All photos by Kevin Poleyumptewa of KPPhotography Kpphotography.smugmug.com
In November 2016, CIPUSA's Affiliate Office in Phoenix, Empower International, hosted a group from Kosovo for a federally-funded Open World Leadership Organization exchange program focused on combating human trafficking. You can read about that program HERE. The Kosovo delegates, as well as their American hosts, were so moved by their experience that a reverse trip to Kosovo was planned for the following November.
Stacy Moreno, Executive Director of Empower International, and Dr. April Murphy, Assistant Professor at Western Kentucky University's Social Work Department, recount their experiences in Kosovo below.
Kosovo, Looking Into the Past with One Foot in the Future
It’s been 3 weeks since my return home from Kosovo and I still find it hard to express to others, as well as myself, the experiences that I have had. I’m dumbfounded that I have been unable to tell my story, and explain succinctly the meaning for what I have seen, heard, felt, and thought. I can only begin by saying that it has been a blessing, a gift, to be able to have this opportunity to step away from work, kids, duties (somewhat) and life in the rush of America to take a step back into what I think reality truly is.
3 flights, several time zones and a day later I step into the world of the Balkans for the very first time. Almost a year ago I was able to host a wonderful group of individuals who call Kosovo home. They came to our community so we could show them our “best practices” in combating trafficking in humans. In return, they showed us how to live-we were reborn in Kosovo and so here my story begins. They showed us the worst and best in people. It’s a message too big to explain in one sitting.
In the late 90’s there was a terrible war that affected the region. Although I was new to my 20’s at the time, I heard of the war, but was not pushed in my life (at school, personally or at home) to dig deeper and gain a better awareness. I am so very thankful for the opportunity to take a history lesson almost 20 years too late, but also ashamed at the ease of living in a bubble, oblivious to the world around me. I will not only live wiser and with intention, I will use this message to help those around me be aware of the world as if it were an extension of our lives that we see and breathe when we leave our front doors.
All around me, all week long, I could not keep my mind off the war, and try to understand how the worst of humanity can exist in a place that only seems to me (as an outsider and as my first impressions) so peaceful and loving. We met so many that truly were the most magnificent of people that I have ever met in my life. The acceptance, kindness, honesty, trustworthiness, and generosity bled through every action with every person-from the delegates we first met in the US, to the school officials, government workers, police, restaurant staff, drivers, hotel staff, teenagers on the street, store clerks and more. It is amazing how refreshing it is to be around kindness and generosity-which comes from the heart and not because there is something to gain. I have nothing to offer, but myself. That was enough. I was enough. How humbling.
We heard stories from the past that are alive today, in the memories and fabric of life in the communities around us. Kosovo is a country that in its newness and growing diplomacy, seeking a seat in the world alongside its neighbors, mourns. Mourning comes from all over the region-north to south, and for many reasons and not always the same reasoning. What was so impactful for me was to see strength in the everyday people. A mom whose entire family was kidnapped and exterminated has such strength that I could never imagine, no ability to comprehend-as what she endures in unbearable. She stands firm, like a pillar of a home that was hit by a storm long ago-but withstands the storm a reminder of once was. The house (and its owner) stands as a living and breathing museum-may we never forget what has happened. Once we forget the past, it is easy to repeat. Why is it that we, culturally, don’t want to remember our past? Why do we not see that once we stop talking about the past, it can easily become present in our lives again, like it never went away? Other every day people demonstrated strength to me through simple actions that are easy to overlook. Our dear friends Nora, Riza, Lulejete, Besnik, Ivanka- they made sure we were safe, had language needs covered, had escorts, had reflection time in a constructive, unthreatening and unbiased way. They celebrated our journey, our friendship, and our special moments-with each other and with their family and friends. Their devotion to us is not always shown, and to them I am grateful. The students at RIT Kosovo who wanted to help us just because they were kind-they could have easily said “hi” in passing and let us go about our day. Judges, Police, Government staff, NGO Executives, University Faculty, all made time, sometimes in the evening several hours after work, to meet us and exchange dialogue. All their efforts carry such meaning to me! They were amazing representatives of the strength and endurance of the Kosovar people-not just because they were working a hard battle to end injustices, but they were all open to dialogue and exchange, all for the benefit of the client and the community. When we are open we learn and we see things in a new way. This leads to change.
