Seven days in Kosovo: A priceless experience


It’s amazing how one week flies and, unfortunately, this trip is almost at the end. I remember that on the second day we felt that we had already been in Kosovo for a long time, and today we feel that it was not enough.

Community Centre Mitrovica - By Leonor Jacinto

Community Centre Mitrovica – By Leonor Jacinto

This was a very deep and intense experience and, at times, overwhelming with a lot of information about a young country in a post-war process with so much to do to improve children’s rights and ensure equal access to education.

Before travelling to Kosovo, I was very unaware of the country’s social, political and economic situation. We knew Kosovo only from the news and, whenever there was coverage, it was about the conflict, so the trip was a unique opportunity to break those stereotypes that exist about the country.

During my time in Kosovo, I tried to learn and understand as much as possible about the education and development problems and challenges Kosovo is facing. After a week, I feel that I know a different part of the world more intimately, and am very proud to see the role I can play both as an IKEA co-worker and as a citizen of the project developed by the Save the Children team to improve education and the integration of children.

Handikos Rehabilitation Centre Gjakova - By Leonor Jacinto

Handikos Rehabilitation Centre Gjakova – By Leonor Jacinto

It was an amazing opportunity to be able to know not only Save the Children but their local partners, such as Iniciativa 6 and Handikos, to see how they work together in schools, rehabilitation centres and inclusive centres, and how collaborative and committed they are to making a difference in children’s lives in Kosovo.

Jeta Rë Community Centre in Prizren - By Leonor Jacinto

Jeta Rë Community Centre in Prizren – By Leonor Jacinto

The best part of the experience was the children we met and the opportunity to interact, play, and talk with them. They were amazing, and I felt very humble with their openness, hope and ability to look forward and hope for a better future. It was an honour to be able to know the future leaders, managers and entrepreneurs of the country. We learned that even with lots of challenges everyone can work to make a positive change and invest in their country.

Jeta Rë Community Centre in Prizren - By Leonor Jacinto

Jeta Rë Community Centre in Prizren – By Leonor Jacinto

Personally, I am committed as an ambassador of the IKEA Foundation to share all the stories we bring from this trip with my co-workers and friends and family. Talking to the IKEA co-worker group, we all came to an agreement that this experience has made us so much richer, giving us a new perspective about a place that we knew little to nothing about, and that we have a duty to educate our co-workers about the role each and every one of us can play through the opportunities with IKEA to make the world a better place.

Prizren Ibrahim Fehmiu School - By Leonor Jacinto

Prizren Ibrahim Fehmiu School – By Leonor Jacinto

About Leonor Jacinto

I work in internal communication and sustainability for IKEA Portugal. I have worked for IKEA for 10 years--I started as a part-time salesperson in the Alfragide store. In my free time, I love being outdoors, travelling, reading and meeting different people. Being part of the IWitness trip is incredible! It is also incredible to know that the work we develop every year is having a direct impact on children’s lives across the world.

Iber river’s reality


On the last day of our trip, we went to Mitrovica. I was impressed with the difference between Mitrovica and the rest of Kosovo. Mitrovica is a city in northern Kosovo; it is not very developed and still bears some signs from the war. The Iber river divides the Serbian and Albanian sides, so when we reached the city centre by the river we had to change buses on the Albanian side in order to get to the Serbian side of the city. Personally, it was the first time I felt and was able to understand the clash between Serbs and Albanians in the country.

Ibir bridge Mitrovica - By Daniela Pitrez

Ibir bridge Mitrovica – By Daniela Pitrez

The streets in northern Mitrovica were small and, because it was a holiday, quite full of people and cars. At first sight there seem to be no traffic rules; you don’t need a licence to drive and you don’t see licence plates that identify cars.

Mitrovica street - By Daniela Pitrez

Mitrovica street – By Daniela Pitrez

After a winding drive, we reached Handikos community-based rehabilitation centre. The centre was founded in 2003 by Miriana Spiric. Miriana started working in the centre with just an assistant. The first facility was a container, and they used that space for three years. As a volunteer myself, I felt very inspired and touched by Miriana’s story and her determination to work towards promoting and realising the rights of children with special needs.

Activity Room Centre U Mitrovica - By Daniela Pitrez

Activity Room Centre U Mitrovica – By Daniela Pitrez

Today she is in charge of managing the centre that receives 50 children every day. The centre is very well equipped, clean and comfortable. They are focused on the rehabilitation of disabled people and work mainly in three areas: children’s concentration, communication and physical coordination. They have two big rooms with didactic toys with two interns who just finished university in rehabilitation, social assistance and language therapy. They also have a mini gymnasium with a physiotherapist to work on the physical rehabilitation of the kids.

