmosphere,’ she says. ‘We talk about everything, from how to fill out particular forms to the importance of identity documents; we even discuss human rights. Ultimately, we want people to become more independent so that they are aware of their social rights and stand up for them.’

Macedonia could solve its problems by itself … if people no longer had to emigrate

DROM has been providing assistance to around 200 returnee families – around eight hundred people since 2015. They often maintain contact, even after workshops have ended. Marina Mechmedow often bumps into former participants on the streets of the local neighbourhood. When she does, she is eager to hear how things are going. ‘If I see them, and they tell me how their situation has improved,’ says Mechmedow, ‘then that makes me feel really great. It motivates me to continue working.’ Meanwhile, back in the DROM office, emails come in from Roma in Germany, telling the organisation that they will soon be returning to Macedonia (voluntarily or involuntarily) and asking for resettlement assistance.

Ahmet Jasharovski, the director of DROM, is optimistic: ‘Things are changing in Kumanovo thanks to our work.’ But he has his sights set even higher. ‘We don’t want people to emigrate in the first place; they should be able to stay here in this country,’ he says. DROM, which is a small organisation, has six open posts – and Macedonia is a country with high unemployment rates. ‘So many people leave,’ complains Jasharovski, ‘because they see no opportunities.’ Nonetheless, he is convinced that Macedonia could solve its problems on its own. ‘If social rights are recognised and implemented as human rights, nobody will feel forced to emigrate.’


Text: FLMH | Photos: ©BENNY GOLM