At the places where education is considered a luxury, and why we all need to help change this

A helping hand for parents and children of families in need, through quality early education for every child.

Leonora Aliu
Red Bike
UNICEF/2020/L. Aliu
20 October 2020

Prishtina / Fushë Kosovë, September 2020 - A red bicycle for little children, placed in the lobby of the second floor of an old building, is the first thing that stands out. It is the only new thing in the building which is given for use to families living on social assistance, most of them families from the Roma community.

"Can you take a picture of it? It is a gift." - is the wishful request of a child. The bicycle seems all new.

And the picture was taken. The red bicycle, along with the joy in the child’s face, gave the landscape of the old building a lively nuance. The data show that 67 percent of children at the level of general population in Kosovo, aged 0-5 years, have 2 or more toys at home. Play is considered one of the key factors in early child development, especially for the development of cognitive behaviors. Consequently, this means that not all children are fortunate enough to have a red bicycle or other didactic tools needed for their development but also for building an environment with activities that make them happy.

That is why the UNICEF Team in Kosovo is visiting the building where the red bicycle is placed - and the families living in it. Most of the families in that building are families living on social assistance. One of them is the four-member Leka family.

5-year-old Elsa from this family is the first to welcome us. "She has been waiting for you all day," - says the 53-year-old Rrahim Leka - her father - with a slight smile. Elsa lives at the same building with her neighbor that has a new bicycle. But she doesn't own one. Her  family is among thousands of  families living on social assistance in Kosovo. 110 thousand members in a total of 25 thousand families, according to data available until August 2019, are reckoned as families living on social assistance in Kosovo. One of the legal conditions to be a beneficiary of the scheme, in addition to unemployment, is having children up to 5 years old or younger than 5 years old.

UNICEF/2020/L. Aliu
5-year-old Elsa welcomes us at the entrance of the building where she lives with her family, to receive her Early Development didactic tools kit.

Elsa is a beneficiary of Early Education didactic tools kit. These kits have been designed particularly for about 5 thousand families in need by the UNICEF Office in Kosovo together with the partners from the Japanese Embassy, as well as in cooperation with the Ministry of Education, Science and Technology. The main goal of these kits was to help parents and children in need in the process of education and development of children aged 0 – 6 – the crucial years in child development and in building the foundation for a healthier and more prosperous future for them.

Reaching those in need

Rrahim Leka explains that his family has had extraordinary difficulties, especially during the time of the pandemic. "I have been injured at work and have been living on social assistance for six years now," he says, as he invites us to his apartment.

Rrahim Leka
UNICEF/2020/L. Aliu
Rrahim Leka and his four-member family have been living on social assistance for six years now.

"We were fortunate that during the pandemic we did not have to pay the rent for six months in a row, because we pay a cheap amount for it, but they exempted it completely because of the situation", he further tells his concerns, implying that buying toys or didactic tools for his children is still considered a luxury for the family. "The girl was very happy when I told her that you are bringing her the kit. It is a great help for us ", he says while Elsa explores the kit with her new tools for play and learning.

"She wants to be a ballerina",  - Rrahimi says with a slight smile as he continues to look at his daughter Elsa, exploring her new kit. But Elsa is not doing this alone.

Along with her is the mountaineer and the first Kosovar woman to climb the peak of Mount Everest, Uta Ibrahimi, who joined the action to distribute kits with didactic tools for children in need, donating her book "Uta of the Mountains" in two versions – the children's storybook and the coloring book.

"It is a pleasure to have the opportunity to help children in need and to share stories that can be inspiring for them. I want every child to understand that one should dream and work hard because dreams come true, no matter where they come from, or the difficulties they may face ", is the message of Uta who joined the project "Hooray" under UNICEF’s initiative. This project has been of particular importance especially for the fact that it seeks to enrich Kosovar families with children's books.

Studies have shown that 56% of children aged 0-6 in Kosovo do not even have a book at home, let alone coloring books. In addition to the early education aspect, UNICEF is distributing didactic tool kits to nearly 5,000 families, 70 percent of which live on social assistance in Kosovo's 38 municipalities, including families from non-majority communities.

Among the beneficiary families from the Roma community is that of Refki Berisha, 36 years old, from Fushë Kosova, who lives with a total of 8 relatives on social assistance.
"I am very grateful for this help," he says as his 3-year-old daughter is being measured her height by her brothers.

From tools to information - all in one kit

Among the tools found in kit are the baby height measuring tool, wooden puzzles, coloring books, notebooks and balls, Uta’s book in two versions, and many other materials. In addition, a leaflet with instructions on how to use the "Distance Education" platform, through which thousands of parents and children have been reached, is part of the kit.
The launching of the platform ensued just one month after the decision of Kosovo institutions for self-isolation of citizens as a protection measure against the COVID-19 virus and for many parents has served as a source of information about educational activities that they can do with their children.

In other words, the early education didactic tool kits were not only intended to provide families with the necessary tools for educating children at home, but also to guide them to the best and easiest methods to deal with children while are at home.

Communication and interaction with parents, caretakers and children through evidence-based information and advice is essential especially during the COVID-19 pandemic. In times of unexpected situations, child support services usually end up avoided.

The Minister of Education in Kosovo, Mr. Ramë Likaj had said that through this support, children in need will be reached and provided with educational materials to reach their full potential, but also parents will be supported in using the electronic platform for early childhood education, created by the Ministry of Education with the support of UNICEF. " We are giving examples that every child can be a Uta Ibrahimi or Rita Ora, if we work hard to make their dreams come true," he said.

Uta Ibrahimi during the distributions of the ECD Kits to children in poor living conditions.

Drop-off in education during the COVID pandemic 19

Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, Kosovo had the lowest access to preschool education in Europe, where only 14 percent of children aged 3-5 attended an early childhood education program, leaving a large proportion of children in this age deprived of early learning programs. Also, the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic has hampered educational processes, severely hindering children's opportunities for development and learning.

Mr. Mitsunori Ogasawara, Charge d'Affaires of the Embassy of Japan in Kosovo, had said that "education is very important, especially at a time when both parents and children are staying home due to the pandemic". "The role of the family is growing, and these materials will help parents have a more positive and educational approach to their children, play with them and spend a happier time together. We are very grateful for the cooperation with UNICEF and public institutions and I cannot wait to visit the families that will benefit from these kits", Mr. Ogasawara said.

UNICEF in Kosovo is committed to support of families, especially those in need, to provide the best for children in their early years.

The Head of the UNICEF Office in Kosovo, Murat Sahin, said: “With the support of UNICEF, parents, especially fathers, are being offered simple tips, games and skills to use for better parenting. Parental engagement through storytelling, singing, and playing with the child - all these critical to a child's brain development - is essential especially during COVID-19. "I am proud to see that over 190,000 particular users have visited our online ECD platform more than 2.5 million times since its launch."

ECD Kits
UNICEF/2020/L. Aliu
Presentation of ECD kits in the presence of the Minister of Education and the Japanese Ambassador to Kosovo.

UNICEF has reiterated the urgent need to prioritize investments in Early Childhood Development including the focus on parenting within the response to COVID-19. This is critical to reducing the number of preventable child deaths, preventing violence against children, and fostering economic recovery and productivity in the long run.