One big heart and 16 children
Vera Ndrecaj is one of the seven foster carers in Gjakova
Gjakova, August 2022 –A green yard with pine trees and colorful flowers surrounds Vera Ndrecaj's house in the municipality of Gjakova. The gate is open, as is Vera’s heart towards the children who find shelter, love, and a family environment here.
Social worker Jozefina Osmani accompanies our team from UNICEF as we step into the garden.
As soon as we enter, three children rush into Jozefina’s arms; she is already a familiar face to them. Jozefina works at the Center for Social Work in Gjakova, where she is the coordinator for family foster care.
"Come in, we're glad you've come," says Vera, inviting us to sit around the table with her, Jozefina and the three children she cares for.
Vera explains that she and her husband, now deceased, had knocked on the doors of the Center for Social Work nine years ago and asked to become a foster family for children in need of care and shelter.
"I don't have three children now, but 16!", she says with a smile as she counts her three biological children and the 13 others she has fostered over the years. Among them is a child who suffered from epilepsy and has now been adopted by another family.
"I learned about foster families from a friend from Gjakova, who had taken in five children at the time. I was 35 years old; I think, and my children were grown up and attending school. I talked to my husband and at first, he reprimanded me and said, 'You have hardly finished raising your own children, why do you want now to burden yourself with more?’ but I was staying home, I had no other job, and I knew that I could help these children. My husband agreed to help me, the family members around here where we live agreed, and that's how I decided to take the children in," she said.
She said that while there were always challenges, Jozefina was there to give advice.
"She is like a mother to us. She takes care of everything. We are always welcome at the Center. Even if we called her in the middle of the night, she was open with us. She gives solutions to all of our concerns,” said Vera.
For Jozefina, midnight calls are common. Since she started her work as a social worker in her thirties, she has learned that this job is often challenging, both professionally and emotionally.
"In the beginning, when I went on-site, I remember crying together with the families. I cried when I saw children left without care, at the mercy of others," she said. "But in the meantime, I saw that the contribution I can give is great, and I decided to consider it my mission - the protection of these neglected children and families in need."
The Center for Social Work in Gjakova has eight social workers. While not sufficient to meet the needs of the whole municipality, but there is no lack of dedication and coordination. The municipality recruited the first foster family in Kosovo in 2001, and now has the highest number of foster families in Kosovo.
"Currently we have seven foster families, and they all maintain excellent communication with each other. This mutual support made our fostering program even more successful,” said Jozefina. "Everywhere we go, we promote family fostering because it is the best way of providing care for children. Foster families also distribute information and promote their work wherever they go."
Vera herself helped recruit a new foster family. Her sister-in-law is now a foster mother thanks to Vera's promotion of the concept of family fostering.
She explains to us the challenges that children without parental care face. “I remember the first time I was introduced to a toddler, a boy, he was so innocent and small and yet all on his own. I couldn’t help but cry when I met him and promise that I would do everything to take care of him”, Vera tells us.
Growing up in a nurturing family environment is exceptionally important for the growth and development of any child. Even with the presence of professional staff in children's homes, no institution can replace a family. Only by growing up in a caring family home can children feel fully included and supported. Individualized care and affection help children to learn positive family patterns.
At the end of June 2022, there were 52 children living with 27 foster care families in Kosovo, and 75 children without parental care were placed in residential care services. In addition, 437 children without parental care were in kinship care families.
Jozefina has many heartbreaking stories to share. She recalls a case when a child was abandoned by a young 18-year-old mother, who was not accepted into her parents' home because she had given birth out of wedlock.
"Her parents did not want to take care of the child. That's why she abandoned the child due to lack of a place to live," Jozefina starts to tell us. "Well, I worked a lot with that family. I sent the child to family fostering for eight months and after those months I invited the grandparents to see their granddaughter. At first they were hesitant, but after the first meeting with her, there were no more problems. The family recognized the daughter and granddaughter and today they live happily," she said.
She said that this is the work she will be doing until her last breath. The remaining time of the visit is used to share the gifts she has brought for the children, some children’s books.
Vera waves goodbye at us, with these parting words, “Help children without parental care, it is the noblest mission of all.”
UNICEF has worked to enhance the capacities of social workers to provide child protection services for vulnerable children, with financial support from the European Union as part of “Mitigating the impact of COVID-19 on children and families in the Western Balkans and Türkiye” project. The contents of the story are the sole responsibility of UNICEF and do not necessarily reflect the views of the European Union.