Ethnic minority families return home

Kosovo, February 15, 2008

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  <span class="field-credit">
    David Snyder for Mercy Corps  </span>
    Photo: David Snyder for Mercy Corps

The Kosovo conflict, which culminated with the NATO bombing in 1999, shocked the world, leaving thousands dead and hundreds of thousands displaced. Militias forcefully moved Kosovar Albanians to neighboring countries; hundreds of Roma families fled to Macedonia as well as Serbia and Montenegro; and Kosovar Serb families crossed the border into Serbia and Montenegro as well.

Even after the conflict ended, a great number of these families were reluctant to return to the places where violence suddenly entered their lives — villages where, in many cases, loved ones died and homes were set aflame. Kosovo's unresolved status has also led to an uncertain economic situation where job opportunities are few, giving families even less of an incentive to finally return.

Mercy Corps has been working with families, communities, local government agencies and partner organizations in Kosovo for 15 years - and, for nearly a decade, has been facilitating the return of displaced families who wish to go home. Through the Sustainable Partnerships to Minority Returns in Kosovo (SPARK) and Sustainable Returns and Community Integration through Economic Support programs, Mercy Corps has successfully helped hundreds of families reintegrate into the communities from which they were displaced years ago. This assistance includes rebuilding of homes, provision of critical supplies such as food, business training and stipends for children's education.

As Kosovo declares independence, Mercy Corps is still committed to helping these families return. Here are two recent success stories from our return and reintegration programs.

Softening their landing

Cemajl Hamdiji, his wife and four children recently returned to a rehabilitated apartment in their former neighborhood of Gjilan/Gnjilane, a town in eastern Kosovo. Originally this neighborhood hosted 3,500 members of the Roma ethnic group — today, only 86 ethnic Roma community members have returned to Kosovo through the SPARK program.

Hamdiji and his family lived in a house in this neighborhood until the conflict swept Kosovo in 1999. He generated income for his family by working as sort of a jack-of-all-trades: in a local butcher shop, as a musician and as a clothes trader in the local market.

Like many other Roma families, they fled to Macedonia when the most extreme violence came to their town borders. While displaced in Skopje, Macedonia's capital, Hamdiji and his family were granted refugee status and received humanitarian assistance. During his eight years of displacement, he worked in local butcher shop to support his family.

Hamdiji only visited the husk of his burned house twice during his family's eight years of displacement but, during one of those visits, came into contact with a Mercy Corps representative. It was then that he decided to move his family back to their former home community in Kosovo.

In addition to a rehabilitated apartment, the Hamdiji family received appliances and furniture, business and life skills training, and a three-month supply of food. His children were registered and received books, school supplies and uniforms from Mercy Corps.

But the most important consideration for the Hamdiji family's return was the ability to provide for themselves. They are truly committed to making it work: the entire family is involved in improving their livelihood.

From the business training provided by Mercy Corps, Hamdiji assessed local markets and identified an opportunity to produce and sell pillows. With his wife, a tailor, and support of his children he has started to produce 20-30 pillows a day, valued at US $3 per pillow in the local marketplace.

While they are still settling in to their new surroundings — somewhat familiar, yet at times foreign after an eight-year absence — Hamdiji's family has found a place in their community.

Gearing up for success

Bojan Nikolic, an ethnic Serb, fled to Serbia in 1999 amidst the worst of the conflict's fighting. He left behind many close family members in the eastern Kosovo town of Koretiste/Koretishte but, while displaced, married and had one daughter. After several visits to his home and discussions with his family, he decided to return in August 2007.

With no resources to start a business and with no job opportunities because of a depressed local economy, Nikolic approached the local government for returns registration and assistance. In September 2007, the local Municipal Returns Officer referred this family for assistance to Mercy Corps' Sustainable Returns and Community Integration through Economic Support program, funded by the U.S. Department of State.

After a thorough assessment, Bojan's application for the purchase of mechanic's tools was approved, and he was able to start his work in October 2007.

Right away, Nikolic was successful in marketing his services — which focus on tractor and automobile repairs — to both Kosovar Albanian and Kosovar Serb communities. He currently earns about US $300 per month, which is sufficient to support his young family.

"I love my job and working with people," Nikolic said. "We should take care for each other like we take care for our vehicles."