Activity Room Centre U Mitrovica - By Daniela Pitrez

Activity Room Centre U Mitrovica – By Daniela Pitrez

Miriana is a great communicator, full of energy and motivation and we will follow and make sure she can have the tools to continue her project and the other 50 children’s projects. That’s why after our visit we discussed this situation with Save the Children and they assured us that they will continue to look for ways to support Miriana and her team in the work they’re doing.

Activity Room Centre U Mitrovica - By Daniela Pitrez

Activity Room Centre U Mitrovica – By Daniela Pitrez

About Daniela Pitrez

One year ago I started working at IKEA in Loures, first as a cashline co-worker and now as a Kitchen Department salesperson. I identify with the IKEA vision and values and love what I do--it just feels right! I have a college degree in sociology, and I’ve done some volunteer work with children and people with disabilities. I’m very glad to join the IWitness trip to Kosovo. It will be a magnificent and unique experience, and I look forward to sharing everything about this trip with my colleagues and friends.

Building new ideas in Gjakova


Today we visited the city of Gjakova, about 1.5 hours’ drive south-west of Pristina. In Gjakova we visited a preschool class, a pre-primary class (ages five and six) and a rehabilitation centre for children with disabilities. The organisation Handikos supports children and adults with disabilities by providing orthopedic equipment, physiotherapists, field visits to advise and assess needs, and cooperating with government agencies to change laws. They have a large focus on integrating children with disabilities by way of teacher training, parental education, individual sessions with the children and supporting the children when they’re in regular classrooms. Prior to Handikos and Save the Children being involved in the community, there was a belief that children with disabilities could not function or have the right to be in regular classrooms, but opinions are changing drastically now.

Alba gets a chair

While we were at the Handikos rehabilitation centre, we visited with Alba, a five-year-old girl with autism who has been attending the centre since age two. Alba receives individual support based upon objective-based recommendations two mornings per week and then is taken across the street to the preschool to join her friends. In the centre, teachers and therapists assess children every six months and revise their individual goals based upon current abilities, needs and successes.

Alba

We had the opportunity to see Alba again when she had returned to her integrated classroom and the children played the game of musical chairs. Games play an important role in teaching socialisation and turn-taking. Despite Alba’s limited verbal ability, she clearly has friends in the integrated class. A young boy gave his seat to Alba in order to keep her in the game for a longer time.

Arbnora draws

We also met with a young girl named Arbnora who had significant physical limitations. When she came to Handikos she was unable to open her hands, but with physiotherapy she was happy to help me draw and enjoyed turning the pages of the book we brought from Canada.

Arbnora reads a book

We have been incredibly moved and feel fortunate to visit with the educators, Save the Children hosts and their partners (Handikos, Putevima Sunca & Iniciativa 6). It is very evident that everyone involved has a high level of commitment to successfully changing the ideas around inclusivity in Kosovo, whether it is inclusion of ethnic minorities or children with disabilities.

About Jennifer Clowes

I work in the North York (Toronto) store, and I’m so thrilled to have the opportunity to travel to Kosovo. I’ve worked at IKEA for nearly 24 years – at three different stores and in almost every Sales department and Customer Service. When I’m not at work, I’m involved in the schools in my community. For the last three years I have volunteered for Roots of Empathy in our local public schools.

The ‘Snakes and Ladders’ game for children’s rights


Today we left our hotel to visit the Zekeria Rexha school in the municipality of Gjakova. Zekeria Rexha is an Albanian-speaking school with children from the Roma, Ashkali and Egyptian minorities. Save the Children and Iniciativa 6—a local civil society organisation that works closely with the school, parents and students—are providing training to teachers and materials for children in supplementary and inclusive classes. They want to ensure all children have access to education by raising awareness and knowledge about inclusive teaching methods.

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Saranda Cena is the teacher responsible for developing an inclusive method in the school. She was trained by Save the Children and is focussed on working with children who have learning challenges. Saranda explained how, by working with the new methods, she was able to help Erion and Aurela to progress in school. Erion is a shy five-year-old boy. At the beginning of the year he was non-verbal, which made his school and home life very difficult. Today, Erion is able to put together words and to communicate and get his message across.

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Aurela is a six-year-old girl who had socialisation challenges and her drawings always had very dark colours. Saranda explained how they were able to improve Aurela’s abilities by performing group activities such as dancing together, walking together in the garden, drawing and playing games. In Aurela’s case, socialisation performed a major role in her integration. And the proof lies in one of Aurela’s new drawings: full of bright colours!

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Afterwards, we met a classroom of students in between 12 and 16 years old. One of the surprises was their great level of English. We played the Snakes and Ladders game with questions about children’s rights. If you don’t know how it goes, take a look below:

- Roll a Styrofoam dice to know how many houses you should move.
- If you land on a coloured house, you answer a question.
- If you land on a snake, you go back.
- If you land on a ladder, you go forward.

