Empowering young people with Down Syndrome in Kosovo*, one phone case at a time

Mitrovica, Kosovo–It’s a cold February morning in the town of Mitrovica, Kosovo.

UNICEF
20-year-old Eglantinë Avdiu operating a 3D Printer in Down Syndrome Kosova’s Mitrovica branch one-story building.
UNICEF/2018/Morina
02 April 2018

Mitrovica, Kosovo–It’s a cold February morning in the town of Mitrovica, Kosovo. The streets are bustling with hundreds of passerbys, all seemingly unaffected by the penetrating honks of car sirens and the somewhat muffled sounds of helicopters. In the teeming avenues, a young girl is seen meandering her way to a faraway district of the city. 

She enters a stale, time-worn one-story building. The old wooden floor squeaks with each of her steps as she finally sits in a chair beside a strange-looking machine. After operating the device in silence for some minutes, she finally takes out what looks to be a smartphone case and bellows: “There it is!” “This a 3D-printed iPhone case.”

Eglantinë Avdiu, a 20-year old from Mitrovica has been working with 3D printers for some months now. In the old Down Syndrome Kosova’s Mitrovica branch building, she teaches adolescents and youth with Down Syndrome how to design, model and 3D print phone cases, helping them integrate and become productive members of society.

Having engaged with young people with Down Syndrome in the past as a psychology student, Eglantinë noticed that most of them are extremely adept and can develop their skills if given the chance, but according to her, the majority don’t end up doing so because they’re left behind by society.

“In Kosovo, most young people with Down Syndrome have little to no opportunities for growth. They become passive once they hit 18, and future prospects look grim.”

This is especially true for people with Down Syndrome living in cities other than the capital, which unfortunately is the only place where there’s been some support for them by NGOs."

The executive director of NGO Down Syndrome Kosova, Sebahate Hajdini Beqiri, confirms that people with Down Syndrome face significant hardships in Kosovo. “The situation of young people with Down Syndrome leaves a lot to be desired, especially in aspects like social welfare, education, and employment,” she says. “There needs to be more of an institutional mobilization for their integration in society, especially through providing them with professional skills and preparing them for employment and independent life.”

Light at the end of the tunnel

Eglantinë wanted to change this—she wanted to do her part in creating a better life for young people with Down Syndrome in Mitrovica; but for her too, the prospects of being able to do this as an adolescent herself looked dire. But light at the end of the tunnel came in the form of UPSHIFT, an ING-supported initiative of UNICEF Innovations Lab Kosovo.

UPSHIFT: Social Impact Workshop is a social innovation initiative which supports young people to become social innovators, and build and lead solutions to social challenges which they feel passionate about, enabling them to reach community members with various interventions in the form of products or services.

The initiative includes an intensive workshop with a human-centered design and experiential learning curriculum to help young people get to the roots of their challenges and prototype impactful solutions. The Lab staff then provides incubation funds, financial literacy trainings, and extended mentorship to help youngsters like Eglantinë maximize their impact in their communities.

"At UPSHIFT, over the course of three days, we worked shoulder-to-shoulder with our mentor and steadily progressed from challenge to solution, while networking with peers in our spare time,” Eglantinë says.

Light at the end of the tunnel

Eglantinë wanted to change this—she wanted to do her part in creating a better life for young people with Down Syndrome in Mitrovica; but for her too, the prospects of being able to do this as an adolescent herself looked dire. But light at the end of the tunnel came in the form of UPSHIFT, an ING-supported initiative of UNICEF Innovations Lab Kosovo.

UPSHIFT: Social Impact Workshop is a social innovation initiative which supports young people to become social innovators, and build and lead solutions to social challenges which they feel passionate about, enabling them to reach community members with various interventions in the form of products or services.

The initiative includes an intensive workshop with a human-centered design and experiential learning curriculum to help young people get to the roots of their challenges and prototype impactful solutions. The Lab staff then provides incubation funds, financial literacy trainings, and extended mentorship to help youngsters like Eglantinë maximize their impact in their communities.

