TIP’s Ten Out of Ten

In the ten years since The Ideas Partnership’s founding, many people’s lives have been changed by its work: schoolchildren, women, newborn babies, mature students, donors, volunteers and many others. In our tenth anniversary year we’re sharing Ten Out Of Ten stories – ten different accounts of what TIP means.

1. Jack’s story: volunteering in Kosovo

In the ten years since The Ideas Partnership’s founding, we know that many people’s lives have been changed by its work. I know mine has. Others include women, babies, children and older students who have been beneficiaries of our projects, but also our staff and volunteers. Over this tenth anniversary year we’ll share with you our Ten Out Of Ten stories – a selection of ten accounts from people who’ve been part of what we’ve achieved, telling in their own words how it’s made a difference to them.

The first is from our volunteer Jack Shepherd. Here’s what he says,

“Before I went to Kosovë to work with the Ideas Partnership (TIP) I was your typical disenfranchised millennial. I was working in a bar but telling people that I was a sound engineer; I was going out a lot but was always bored; I was living in a place filled with opportunity but was blind to any of it. After some time I was beginning to think that I might be a bit unhappy with my situation.

As luck would have it, Elizabeth Gowing (who happens to be a close friend of mine and my parents) was visiting my family. She told me that she was looking for volunteers to help out in Kosovë, she asked if I would be interested and I was. I thought this seemed like something new and I liked the idea of helping people too. Going to Kosovë then turned out to be one of the best decisions of my life.

After staying and working all over Kosova, meeting some of the most hospitable people I have ever met and after having couple of culture shocks as well as a couple of rakis, I believe something had changed in me. I returned to the UK with a new drive to be better and to do better. I signed up for an access course, spent a year at college and am now currently undertaking a degree in Paramedic Science, which I will graduate from in 2020.

I truly believe that The Ideas Partnership and Kosova gave me the humility and the understanding that allowed me to become a better version of myself. I would whole-heartedly encourage anyone to spend some time with TIP. I have subsequently returned to Kosovë around a dozen times in the past few years and plan to keep doing so though out the years to come.”

A heartfelt thank you from us to Jack, and to all our other volunteers, for making us part of their inspiring stories.

2. Shkurte’s story – the Ashkali girl tackling early marriage in her community

Shkurte is one of the children who attended The Ideas Partnership’s daily classes in Fushe Kosove when we started working in the community there in 2011. She was the second of a total of 578 children we have registered at school. I asked her to talk about what that first day at school felt like.

‘It was a surprise for me,’ she said, ‘to be learning and to be having a better life. I was amazed because I didn’t even know what school was. I thought that people who went to school would have a better future and then I managed to get there myself.’

Shkurte is now in the 8th grade and says her favourite subject is art, and chemistry is the one she finds most difficult. She’s a motivated young woman, though, and her plan is to go to high school.

‘My parents have helped me,’ she says, ‘because they’ve given me the will to achieve; they’ve talked about the future.’

But Shkurte knows that to be a sixteen year-old in her community with these opportunities is a privilege. Research carried out by The Ideas Partnership a few years ago found that 23% of the community in Fushe Kosove ‘married’ (in fact such marriages are illegal under Kosovan law) under the age of 16. The proportion of girls marrying under 16 is even higher, and stands at about a third.

The impact of early marriage is huge – on the girls, their education, the children they go on to have, and on their families’ poverty. And Shkurte is passionate about doing something about this. She is one of 8 teenagers who are part of our Little Social Workers programme, funded by the Danish Refugee Council. The programme tackles early marriage and inspires able youngsters from the community to become social workers in the future with the skills and knowledge to defend girls at risk of early marriage. I ask her what she has learned.

She talks about Arijeta, a young woman from the community who is a role model for many, and who leads the project.

‘Arijeta tells us not to get married early. What do you need to get married for? Getting married early is not good for the children you might have. Do it later when you’ll be able to feed them. If you get married early you drop out of school. Early marriages happen because people think it will be a better life, but it’s not. First of all, complete school.’

