From isolation to a voice of change – meet Meriton Binakaj!

Meriton Binakaj, UN Community Volunteer serving with UNICEF, advocating for youth participation.

Leonora Aliu
Meriton Binakaj, previous UPSHIFT beneficiary, currently UN Volunteer
12 August 2021

Gjakova, 6 July 2021 – We are at the beautiful Qabrat in the city of Gjakova. Meriton Binakaj and his mother Ajnishahja, are waiting for us at the usual spot, a café overlooking the city of Gjakova, which has access for people using wheelchairs.   

Meriton seems excited - he is waiting for important news.

“Today I get my results! -  Meriton says, while informing us that he is waiting for the results of the achievement test for graduates of high schools in Kosovo. This test will determine which students can apply for university studies.

For the 26-year old Meriton Binakaj this means a lot. Particularly since in 2011 Meriton had dropped out of high-school – the reason being an accident that has rendered him immobile ever since. 

Sadness, phases of depression and isolation had accompanied him during that time, until 2019 when Meriton for the first time became part of the UPSHIFT program that was designed and implemented by UNICEF Kosovo.

“UPSHIFT was the first time when I met, if I may say so, with UNICEF, and from that moment everything changed for me”, said Meriton.

“It was a dark period in my life, until I started going out and participating in UNICEF activities, where I met with Murat [Head of UNICEF Office in Kosovo], and the entire team of Innovation Lab, who encouraged me to think more about myself, particularly about my education” – he continues.

In 2019, Meriton was part of the team of young people in Gjakova, that participated at the UPSHIFT workshop and designed the project “Per ty” (meaning from Albanian “For you”). Meriton and his friends created small handmade gifts and sold them in order to collect funds for Handikos in Gjakova, with the aim to support services for children living with disabilities. The purpose of the UPSHIFT program – empowering young people to fulfil their potential.

Meriton Binakaj, during implementation of UPSHIFT youth-led project
Meriton Binakaj, during implementation of UPSHIFT youth-led project

In 2020 Meriton has joined UNICEF Kosovo as a UN Community Volunteer in projects for empowering young people. His engagement is mainly related to mentoring youngsters, supporting UNICEF staff in the field of communication, and implementing activities. He describes this opportunity as an extraordinary, and at the same time surreal one.

“It’s surreal for me because thinking back two years ago I was learning on my own, and a few years before I was isolated. Sometimes it feels like a dream, because after the accident I never thought that I will be able to engage in activities and work. It was a very difficult period, but UNICEF and people working there – now my colleagues – have helped me a lot. I have learned a lot and I said to myself “Ok, Meriton, there is a solution for you”, he says smilingly.

Meriton is also engaged in order to reach out to young people in Gjakova for their participation at U – Report, an online platform which was created by UNICEF in order to collect the young people’s opinion on different issues related to their environment, living conditions and rights. “I am going from one school to another in order to explain to young people how important it is to share their views and show them how they can be a U-reporter”, Meriton explains. Which for him is very important, especially when it comes to the point of view of children with disabilities.

Meriton was injured on a summer's day in July 2011. He jumped into the water of the Erenik River to swim with his family and hit his head diving into the water which left him paralyzed. Ever since, he has been faced with many challenges, and most of them are mainly related to the lack of access to public spaces, including schools.

According to the Situation of Women and Children report, published in 2019, most children with disabilities and their families face difficulties to finance treatment, physiotherapy, access to education, school assistance, medical services, etc., Meanwhile many public institutions and places, including streets, bathrooms and toilets, schools, restaurants are not accessible. With certain small moves in this direction for accessibility.

"I want to be part of the change, because I have seen for myself that if I did not have the support of the people around me, the people at UNCEF, I would have remained in the dark where I was after the accident, and if I was able to come out of it, so can everyone. But we must work together, and we have to work hard", says Meriton while being silent for a moment.

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

In 2019, Meriton was invited at the Activate Talks event, an event that gathers more than 600 people including young people, stakeholders, donors, etc., to share his story. He inspired the audience, by sharing for the first time publicly the story of his accident and how he came back to reality and decided to go back to school.

"Do you see me in a wheelchair, I have not always been like that. I used to walk just like you. I used to play ball just like you. But one day, an accident, changed my whole life. So when you think of people with disabilities do not think of someone as a stranger, because you can be in that position one day, so the least we can do together is certainly make sure there’s basic access, for example in bathrooms, on the street and at school." - he then said, touching the hearts and captivating the attention of the audience.

Going back to school, after a certain period of time and age has not been easy for him at all. But he made it.

We are on the way back to Pristina, Meriton calls us on the phone.

'I passed the test! ", he informs us.

Meriton has decided to study social work and is now getting ready for his new journey, as a  young student in Kosovo.

"I want to do it for other children, like UNICEF did it for me," he says while smiling.

The UPSHIFT programme was initially developed and launched in Kosovo and has as of now expanded to a total of 34 counties where UNICEF works.