Strong women. I have been surrounded by a community of beautiful, strong, intelligent, gentle yet fierce women. The day I met ex president Atifete Jahjaga, a female who once ruled this nation, will stay as one of the biggest impressions I have had in my life. Her message of the use of sexual violence and torture as a tool of war is etched in my brain like scar tissue. I don’t want it to go away. When I touch the scar, I want to vividly recall the conversation, my feelings, the hurt, and the urgency to get behind the movement of supporting empowering women to move past trauma through a healing by way of economic and social independence. Kosovo Womens Network can only be described by explaining that we walked into a tornado of energy and power. The women behind this movement are too powerful-not because they say they are powerful but because they DO things. They don’t waste time to sell you their story, like we get tied up doing much of back home. They just do the work, diligently, without losing track of where they are going. They are completely awe inspiring! The University of Prishtina Social Work Department is doing a fabulous job of not only preparing the next generation, but seeking out meaningful opportunities to rebuild justice and empowerment in the core of the society. They scrutinize, work towards healing, look to rebuild, collaborate, and energize the next generation to do even better. The students that the Department of Social Work has are committed to advocacy, human rights and empowering the vulnerable. They live through experiences that have given them tools to make change in this world. I have learned that the majority of Kosovo (or nearly) are young people. What an opportunity to make positive change happen in our life span! Lastly, Women’s Right Organization, an NGO in North Mitrovica, is fueled by some of the most passionate people I have met to this day! Strength oozed from the staff in Womens Right Organization, who are so ingrained in their community that they empower change for women and are not afraid to stand up and be bold in their message. Passion leads to creativity, innovation, advocacy against the most enduring injustices, and for this I am honored to be rejuvenated by them.
A step back to reality? Yes, I think so. It was refreshing to be around people who lived in the moment, with us, and were so connected to who they were, who they are, and where they want to go. But where they want to go is not a personal, individual, materialistic improvement. It’s a community that’s safe, peaceful, well integrated, with opportunity, relationships, hope and thriving. Yes, we can learn a lot from the people in Kosovo. Once we stop considering what WE have to offer them, and how can WE help them, that’s the true moment that WE grow and change-because we are vulnerable and this is the essence of where change comes from. Thank you dear friends, thank you to the people of Kosovo, for this reflective opportunity to learn from you, share in your hurt and your pride, and to walk alongside you for your better future.
Dr April Murphy is an Assistant Professor at Western Kentucky University's Social Work Department. She came to support and learn from Empower International's Open World program in November 2016, and was a participant on the reverse trip to Kosovo.
Stacy invited her to join the Open World program since at the time she was applying for a grant that would have required national and international collaboration, and it was a great way to meet their team prior to traveling. Stacy liked the idea of meeting more peers from around the States, and she is so glad that April became a member of our programs!
I recently was provided with an opportunity to travel to Kosovo with an organization, Empower International, based out of Phoenix, Arizona. Whether divine intervention or just blind luck, I received an email from a woman named Stacy Moreno, a MSW social worker, who was organizing a trip to Kosovo around sex trafficking. I ignored the email for a few days but I could not let the idea of following my dreams dissipate. I reached out to Stacy and learned about her organization, Empower International. Empower International is a non-profit organization affiliated with CIPUSA based out of Cleveland, Ohio. Ultimately, Stacy wanted to provide more opportunities for U.S.-based social workers and social work students to go global and expand their horizons at an affordable rate. Through a grant received through the Office of International Programs at WKU and money raised through a GoFundMe account, I was able to travel to Kosovo on October 6th, 2017. I went to learn – I did not go as an expert in the field of trafficking or a researcher or an academic. I went as a student – to learn about sex trafficking in Kosovo and approaches they were using to combat trafficking in their country.