In the book I wrote about the experience of starting work with the community in Fushe Kosove, The Rubbish-Picker’s Wife: an unlikely friendship in Kosovo, I described taking the eight year-old Shkurte to register at school

‘The ledger was opened and the columns had to be filled. We established that Shkurte was right-handed, we passed on her address and her date of birth, and the Deputy Director gave the grunt I was getting used to in place of a welcome to the school. Shkurte was registered.
Two down. Could I do this more than sixty times over?’

But it wasn’t to be sixty times over – in fact The Ideas Partnership has registered nearly six hundredchildren since that day that Shkurte’s name was written in the ledger. And it’s not me who’s been doing the work since then. As well as the hard work of our team in the community, we now have a group of young champions like Shkurte who are themselves ensuring that the next generations of children will not only get to school, but will stay there without the threat of early marriage.


3. Rexhep’s story: the future police officer at kindergarten

‘Addition, subtraction; the numbers up to ten’, says Rexhep, He is reminiscing with a smile about his time in kindergarten at The Ideas Partnership’s centre in Fushe Kosove. ‘And my teacher called Arta.’

Rexhep is just one of a total of 311 children who have been educated at The Ideas Partnership (TIP)’s kindergarten since it opened in Fushe Kosove nearly five years ago. He has now moved on to primary school and is confident and clear about what the benefits of support from TIP have been.

Rexhep’s father works as a woodcutter in winter. He left school in fourth grade while Rexhep’s mum dropped out in the eighth grade. But Rexhep is ambitious. He says that English is his favourite subject at school and that he wants to go to university to study English. After that he plans to become a police officer. His reasons for the career choice have the clarity of someone with powerful secondhand experience of what it involves – ‘I want to be a policeman because you have good colleagues and when you catch a thief you have to put them in prison; when there’s a case you have to go and investigate. You get to exercise. And you get a gun’.

It’s no surprise to hear that he has an uncle in the force.

But what about the English he has learned. Where has that come from? ‘I learned English through doing Reading Together online,’ he says, referring to the programme TIP’s run with UK volunteers via Skype. There are other volunteers he fondly mentions by name as well – a Kosovar Bosnian who helped him at our centre, and four Kosovar Albanian volunteers who were part of The Ideas Partnership’s summer camp Rexhep attended in July. ‘We made food. Our team got second place!’

When I ask him what other things he thinks he’s benefited from the education he’s received at the centre he is wonderfully all-encompassing and then carefully sincere.

‘You learn at the centre and then you go to school and when the teacher asks you, you know the answer. Now I know the times tables…. Though not the sevens and eights.’

I admit that they are the toughest ones.

And there are other benefits he can identify from the centre.

‘I got a school bag and a sketchbook. If someone has a broken bag and you give them a new one you make them happy.

‘I also remember that Hysni gave me a woolly hat that you had brought back for all the children from England. I want to say thank you to the person who made that hat just for me.’

Thanks from us, as well, to all those volunteers and donors who have supported Rexhep and his friends at our kindergarten and in the other activities we run through our centre. Along with a future Kosovan police officer, we salute you.

4. Arlinda’s story: the beauty of second chances

Arlinda lives in Neighbourhood 29 of Fushe Kosove. I met her at The Ideas Partnership’s centre in the community when Arlinda came to offer some of her crochet work for me to sell in the UK. I told her honestly that I didn’t think these designs would find a market and that the best chances I had to sell things were at the talks I gave about my books.

‘For example,’ I said, ‘later this month I’ll be going to England to give a talk about my book on beekeeping. It will be hard to make a link to your crocheted goods to sell to the people who attend that talk.’ I was sorry not to be able to help her more, and she quietly went away.

A week later she was back, giving it a second go, with a selection of fantastic bee-themed crafts she’d found patterns for online – baby booties in the yellow and black stripes of a honeybee, and little yellow hats with black antennae!

That attitude, of creativity and innovation, would mark Arlinda out in any community. But it’s not the result of any formal education – she’s never been to school. Instead, the basic skills she has are the result of ‘second chance’ classes that this mother of five children decided to take at The Ideas Partnership’s centre along with 40 other women from her community.

Their teacher, Mirlinda Gerguri, says, ‘I noticed Arlinda right away because of her interest and the constant commitment she displayed. I can see that deep within her she has a fighting spirit of ambition, together with being so sweet with her family and other people. She would always say “I’m doing all I can to make sure that the education I’ve not managed to achieve for myself can be achieved for my children”. She gives me hope for the future.’

