I visited our teams in Kosovo two months ago to attend a monumental event in the city of Mitrovice: the closure of a “temporary” camp — which had been in existence for 13 years. The camp was home to the Roma, Ashkali and Egyptian (RAE) minority populations who were internally displaced after the Kosovo War in 1998-9.
Since post-war reparation and reconstruction began in 1999, various authorities have struggled to finally resettle the RAE community. Finding a location where all the families felt safe took the longest: ethnic tensions still exist, and some feared returning to a community where people believed the RAE supported the opposition in the war.
But making a home in old shipping containers and sharing a bathroom with ten or more families, for over a decade, was no way live. And most urgently, camps were heavily contaminated by lead, creating serious health problems for residents, especially children.
In 2008, Mercy Corps, with funding from USAID, began the process of rehousing 50 RAE families from two lead-contaminated camps: Cesmin Lug and Osterode. By September 2010, 50 families were in new homes, and Mercy Corps closed Cesmin Lug.
That same year, we received additional funding from the European Union to continue the program — this time for 90 families, all of the remaining RAE in Osterode camp.
Finally, this past December, the final families moved into the new houses we constructed, and the Mercy Corps Kosovo team celebrated the closure of Osterode camp by boarding up windows, padlocking the rundown building and containers, and handing the keys over to the U.N. officials.
Throughout the day, I followed several truckloads of household belongings as they arrived at the new house in Roma Mahalla, a largely Albanian neighbourhood to the south, and at the new apartment building in Mali Svecan, a largely Serbian neighbourhood to the north. Families couldn’t contain their excitement to leave behind dilapidated living conditions and become the proud owners of their new homes.
A video put together by the European Union shows the impact this rehousing project has had on the lives of these RAE families. In fact, Mercy Corps’ project went beyond building homes and worked to improve lives in the community in many ways during the past four years, including:
- Trained local medical staff to analyze and treat lead levels in the children. Lead levels have declined to acceptable levels since families relocated.
- Provided vocational training to more than 230 residents some of whom have gone on to start their own businesses in hairdressing, tailoring and metal processing, with the help of enterprise grants from the project.
- Employed more than 200 residents with temporary construction jobs.
- Distributed school supplies, classroom equipment, and stipends for children’s education.
- Helped more than 100 individuals secure legal documents, including identification cards, birth certificates and citizenship papers, that help them integrate into Kosovar society.
Our work will continue this year with additional funding from the EU to resettle the remaining 31 families in the third and final camp, Leposavic.
As I’ve worked with the dedicated Mercy Corps Kosovo team on this project for the last year, I’ve realized how complex — and critical — the resettlement process is. Negotiations between displaced populations and the communities that will receive them can be tense and frustrating until they both agree on the plan. And yet, working to establish safe, stable homes for those whose lives have been blighted by natural disaster and war is at the center of Mercy Corps’ work to find lasting solutions to urgent problems.
Seeing children play in their new safe, lead-free homes in Kosovo was testament to a successful model of reconstruction, reintegration and ultimately restarting of people’s lives so that opportunity can blossom for the future.