UPSHIFT, a game changer in a life journey of struggle for equity

Sejnur Veshall tells us his story, from being labeled "gypsy" to Deputy Minister of Culture, Youth and Sports of Kosovo

Leonora Aliu
Sejnur Veshall - Deputy Minister at the Ministry of Culture, Youth and Sports
24 May 2021

Prishtina, May 2021 –As a child he dreamed of flying with the flying machine that gave wings to man, in the white clouds that formed all kinds of figures behind which the blue sky was hidden. To fly higher and higher over every roof, and beyond every boundary to prove to his comrades that the world and every corner of it belonged to everyone. Sejnur Veshall, a boy from Prizren, Kosovo, born in one of the most oppressed and neglected communities in Kosovo society and not only, has been fighting for equality since he can remember.

"I am Sejnur Veshall, I come from the Roma community. I am the son of a mother who worked and continues to work for 22 years as a cleaning lady. A son of a father who worked and continues to work as a cleaner and manual worker". This is how the 26-year-old fully identifies himself today full of pride, as he recalls his journey from a boy who dreamed of flying to the sky to break the natural boundaries, to a boy who broke all the boundaries of the oppressive mentality. Sejnur succeeded to transform from a person, who until yesterday was labeled with the pejorative term "gypsy", into a person who today represents Kosovo and its youth as Deputy Minister of Culture, Youth and Sports.

Sejnur started the first steps of his activism in the Roma theater "Nexhip Menekshe", in 2006 where he continued to be part of this theater until 2021. His activism has mainly extended through the organization "Durmish Aslano", which is a hearth and ambassador for the protection of Roma tradition, language, and culture, and has unique departments such as the radio "Romano Avazo" and the Roma Theater "Nexhip Menekshe". For 10 years, Sejnur engaged as a volunteer.

Sejnur (pictured 2nd from left) with the rest of the Golden Hands team and their mentor during the UPSHIFT workshop.
Sejnur (pictured 2nd from left) with the rest of the Golden Hands team and their mentor during the UPSHIFT workshop.

Then, in 2017, through the opportunity to participate in a UNICEF skill building programme, UPSHIFT, he became the project manager for an initiative called “Golden Hand”. Through a series of activities, he organized trainings for Roma women on the art of handcrafting traditional decorative plates. His aim was for Roma women to socialize, feel more connected to their culture, gain interpersonal or professional skills, and above all, feel a sense of belonging

"UPSHIFT has been the turning point in my career and life!" says the Deputy Minister Sejnur. "Since I can remember myself, I have been active, as part of various activities, workshops, organizations, I am spending most of my time as a volunteer and activist. When I participated in UPSHIFT, in 2017, it was the first time someone entrusted me with the management of a project and it means it has been the turning point for me because I realized that I can do even more because I have been trusted more. "The project lasted three months but it changed my life forever," he said.

He attributes a great merit for this to his family, who he says that despite challenges especially in terms of education, has supported him in his journey.

Stereotypes, stigma, and discrimination have haunted Sejnur Veshall and the community he comes from for as long as he lives and remembers. The Roma community remains one of the most excluded communities in Kosovo society. Growing up in a more traditional environment, where civic participation and activism were not encouraged, Sejnur rose to prominence and became an exemplary social innovator in his community, addressing the challenges faced by many Roma children and youth. However, this was accompanied by fear.

Sejnur (pictured 2nd from right) with the rest of the Golden Hands team
Sejnur (pictured 2nd from right) with the rest of the Golden Hands team

"There was and still is fear, even before taking office as Deputy Minister, my mother told me that she was afraid that I might be the target of attacks only because I came from the community. However, one thing we have already learned is that the school infrastructure and proper education is what makes us equal and provides opportunities to everyone," he said.

The Roma, Ashkali and Egyptian communities are historically the most vulnerable and socially excluded group in the Kosovo context. Due to an exclusion generation cycle, access to public and social services such as health care, education and protection is traditionally limited among these communities, which contributes to a high rate of illiteracy, poor childhood development, early marriage, school dropouts and unemployment. Most Roma, Ashkali and Egyptian families live in poverty and in extremely difficult conditions.

"My mother with her average salary as a cleaning lady in Prizren Hospital, has supported three students, me, my sister and my wife, who due to early marriage and family problems was not educated. However, she managed to get an education and is now a graduate", recalls Sejnur.

According to him, pejorative words, and discrimination against children of the community where he comes from remain problematic, especially in the school premises.

 Sejnur Veshall presenting at UNICEF Activate Talks 2017
Sejnur Veshall presenting at UNICEF Activate Talks 2017

"Twenty years have passed since the war, there have been international interventions and developments, but in schools, centers of education, unfortunately we still have teachers and professors who use pejorative words like ‘gypsy’ and ‘gabel’. Yes, I have also experienced such discrimination and I remember that the stratification done to us was also an issue, which means we have never been equal to other communities. If a Roma person knew for example something, the immediate reaction was 'wow'. "They did not take it as normal and that is why we were not equal", Sejnur remembers.

The next thing he memorizes is the racism displayed towards him. "Usually when you see a white person it seems 'cooler', and there are no prejudices against him or her, or if we meet someone who is brunette and speaks Albanian well, the idea is installed immediately that the person is not Roma, but he might be an Albanian with darker skin, because he speaks Albanian well", says Sejnur sharing one of his confrontations of non-acceptance in society.

"My fight is for equality between people, and I want everyone to understand that I am not a deputy minister of the Roma community, I am Sejnur Veshall, activist and citizen of Kosovo, and I have been given an honored position as Deputy Minister for all young people in Kosovo. In my capacity as the Deputy Minister, I will work hard so that all young people in Kosovo experiences an UPSHIFT in transforming their destiny and fulfilling their dreams.

UPSHIFT programme was born in Kosovo and replicated in other 36 UNICEF offices - it combines some of the leading approaches to youth and adolescent development, social innovation, and entrepreneurship, to empower marginalized youth and adolescents to become social innovators and entrepreneurs. Based on the latest MICS data 84 percent of children of primary school age from these communities are attending primary school, only 64 percent of children are attending lower secondary school and 31 percent of children are attending upper secondary school. Literacy rate: only 2 in 3 women (64%) and 4 in 5 (81%) men living in Roma, Ashkali and Egyptian communities are literate.

UNICEF will continue working with partners to bridge this equity gap and provide opportunities for every young person in Kosovo.