With all that Arlinda has learned at these classes, she has taken her handcrafts to a new level as the proud owner of a business she registered herself. Recently she also applied for a business grant which has enabled her to start a new product line drawing inspiration from the rubbish-picking activities which are a major source of income in her community. She says

‘I saw how many old music CDs were in the rubbish and I found some examples online of how these CDs could make beautiful mosaic jewellery. With my grant I’ve been able to make the first necklace pendants from upcycled CDs, giving a second chance to the things that people throw away. Through The Ideas Partnership I’ve even been able to get the necklaces sold in a shop in England.’

‘What I’m most proud of is that now I don’t just rely on my husband – I can earn for our family. My children are impressed by the work I’ve done. And now I’m dreaming of building a better house for my children – we’re overcrowded where we live now and it’s damp.’

The jewellery that Arlinda makes is a beautiful image of The Ideas Partnership’s philosophy of second chances.

Arlinda’s necklaces are available for £10 in the UK/ 10 euro in Kosovo. Email elizabethgowing@hotmail.com to place an order


5. Hysni’s story: ‘when other people love you then you start to love yourselves’

When I wrote the story of Hateme, The Rubbish-Picker’s Wife: an unlikely friendship in Kosovo, some people commented that it was as much the story of Hysni as of Hateme. And both those people’s stories have of course developed after the narrative of the book came to an end. So here’s the story of TIP’s first full-time employee Hysni – and why it now takes him twice as long to get home.

Hysni and I at the launch of ‘The Rubbish-Picker’s Wife: an unlikely friendship in Kosovo’

When we started working in Fushe Kosove, Hysni was unemployed, finding casual labour like loading up sacks of sugar at the station, pulling up potatoes, doing shifts in a shampoo factory and going out to look for recyclable material in the rubbish bins. He had six children and none of them was in school. He himself had been to school but when Albanian language education was shut down in the 1990s he had stopped at ninth grade. In all this his family was typical of many in the community.

The Ideas Partnership (TIP) advertised a position for a mediator from the community with funding from Austrian Development Co-operation, and Hysni applied and got the job. And now? I ask him, ‘What’s changed?’ and he smiles with pride.

He starts with education. ‘Thanks to TIP I finished school and then I went to evening classes to get my high school diploma which TIP’s private donors paid for. Then I registered at university.

‘I saw how TIP valued education, and I realised I needed to pay more attention to it. And now with my education I’ve tried to be an example for others. I see the change not just in me – there’s been an improvement across the community thanks to the work we’ve done. There’s been a change in mentality. When we started registering children for school eight years ago we had to go to each house and offer transport to take the parents with their children to the school to register, and we still didn’t always have success. Now it’s parents who come to us asking about how to register and once we’ve explained it to them they go off and register their children themselves, like it should be. Though there are still some children who aren’t registered, so we still have work to do.’

And how have these experiences changed him?

‘In the past people didn’t really consider me much. I did my work, I went home, I went to sleep, and then I went back to finding work. The moment I got the position at TIP, people in the community started contacting me. My faith tells me that you shouldn’t have a bad relationship with anyone and I feel so proud that I’ve been able to help all these people. Now I’m a member of the municipal assembly too. Sometimes it takes me 20 or 30 minutes to get home because of the questions I have from people who stop me in the street asking for our help.’

But it’s not just the relationships in his own community that have changed for Hysni. ‘I’ve learned how to present to VIPs. I remember the first conference that you and I went to. The Minister of Education was there and all kinds of other people, and I was the only person not in a suit. You said to me “Even though you’ve not got a tie, you know more than all these others, because you work in the field.” I began to believe in myself. I learned to say ‘‘I like to hear someone, but I hope that when I speak I’ll be listened to as well.”

‘We’ve had volunteers, people like you, who’ve come to Kosovo from abroad, and I’ve learned how to talk to people who are different from me, I’ve come across different mentalities, seen other ways that people behave, and seen how people care. And when other people love you then you start to love yourselves. Now I try to use that as my approach with people in my own community.’