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Balkan crisis:
No monopoly on solidarity

by Macarena Aguilar

The people of Albania and the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia have demostrated that the rich have no exclusive claim on solidarity. While half of the refugees, fleeing the conflict in Kosovo, live with relatives, friends or acquaintances, thousands more are living with people who opened their homes to those who had nowhere else to go.

“I am a simple man, I am not a racist and I am not a nationalist. I have been an immigrant in various countries. I know what it is to sleep in train stations for weeks on end, what it is to be hungry and how much it means to find a friend. This is why I think I should help our Kosovar brothers and sisters,” says Ismet Suleimanoski.

Ismet lives in the Macedonian town of Kicevo. He is married with three children. Like most of the people in this small country, he has no steady job. He has been working for several weeks now as an interpreter for the Red Cross and is helping in the relief operation undertaken to assist the refugees pouring into this country. In spite of the fact that he has no steady income, he has two families from Pristina and Prizren, Kosovo, a total of 10 people, living in his house.

“As well as giving them a roof over their heads and sharing our food with them, we are also trying to help them get their papers in order. One of the families has relations in Germany and plans to go there,” he explains.

In view of the situation, the Red Cross Societies of Albania and Macedonia, supported by the Federation and the ICRC, have made the distribution of food and hygiene parcels to families that take in refugees a priority in their aid activities.

“We must be mindful of the precarious situation of practically all the families that have taken in ethnic Albanians from Kosovo and make every effort to lighten the burden on them and to prevent an upsurge of social tension in these countries,” warns Pandora Ketri, secretary general of the Albanian Red Cross.

The average size of an Albanian or Macedonian house is 45 to 55 square metres, now often occupied by as many as 15 people. In many cases, these people do not know each other and do not know how long they will have to live in those conditions, but complaints about their predicament are rarely heard.


Getting through the day

Imagine you are a family of five, living in a two-bedroom apartment. Suddenly 18 distant relatives come to your doorstep, in need of a place to stay. When the war in Kosovo forced the ethnic Albanian population to flee, this happened to Vehap Shema, a building constructor in Kukes in northern Albania, and his wife Zelie.

“How could I possibly do anything else but invite them in?” says Zelie. From one day to the next, this mother of three had eight additional children living under her roof.

The sudden growth of the household has led to several practical problems, like how to organize the morning queue to the bathroom when 23 people need to get access? Who should be able to have a shower when there is only one hot-water boiler with limited capacity? How do you organize the meals? The solution to the last problem has been to serve the children first, and the adults afterwards. During the night, the men sleep on mattresses and blankets spread out on the living-room floor, while the women and children are in one of the bedrooms.

“I miss the house. And my friends. And my toys,” says Artur Susuri, aged 12. His cousin Arbar, aged three, was the only one who managed to grab one of his toys before they fled. Now he is forced to share his toy car with the seven other refugee children.
Everyone has difficulties in dealing with the uncertainty of their future. “Vehap and Zelie say we can stay with them for as long as we need to, but it’s impossible for us to stay here forever. We don’t have any money to pay rent, and we are dependent on receiving food from others,” says one cousin. No one can make any plans for the future, but everyone has the same dream – to return home.

Ellen Berg Svennæs

Obvious limits

Solidarity can very quickly reach its limits under such circumstances. Therefore, Red Cross contingency plans provide for assistance not only for the refugees expected to continue arriving from Kosovo, but also for those who were taken in by a family, but who, for one reason or another, may be unable to remain.

The rest of the refugees, who are living in sports centres or in public buildings converted into shelters or camps, are also aware of how much of a burden such a situation can be for the host country.

“What exactly is going to happen to us now?” asks 28-year-old Rama Zakiqi. He arrived with his family in mid-April and is now living in the sports centre in the town of Korçë, Albania, very near the border with the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia. “However willing the Albanians are to give us refuge, they can barely get by themselves,” says Rama with remarkable pragmatism. “I don’t want to just sit around all day waiting for someone to bring me food. Let me be your interpreter, let me help the Red Cross volunteers unload the trucks. I need to do something for my people and contribute to the solidarity shown to us by the Albanians and by you who have come from so far away.”

Macarena Aguilar
Macarena Aguilar has been the Federation information delegate in Albania.

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