My mother, my heroine

In times of turmoil, a story of love, courage, hope and light

Leonora Aliu
Meriton Binakaj and his mother Ajnishahe Binakaj, at their home in Gjakova.
UNICEF/2020/ L. Aliu
11 June 2020

GJAKOVA, Kosovo,  June 2020 – Not all heroes and heroines have to long capes and masks, fly through the sky, and fight evil. The doctors and nurses who continue to serve selflessly during the COVID-19 pandemic are heroes, as are firefighters, police officers and others. We have everyday heroes, too – they may not have supernatural powers, but powers big enough to change our life so much that we come to embrace life and not give up in the face of greater challenges.

Meriton Binakaj, from Gjakova, has had such a hero for 24 years now: his mother.

Ever since his swimming accident in 2011, when he dove into the Erenik River and hit his head on a stone, which left him paralyzed, his mother has stood beside him, every single day.

Ajnishahe Binakaj, 38, started the battle of protecting her two sons as a single parent in April of 1999, when she lost her husband one day before Meriton turned 4-years-old.

“Meriton’s birthday was on the next day and we were in the camp when Meriton’s uncle and I were looking for candies and caramels to celebrate his birthday. He was a child, he was not aware of what was going on and he was looking for them on the ground,” Ajnishahe says. Meriton chimes in, saying, “I will never forget those candies.” We are meeting them in their three-floor house, in the only room that Meriton has wheelchair-access to. His mother is always there with him.

Meriton Binakaj at “Activate Talks” in 2019 speaking publicly for the first time about his story in front of 600 people.
UNICEF/ 2020/ A. Beqiri
Meriton Binakaj at “Activate Talks” in 2019 speaking publicly for the first time about his story in front of 600 people.

There is a bed with medical equipment and other tools there. Ajnishahe is always there to maintain it and support Meriton.

“My sons are everything to me,” she says as tears form in her eyes.

“Meriton’s accident happened. Since that day, my life is his wellbeing,” Ajnishahe says.

The accident caused Meriton temporary interruption of his education, as a result of not wanting to continue after the accident first, problems with depression, health issues which he had as a result of the injury, but also due to the lack of transport to school.

“Those were very difficult years,” Ajnishahe says, painfully recollecting the days when Meriton’s classmates used to go to school with their backpacks on while he could not.

“I did not want to go either. I thought, ‘Why bother when nothing is worth it anymore,’” Meriton says as he shares the difficult moments of adapting to the situation after the accident. “I just did not want to do anything anymore,” he adds.

Getting used to the situation was not easy for him or for his family. His mother would have to sneakily give money to Meriton’s brother to go out with friends without Meriton knowing it, in order to avoid making her other son feel bad, but also not to neglect his brother. Until before the accident, Ajnishahe worked as a tailor.  But she decided to give up her work and passion in order to commit to love – her children.

“Our family and friends also supported us, I am very thankful to them,” she says. Meriton had to undergo a few surgical interventions to stabilize in terms of his health. Some were conducted in Kosovo, some abroad. In 2013-2014, he was sent to Montenegro for rehabilitation, and then in 2016-2017 he stayed in Croatia.

However, returning to Kosovo meant staying at home again, with his mother. It was April 2019 when Meriton decided for the first time to engage and go out to become a part of the UPSHIFT project, implemented by the UNICEF Kosovo Office. At the time, the partners from the Handikos organization invited Meriton to join this project.

“I was reluctant at first because I thought it would be held in Prishtina and I knew I had problems with transport,” he says. “But when I found out that it was in Gjakova, I thought about it and I said, “Okay, why not give it try.”” And that was exactly the turning point in his life. Meriton joined “For You,” a group of young people with disabilities who were for the first time employed by UNICEF and, by creating wood handcrafts, they managed to generate means for services for people with disabilities at Handikos. This project put Meriton at the center of attention and resulted in him being selected as a motivational speaker by UNICEF in one of the major activities that UNICEF organizes with over 500 young people from across Kosovo, the “Activate Talks.” Meriton shared the stage of an event attended by well known names such as Rita Ora and Janis McDavid. It was the first time since his accident that Meriton Binakaj spoke publicly in front of an audience of over 500 people, ambassadors and prominent people, about his life.

“We are all predisposed to remain in a wheelchair, to have an accident. Therefore, we have to work as hard as possible for the inclusion of young people living with disabilities.”

For his mother, this moment was one of her most beautiful memories as a mother.

“That day, when I saw him speaking with courage for the first time about his accident and everything that happened to him, I do not know. I felt like the world was mine. I felt like I was the prime minister of the country. I have never experienced greater joy as when I saw that my eight years of work and sacrifice were worth it,” Ajnishahe says, failing to hold her tears again.

“It is very important to have people who believe in you. Who tell you, ‘We are here for you, go on and do not stop because everything will be alright,’ says Meriton.  Having gone back to school last year, he is now completing secondary education.

That is all it takes to be a hero, to extend our hand to someone, listen to her  and believe in him. These are the real heroes – around us and in. Children and young people living with disabilities in Kosovo, facing the lack of access to education and social life every day, need heroes now more than ever.

All references to Kosovo should be understood to be in the context of United Nations Security Council resolution 1244 (1999).