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A home full of everyone’s children

© UNICEF Albania/04-0433/G. Pirozzi
Drita Mema helps a child at a Garden of Mothers and Children in Tirana

Home-based pre-schools are helping young children get ready for schools in 59 communities 

It was a cold winter in 1993 when Drita Mema and her husband decided to leave their village in Kukes, northern Albania, and seek another place to live, hoping to find a better life for their children. After the collapse of the Communist regime in 1991, state jobs had evaporated, and it was impossible to earn a living in the isolated north.

“When I first arrived on the outskirts of Tirana (the capital) I had no house and nothing to live with,” she remembers. “I walked 2 km twice a day every day to collect water to make bricks and help my husband to build our house here.”
 
But hope turned to tragedy when her husband was shot to death on his way to work. Ms Mema, age 33, was left alone with full responsibility for her three children: Zamira, now 15; Edlira, 13; and Albert, 9. She found a temporary job sewing shoes for a factory, earning 3,000 lek per month (about Euro 25) -- enough only to buy bread, sugar and beans. She worked at home at night by candlelight as her days were full of caring for her children. Ms Mema’s life began to improve when the first Garden of Mothers and Children opened in her neighbourhood.

But in October 2002 Ms Mema’s life began to improve. That was when the first Garden of Mothers and Children opened in her neighbourhood, sponsored by UNICEF and implemented by Christian Children’s Fund. Although crèches were universally available during the Communist regime, the public preschool system collapsed in the aftermath of the change in government and few child-care centres remain. The project provides a place where children aged 1 to 6 come together to play and learn and get ready for school. Children under three come with their mothers.

A safe space in an informal settlement

“The area where I live is difficult, as most of the families were isolated because of the blood feud [inter-family revenge killings],” she says. “I was afraid for my children too, though the killer of my husband is in prison. At the beginning it was hard for me to be part of the mothers’ group, as our tradition says that after her husband’s death a woman is not allowed to go out of the house alone. My mother-in-law wanted to have complete control of my life. I had to fight this mentality to gain my freedom.”

Ms Mema offered two rooms of her house for the Garden of Mothers and Children, one for children up to 5 years old and one for their mothers. The house she had built with her husband very soon became a shelter for other mothers and children who were socially isolated. 59 Gardens of Mothers and Children have opened around Tirana and in the north of Albania.

Training sessions provided by UNICEF and Christian Children’s Fund helped Ms Mema to learn new things – such as good parenting skills and how to stimulate pre-school children. In October 2001 she became a caregiver herself. Consistent with the training she received, Ms Mema has a detailed work plan for different subjects, including painting, reading and singing.

1,800 children served

So far 59 Gardens of Mothers and Children have opened around Tirana and in the north of Albania. They are serving 1,800 children and 3,600 families. In an effort to involve men in child-rearing, which is typically seen as a woman’s responsibility in this patriarchal country, 90 father volunteers have also been recruited. Funding for each gardens is about $1,800 per year.

© UNICEF Albania/04-0437/G. Pirozzi
Learning to count at Ms Mema’s Garden of Mothers and Children

Water is a daily problem in Bathore, a community of 30,000 that sprang up on the outskirts of Tirana when other families like hers migrated from the north. As a result, Drita’s day starts at 4:30 in the morning, when she walks 20 minutes to collect water. After sending her children to school, she opens the doors of her home for the 20 children and three or four other caregivers. They work with the children for three to four hours a day.

One of the children in Drita’s Garden is Elton, a boy of seven years old from Kukes. Whenever he isn’t at school, he joins the other kids as he loves to be in a group. He likes to play football with his friend Albert and ride a bicycle, but he doesn’t have either a ball or a bicycle.

When other mothers have problems, Drita provides support. “I’d lost faith in myself, but thanks to the staff of CCF and UNICEF, now I’m feeling useful,” she says. “I’m helping those who suffer like me, and this makes me feel good and a complete person.”

Weekly mothers' meeting

Mothers who live nearby like to send their children to Drita’s Garden, as she is a dedicated woman who works hard to help children and mothers to learn more, according to the women who work with her. And twice a week the mothers get together to talk about their daily problems, hopes for future, how to make their lives better.“I like this project because everything here is concrete and real,” she says. " I'm helping those who suffer like me, and this makes me feel good and a complete person."

When asked about her hopes for the future, Drita says she just wants to see her children healthy and getting a good education that will prepare them for the future. It worries her to think that one day she could wake up and have nothing to feed her children.

Drita feels especially confident working with children who are in the greatest difficulty. “I had a case of an isolated girl of age 5, who didn’t know even how to write her name and was a very difficult person to deal with,” she remembers. “It took me two or three months of hard work with her before she learned enough to write, read and interact with other kids. What a joy for me, and for her mother too,” she says, smiling at the memory.

 

 
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