From a cold hospital to a warm family
Shaha and Fari: a foster family’s journey
It was a freezing cold winter morning in Prishtina in 2005. Shaha was wandering through the corridors of an old hospital in the city centre, trying to find an exit after visiting her nephew who had been hospitalized with a bad case of influenza. The crumbling corridors, with their flaking green paint, led her to a small, unwelcoming room with a tiny window. The room was empty, apart from a small baby lying unattended in a hospital bed.
“I rushed to the hospital staff to ask them why the baby had been left alone,” Shaha tells us, recalling vividly the day she decided to become a foster parent more than 13 years ago.
“I was told that the girl didn’t have parents, that she had been abandoned and had been staying in the hospital for almost a year.”
The baby had been born with Spina Bifida, meaning that her spinal cord hadn’t developed properly in the womb, and Hydrocephalus, which left her with an accumulation of cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) within her brain.
Shaha knew instantly that she wanted to care for that baby. As a home-maker, married to a worker in a local nickel-processing plant, Shaha wasn’t sure whether they could afford to support a foster child. But she says she couldn’t bear to see the baby (who we will call Rina to protect her identity) stay in that hospital room. She knew in her heart that a loving family and a warm home must be much better for Rina’s development than a lonely bed in a cold hospital.
When Shaha went to the centre for social work (CSW) to see how she could become Rina’s foster parent, the director began by listing all of Rina’s health problems. Shaha told him that she already knew all about them and didn’t need to hear any more: “I was ready to give her a home and care for her,” Shaha says.
Thirteen years of loving care
It has now been more than 13 years since that fateful day at the hospital. Shaha and Fari invite us into their lovely home in Fushe-Kosovo. Rina is now 13 years-old and welcomes us with a big smile. After so many years together, Rina now happily calls Shaha and Fari mom and dad. “I went to a music course, and I learned how to play the piano,” Rina tells us enthusiastically, sharing that she wants to become a pianist when she grows up.
Shaha and Fari have four children of their own and, since they were selected as foster parents, they have cared for three foster children, including Rina.
Like all foster parents in Kosovo (UNSCR 1244), Shaha and Fari receive financial assistance and psychological support services. They have had training organized by UNICEF and its partner, the Organisation of Children without the parental Care (OFAP), to learn how to provide all the psychosocial support that Rina needs to develop properly. They meet other foster parents and their children on a regular basis to share experiences and receive counselling and resources from social workers on a wide range of issues including child health, nutrition, and psychosocial development.
Shaha tells us that she and her husband have always done their best to provide a loving and caring family environment to Rina and ensure her health and well-being. In fact, she says, after only a few months at their home, Rina had shown such positive psychosocial improvements that social workers could hardly believe it. “We love her like our own daughter,” Shaha says.
It has not always been easy, Shaha explains. The family has faced plenty of challenges while raising Rina. When the family moved to a new house, for example, the local school refused to enrol Rina because it lacked the necessary support staff. To this day, she still hasn’t been able to get enrolled in school and enjoy the right to education.
The urgent need for more foster families
According to the Ministry of Labour and Social Welfare (MLSW) and implementing partner OFAP, 34 children in Kosovo were abandoned immediately after birth by single mothers in 2017. The reasons for abandoning their babies varied, but the challenges are thought to include unplanned pregnancies among young girls, lack of education on reproductive health, poverty, discriminatory social norms and cultural beliefs that stigmatise girls who fall pregnant outside marriage, and the absence of national or municipal support mechanisms.
Despite the pressing need for foster families, OFAP reports that the number of foster parents in Kosovo is very low, with just 44 foster families in the whole of Kosovo. Shaha and Fari are the only foster family in Fushe-Kosovo Municipality, and there are only two such families in Pristina. When it comes to foster families for children with disabilities, this number falls even lower, with just 10 foster care families in Kosovo.
As a result, children who should be in foster care end up in institutions that are no substitute for the care provided by a family. Children placed in institutions are deprived of social, emotional and intellectual stimulation, which can hamper the healthy development of a child’s brain. Shut away from mainstream society, these children are also particularly vulnerable to violence, neglect and abuse. The overall impact of child institutionalization is severe and can last a lifetime.
UNICEF is determined that all of these children – like Rina – will grow up in a safe, loving and nurturing family environment. We are working with the Ministry of Labour and Social Welfare (MLSW) and OFAP to strengthen the foster care system, cut the number of children living in institutional care and ensure that all children are protected from violence, abuse, exploitation and neglect.
We are committed to helping the Government strengthen laws and policies to fully integrate the UN Guidelines for Alternative Care of Children without parental care and strengthen the child protection system in Kosovo.