"At UPSHIFT, over the course of three days, we worked shoulder-to-shoulder with our mentor and steadily progressed from challenge to solution, while networking with peers in our spare time,” Eglantinë says.

20-year-old Eglantinë Avdiu as seen at Down Syndrome Kosova’s Mitrovica branch building during a workshop held with adolescents and youth with Down Syndrome.
UNICEF/2018/Morina
20-year-old Eglantinë Avdiu as seen at Down Syndrome Kosova’s Mitrovica branch building during a workshop held with adolescents and youth with Down Syndrome.

“I participated at UPSHIFT to first and foremost learn how I could best contribute to bettering the lives of young people with Down Syndrome in Mitrovica, but the solution we came up with also represented an important means of re-functionalizing Down Syndrome Kosova’s branch in Mitrovica, where activities used to be scarce.”

The impact of 3D printing on the world and its advances did not go unnoticed to the 20-year-old psychology student. She chose the technology for its innumerable manufacturing options—limited only by participants’ imagination—and for its rapid prototyping—a concept she became familiar with at UPSHIFT— which allows for a quick transition from idea to product. Learning how to operate a 3D printer would also be a useful skill for the youngsters to have in the future, while the design and modeling segments would serve as important means of self-expression and collaboration.

Indeed, it was at UPSHIFT that Eglantinë came to the idea of 3D printing smart phone cases. “We decided to create a social business where youth and adolescents older than 18 years with the [Down Syndrome] condition would learn skills like operating a 3D printer, designing, collaborating and communicating ideas, and get paid for the work they do,” Eglantinë says. “This way, we wanted to ensure that these youths are active and gain some independence from their families.”

A group of adolescents and youth with Down Syndrome together with younger visitors, as well as Eglantinë Avdiu and her project partner Gresa Murati, captured during a brainstorming and illustration session for smart-phone case designs.
UNICEF/2018/Morina
A group of adolescents and youth with Down Syndrome together with younger visitors, as well as Eglantinë Avdiu and her project partner Gresa Murati, captured during a brainstorming and illustration session for smart-phone case designs.

Impact on the community

In a little more than a month, Eglantinë’s social impact project, dubbed ‘3DX’ held 4 workshops engaging young people with Down Syndrome in designing, 3D printing, labelling and packaging smart-phone cases. So far, there’s 4 young employees as well as 2 younger interns involved in the activities, a number which Eglantinë hopes to expand over the coming months as sales increase.

The theme of the smart-phone case designs are star constellations, with the idea underpinning it being that ‘just like stars are interwoven by constellations, so too are people interlinked by love’. The slogan of 3DX is ‘three times more love’, which Eglantinë explains is due to her firm belief that people with Down Syndrome are extremely loving and accepting.

The project has gotten off to a flying start and received significant traction, with people all over Kosovo ordering personalized cases, and some big companies even requesting up to 100 cases for their employees.

 “In the future, me and 3DX co-founder and friend Gresa Murati want to significantly expand our project, turning it into a fully-fledged social business, which entails increased production, increased employment and impact on the community, and increased sales. We want to allocate a portion of the funds to Down Syndrome Kosova’s Mitrovica branch so that it too can continue to grow and help those in need.

“My dream is so that one day there will be equality and equal opportunities for everyone. For the longest time I have strived to help people with Down Syndrome integrate and become fully productive members of the Kosovo society; it feels great to be able to say that through UPSHIFT, I’ve finally started to realize my dream.”

Eglantinë’s success story of 3DX is one of more than 197 ING-supported youth-led projects developed through UPSHIFT over the course of three-and-a-half years. With more than 20 of those projects having become established businesses, Eglantinë’s prospects of expanding her project look bright.

Little by little, the lasting partnership between ING and UNICEF is helping young people reach their full potential, drive change in their communities as agents of change, and be better prepared for the labor market. Over the coming years, as part of our endeavor in investing in young people’s lives and increasing their resilience, UNICEF is committed to building their skills through innovative programmes and providing space for them to exercise those skills.

*All references to Kosovo are made in the context of UN Security Council Resolution 1244 (1999)