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Adolescents and youth

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New Skills, New Friends: Adolescents in Emergencies

© UNICEF Kosovo/2015/ Kadriu
Uresa, Arbnor, Albrin and Alma working together on their new project “Let’s See”

UPSHIFT: Putting Adolescents and Youth in the Driving Seat of Change
By: Agon Maliqi

Meet the Ferizaj four
Uresa, Arbnor, Albrin and Alma - four young people from the city of Ferizaj, Kosovo  – are not exactly the stereotypical kids that older generations worry about these days: using their out of school time idling on social media, playing whatever new smartphone game, and aimlessly going out and about with friends. Of course, being teenagers, it’s normal that they also do a lot of that. Their hometown – half an hour drive from Prishtina – is buzzing with the energy of young people who, lacking opportunities for more meaningful engagement, spend their time in downtown cafés, talking about everything from local gossip, to sports, to global affairs. 

The members of this team of four share the concerns of those around them about the lack of opportunity.  Like many of their peers, they’re not content with being life’s bystanders—unemployed, disenfranchised, and disconnected like a majority of Kosovo’s young people . But, promisingly, Uresa, Arbnor, Albrin and Alma also share with many of Kosovo’s young people a special drive: when they see something wrong in their community, they insist on making a difference regardless of the challenge. 

“Most young people around here are individualistic and do things only if there is something in it for them. We want to do something for the community as well”, says Albrin, a sharp seventeen year old member of the group with black rimmed glasses who says he wants to study architecture.

Far too often, however, young people like the Ferizaj four can’t find the right platforms to channel their altruistic energy and creative ideas. So they end up succumbing to the cynicism of the environment, and accepting—albeit unhappily—the disempowerment and disenfranchisement that pervades Kosovo’s adolescents and youth. The Ferizaj group, however, were lucky to have found one such platform earlier this year. It’s actually that platform that brought them together—by enabling them to build and lead a solution to a social challenge in their community.

The story of the Ferizaj four started back in February of 2015 when they separately received notice about an information session for an upcoming workshop. At the session, staff members from the UNICEF Innovations Lab informed them and other young people from their region about the chance to take part in a unique three-day workshop called UPSHIFT. They learned that the workshop would teach them project development and, depending on how well they performed, provide them with the means to implement an initiative of their own. Eligibility was simple: be between the ages of 15 and 24, create a group of two to four, and identify a social challenge in their community that they would like to address, tell the Innovations Lab what you think the causes are, and convey the story of a real person impacted by the problem. They were taught to conduct research with their peers, families, and communities in order to identify and understand an issue.

At that time of the information session, the four young people knew one another only as acquaintances and so, as they spoke to one another, they ended up forming a group. Soon after, as they were surveying citizens in downtown Ferizaj, fishing for an issue they could work on, a woman told them the touching story of her son’s eyesight problems and her inability to afford a pair of glasses.
“I recalled that a cousin of mine also had chronic headache problems for a very long time that later on turned out to be caused by an eye problem. So we started to think about how there is very little awareness about optical health in our community that causes suffering for many”, says Urtesa, a teenager who sometimes speaks with the poise and intellect of a graduate student. 

“Let’s see” project

In mid-May 2015, and spring was in full bloom. Four months had passed since the group first identified the issue of optical health and two months since they attended the UPSHIFT workshop. By now they are well into the final stages of implementing project “Let’s see” and are feeling transformed by the entire experience.  They had just finished a tour of ten primary schools where, joined by an ophthalmologist, they held awareness activities with around 400 schoolchildren about the importance of optical health. During these lessons, they also played a short fiction film which they made by themselves. It tells the story of a kid who can’t play football and can’t sit with his best friend at the classroom’s last-row bench because he can’t see the blackboard clearly from there. He realizes that a visit to the doctor is a must and that glasses would allow him to learn more and hang out with his friend.  The film was expertly written, directed, produced and distributed to the Ferizaj four. It boasts tracking shots like an Alfonso Cuaron film.  It has nearly three thousand views on YouTube after one month. At UPSHIFT, while developing the project idea, the group concluded that one of the reasons why kids and parents resist using glasses is the concern about their physical appearance. So they made sure they addressed that issue in the film’s script. “The glasses make you look smart!” the friend tells the film’s main character.  “I think that the special thing about UPSHIFT is that it made us analyze the optical health problem very thoroughly by separately identifying all of the causes that lead to it and how they relate to each other”, says Alma, the youngest of the group.

Helping adolescents drive social change

In development assistance and government circles, there is a lot of talk about getting young people like the Ferizaj four engaged in the kinds of social impact projects like “Let’s see”. It’s one of those heart-warming and romanticized ideals that very often end up as empty rhetoric, resulting with policies, laws and programs that are too vague and general to have any tangible impact.

For several years now, UNICEF Innovation Lab in Kosovo has worked on changing this approach to adolescents’ empowerment through the “By Youth For Youth” (BYFY) pillar of its program, funded by the Austrian Development Agency. 

The Lab saw BYFY’s role as an incubator bridging the gap between ideas and impact; giving wings to adolescents’ potential, if we’re to speak metaphorically. 
As a methodical approach to creating young change makers, UPSHIFT promises to be easily implemented in nearly any context. In fact, the meme has already travelled: the BYFY program and the UPSHIFT methodology developed in Kosovo have been chosen by UNICEF Innovation as one of the five project initiatives for global scale-up, plans are in motion to replicate the programme in other countries around the world.

Past Updates: 

New Skills, New Friends: Adolescents in Emergencies - PDF
Indicators on Adolescents: UNICEF and Partners Agree on a Set of Indicators to Monitor Adolescent Development and Well-being - PDF



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