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George Symonds - PLC PDF Print E-mail

Plemetina

Only a half hour car journey from the capital, Plemetina seemed a world away from Pristina. My first visit to Plemetina Learning Centre (PLC) came within hours of being invited to lunch with staff at Balkan Sunflowers (BSF). As if a living riddle, through the dusty haze of the road towards the village emerge the smoking coal powered geriatric giants Kosova A and Kosova B, the motorway-side campus of Victory College, and Serbian colours hoisted on a flagpole.

Playing football with the children against the backdrop of Kosova B dominating the darkening skyline, I wondered what it means to be a ‘Roma’ living with ‘Serbs’ in an ‘Albanian’ majority Kosovo. How do these roadside curiosities – and what they symbolise – affect the lives of people here? Even if I were only to find a fraction of the answer, the extremely friendly reception by staff and students at PLC had convinced me to contribute as a volunteer within 10 minutes of my arrival.

Sitting alongside Rand as he drove me toward my two week stay it occurred to me that, as far as I knew, BSF seems to have the highest concentration of non-smokers in Kosovo, as well as the fact that this would be my first ever homestay, first ever stay in a village, not to mention with only the most rudimentary understanding of the culture and language of my hosts. Any apprehensions were instantly dispelled by the warmth of my host family, always offering me grand portions of food, strong coffee, pleasant company and even language instruction.

The PLC provides a secure and understanding environment for the children and youth of the marginalised Roma and Ashkali community. The Centre works to develop language and other vital skills so they do not fall behind at the Serbian speaking school; whilst also enriching their educational and childhood experiences through supplementary classes, activities and meals.

As a general volunteer I aimed to contribute to as many aspects of life here as possible. This involved running ‘energiser’ exercises to rev up the children for classes, assisting class projects, joining fieldtrips, and of course learning many Balkan playground games. During my stay I was able to accompany students to the waterfalls of Mirusha, caves at Gadimje, the historic town of Prizren, and the Rolling Film Festival in Gjilan to see PLC staff perform on stage. During my stay I also joined PLC staff who accommodated and volunteered themselves as members of a project to renovate social housing blocks for former internally displaced persons from minority groups.

In Kosovo every ethnic categorisation is a loaded term. The label-lottery of birth for a large part dictates how and what one is educated to think, and how such separate groups then perceive and relate to one another. Despite no scientific evidence and hence no fixed definition for the term ‘ethnicity’, this vague romanticised notion of blood ties across millennia translates into multiple facets of division and disadvantage, especially for those with minority labels. Water shortages are by no means unique to Plemetina, but on the fourth consecutive day that the village had no running water, beyond the gates of Kosova B (only a kilometre or so away) I witnessed an ornamental fountain in full flow. Perhaps it will take the prizing open of psychological gates by all parties concerned before such barriers on the ground can be opened up; allowing affluence to flow more freely between all the people who live here side by side.

The work of BSF and PLC is vital to the empowerment of children from marginalised communities. The education provided develops their confidence to be ambitious, dispel stereotypes, and work towards both individual and wider societal aspirations. In this sense the presence of PLC, with its potential to turn smiles into prospects, is an invaluable cornerstone of the community.

I am very grateful to have had this opportunity to meet and work with the people of Plemetina. Although I do not feel much closer to solving the riddle of the road, the experience of life here, albeit brief, has enriched me with new perspectives and points of reference; simultaneously reinforcing the notion that – as fellow human beings – we are all equally entitled to the free pursuit of happiness, however one may or may not be labelled. With their contagious energy and laughter, my time here with PLC can only be summarised as a combination of bütlachess, nogodobro and shumeer.