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The youngest refugees in the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia

In March 1999, 360,000 refugees from war-torn Kosovo sought safety in neighbouring TFYR Macedonia. Nearly half were sheltered, fed and cared for by Macedonian families. Conditions in the homes that had welcomed refugees were strained, with as many as 100 people living under the same roof. Suddenly a great number of people were living in harsh and difficult circumstances, and the most disadvantaged were the youngest children.

School-aged children attended classes which, though cramped and makeshift, provided some focus and a sense of normalcy to their disrupted lives. But younger children were left in crowded spaces with war-traumatized parents, in most cases mothers, who themselves had little energy left to provide the care and attention their children needed.

Within a month, UNICEF and the Albanian League of Women, a women’s umbrella NGO in TFYR Macedonia, launched an emergency project in the seven communities most affected by the crisis. About 150 volunteers were trained in community work, family visits and group meetings, as well as in child development issues. Both refugee and host families — 6,500 families with 9,000 children — were reached with messages and materials about parenting under crisis.

The emergency project was able to improve the care and attention the children received, despite the difficult living conditions. It also provided a means of identifying and referring individuals in need of psychosocial counselling. After the refugees returned to Kosovo, the project was then adapted to the needs of Macedonian children and families in the same, mostly rural, communities. In addition to improving childcare practices, the project was a vehicle for empowering women as active, decision-making partners in the family and in the community.

Encouraged by the response and enormous interest, a national expansion plan was drawn up in collaboration with the Albanian League of Women and the Union of Women’s Organizations, a women’s umbrella organization of Macedonian, Roma, Serbian and other minority groups. An additional 32 regional training and coordination centres have been established and toy/picture book libraries have been initiated. The project covers more than 650 villages and reaches an estimated 70,000 children.


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