As I sit and reflect on my most recent trip to Prishtina, Kosovo, I can only sit back in awe. While the trip was focused on human sex trafficking in Kosovo, with meetings scheduled with shelters, police, and judges who were working to combat sex trafficking in Kosovo, that was not the message that spoke to me the loudest. What spoke to me the loudest was the horrific atrocities that occurred on that land, without sufficient justice being seen in almost 20 years. What I remember is the woman who opened up her home after she converted it into a museum following the war. I remember looking into a glass box that now held 2 of the outfits her two young boys were wearing when they were snatched from their home. I saw their shoes, their pictures, I felt their pain. As the woman recounted her story of hiding in the basement with other families trying to be hidden from the definite massacre they would experience if located, I could not help but cry for her - to be angry for her. Her husband and four young boys - the youngest being 14 years of age - were aggressively escorted away from the home and slaughtered. To date, this woman has only received the remains of 2 of her sons. This was one family, the Qerkezi family, but this was the story of many families.
What I remember is hearing the chief of police telling of his time in the war as a young boy and how his family had to retreat to the mountains for safety. How they had to stay there for a prolonged period of time - too long for his niece to survive. I remember listening to him talk about how it is still important for him to work together with those ultimately responsible for the death of his niece and others in his community. Where does that resilience and forgiveness come from?
What I remember is sitting in front of the small, elegant woman who was the former President of Kosovo, Atifete Jahjaga, and hearing her passion for helping the women of Kosovo. She recounted for us the phone call she eventually received from a woman who wanted to meet her alone. Of course, the President had to run this by her security council where she received a resounding “NO.” The danger was just great - not only was she the President of Kosovo, but she was also the first female President of a nation that was, and still is, male dominated. So, she decided to let it go - at least as her security council knew. However, she called her mother and asked her to leave her car out because she needed to use it. The President snuck out that night to travel over an hour to meet this woman she spoke to briefly on the phone. But, it was not only her - it was multiple women who all experienced the worst atrocities of war - rape and torture. The President told us stories of women with their breasts cut, their stomachs cut open - how they were forced to remain in their homes because of the shame they brought on their families - how they were forced to marry old men in order to be “normal.” The stories the President heard led her into action. She knew she had to do something to help these women - and that is what she devoted her Presidency to and continues to devote her life to now. What if we were all so bold?
What I remember is going to this little town where the Jashari family lived. As I walked up to the soldier guarded monuments, I had no idea how much that was going to touch me. His entire family, and extended family - 58 individuals laid to rest, including children as young as 7. How can you reconcile the murder and massacre of women and children? We were able to hear the history of the first bombing, the second, and the third bombing - how sometimes they had to run up this steep hill far away where the Albanian flag was hidden in the woods to be safe. But, ultimately, the attacks kept coming. The third attack was the worst - the guide recounted for us the story of a young girl just 10 years old, Besarta Jashari. She was in the house with her family when the third attack occurred – she was the only survivor. Several of her family members were injured and calling out for water so she tried to go to the kitchen to get them some water. Then, she no longer heard her father singing - that was how she knew they were ok. She knew that they were dead. But she kept trying to get water to them. When the soldiers found her alive, they took her by the hand and walked her through the dead bodies - they allowed her to survive, but the psychological trauma had already been established. This young girl still lives today - how, I do not know. There was something about standing on that land - I felt the pain, I felt the loss, but I also felt the hope and resilience of these people. It’s a feeling that I don’t know that I will ever be able to explain.
There was so much more to this trip, but nothing touched me like the stories I have recounted above. I gained a life-changing experience that I hope will never fade from my memory. But these memories are not just for myself – it is my responsibility to share these stories. I must share them with my students, with my colleagues, my friends, and the nation. Most people in the United States do not know the atrocities that happened in Kosovo during the war – most people don’t even know where it is. This is the reality of war – the devastation, the cruelty, the pain. I feel a responsibility to the Kosovar people to share their story and to help where I can. I remember in a conversation with President Jahjaga where she was talking about women empowerment and how she is passionate about helping them make a living. I am hoping to write a grant that will provide equipment, like sewing machines, etc., to the women of Kosovo so they can earn a living and provide for their families. So, will I return to Kosovo one day? I hope so! It is a beautiful country with strong, resilient individuals.