To improve the living conditions of an entire social group, it makes sense to start by helping their children. Numerous organisations in the Balkan countries have therefore opened day care centres that take in children from socially disadvantaged groups. One desired side effect is the ability to establish close contact to parents.
Some call Irena Velkoska the ‘mother of Šutka’, and when you visit her at work, it becomes clear why. ‘I always try to do as much as I can. If there is no more food, then I bring some from home,’ says Velkoska. ‘You can’t just shut the doors and leave the kids to fend for themselves.’ Velkoska works in Šuto Orizari, a neighbourhood in the north of the Macedonian capital of Skopje. It is the largest Roma settlement in Europe and the only municipality where Romani is the official language. In 2006, the nongovernmental organisation Defense for Children’s Rights (DCR) opened a day care centre at the heart of the neighbourhood. Since then, Irena Velkoska, social worker Vasilka Jovanoska and their colleagues have been working to develop opportunities for Roma families.
At 8 am, when the day care centre opens, the first children are already waiting impatiently at the door. Unshowered children are showered, then they all sit down for breakfast. After breakfast, classes aimed at preparing children for school and supporting those who are struggling start. The centre works closely alongside the school. Often this process begins with a discussion with the school administration about how to admit the large amount of children who do not have a birth certificate. Over the eight hours during which the centre is open, it is not unusual for one hundred or more children to come through its doors. Once inside, they are taken care of by a small team of social workers, psychologists and teachers.
Social work that is also aimed at parents
Many of the children who come are socially neglected and sent to beg by their parents. ‘These children were brought up on the streets,’ says Vasilka, who has been working at the day care centre since 2009. In order for this to change, social work here also focuses on the parents. The staff tries to convince them that they are responsible for the development of their children and their potential. ‘Children used to be married off at the age of thirteen or fourteen and, back then, that was called tradition,’ says Irena Velkoska. At the day care centre, children and parents alike learn that they have options. Over the years, persistent information campaigns have slowly improved the situation in Šuto Orizari. More and more parents are gradually starting to understand that children are not fit to marry at thirteen. Children too are becoming more assertive and increasingly unwilling to meet such demands. ‘It remains hard work,’ says Irena Velkoska. There have been cases where they have had to report obstinate parents to the police. Nonetheless, the figures reflect the day care centre’s positive impact: in 2017, 80 children received a place at school and 76 successfully finished the first year. Only four dropped out due to marriage. Just a few years ago, less than half of these children would have finished their first year. Back then, around one quarter of pupils were married off or simply disappeared from school.
Fundraising workshops to raise money for social work
This success is also due to the collaborative work with, and the support received from, the GIZ regional project Social Rights for Vulnerable Groups. Irina Velkoska and the day care centre staff have learnt a great deal about fundraising and accounting in the training sessions organised by the project and thereby bolstered the material basis of their work. The supra-regional exchange programmes and the insights they offer into social work in other towns within the Western Balkans also brought new ideas and fresh enthusiasm. They can therefore now set themselves higher goals and help ‘their’ children to gain an opportunity to earn money once they finish school, for example by selling the professionally published street newspaper ‘Face to Face’, a cooperation partner of the GIZ regional project Social Rights for Vulnerable Groups. Irena Velkoska and her colleagues are particularly proud of Selma, the first Romni here in the north of Skopje to finish secondary school. ‘Many families do not see education as a way out of poverty,’ Irena Velkoska explains. ‘This forces us to work even harder.’
Text: FLMH | Photos: ©BENNY GOLM