It was fun and it’s a great way to become aware of children’s rights.
But that’s not all. The class also prepared a play about children’s abuse. They are great actors. It is amazing to see how this class is giving voice to children by making them discuss what is important to them and tackling strong subjects such as children’s rights, how can they work together to create a difference and establishing the future leaders of Kosovo!

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About Marcos Moreira

I have been a graphic designer at IKEA Loures in Portugal for two and a half years. I’m 47 years old, am married and have two children. As an IKEA co-worker, I strongly believe in our company values and am very proud to have the opportunity to witness the work Save the Children is developing in Kosovo. I’m really eager to share all the experiences from the trip.

“Jeta & Re” means new life for children


Our group went to the city of Prizren today to meet Iniciativa 6, one of Save the Children’s local partners. Iniciativa 6 established the community centre Jeta & Re in 2003. The name means “new life” and programmes in the centre are aimed at integrating children from minority groups and those with special needs into the mainstream education system.

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The centre started with only five people getting together to create a better life for the local community. When they started, there were no pre-primary classes, and only 24% of Roma, Ashkali and Egyptian children went to school. Now, 200 children are in pre-primary classes and around 78% of the Roma, Ashkali and Egyptian children are integrated in the public school. With the support of Save the Children, who worked with them to establish the project, they are doing an incredible job in overcoming stereotypes about disabled children and minorities and in getting children into classrooms.

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Ibrahim Krusha, one of the founding members of Iniciativa 6, explained to us the challenges in getting children from minorities to school. When working as a volunteer, he met a Roma family whose kids were not attending school. He made it his mission to explain how education plays an important role in children’s development. Every day he went to their house, trying to reach them. On the 30th unsuccessful visit, the parents had enough and told him, “If you come back again, you will have problems.” Ibrahim did not give up. He came back on the next day and tried again. Today one of the children from this family is in university studying to become a nurse.

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At the end of the day, we visited the Children’s Assembly in Peja, which has 41 members from 27 primary schools with representatives from all minorities. This is a committed group of children from the 6th to 9th grades who want to develop a better education for themselves and their peers and to ensure the respect of children’s fundamental rights through advocacy and awareness raising. They distributed information flyers with the support of Save the Children and Iniciativa 6, spoke in a radio talk show, and met with the school directors and Peja’s mayor to address matters such as abuse and school conditions. It will be exciting to see their next steps.

About Joana Barros

Hej, Olá, Hello. I’m 25 years old and I’m really lucky to be part of IKEA’s Portugal team going on an IWitness trip to Kosovo. I work in the children’s department at the Loures store and have the opportunity to be part of the Soft Toys for Education campaign in the store. I just finished my degree in architecture, focussing on rehabilitation, so I’m really interested in the impact a home can have in creating a good environment to raise a child.

Education without boundaries


Our first day began with an information session with Save the Children Kosovo; we met the entire staff and got a tour of their Prishtina head offices, which are located about a block from our hotel. We were presented with their program initiatives based entirely on the work promoting children’s rights to a healthy and safe childhood with access to a quality education. Save the Children has partnered with many local organizations—like Handikos, Iniciativa 6, and Putevima Sunca—which contribute positively to the development of programs to get the child, family and community involved in the child’s education.

We then took a short bus ride to the city of Gracanica to see the children enrolled in the primary school Kralj Milutin, where Save the Children works with a local partner organization called Putevima Sunca on inclusive education programs for minority children. The city is heavily populated by the Serbian community, but there is also a visible minority of Roma and Ashkali people. It is important to mention that this is the very first time an international organization like Save the Children has been allowed to go into the city to develop the programs that are currently underway in this minority community.

Student at supplementary class - By Rocio Reyes

Student at supplementary class – By Rocio Reyes

Save the Children, through the support of the IKEA Foundation, provides primary education with a supplementary component that supports the introduction of learning for marginalized children. These lessons allow children to develop at their own pace, integrating them more easily into their own level of learning at the age that they should be. We also visited classrooms that provide extracurricular activities that involve the arts—both visual and dance. We were delighted to see the children participate in a presentation, dancing to their local folklore.

Kralj Milutin School in Gracanica_Thank You message from students - By Rocio Reyes

Kralj Milutin School in Gracanica_Thank You message from students – By Rocio Reyes

About Rocio Reyes

I started my IKEA journey over 13 years ago and am currently an accountant in the Canadian Service Office. Born in El Salvador, I am proud to call Canada my home. I volunteer with an organization called Asociación Fraternidad Hispana, which provides social, cultural, educational, and sports programs for our community. Now that I have the opportunity to represent Canada as one of the IWitness ambassadors, I can add this to my ongoing journey, accept humbly the responsibilities it entails and look forward to sharing with the world.

Our very first field experience in Kosovo


Today we started the day by visiting the Save the Children headquarters, where we learned how they are working to improve children’s access to education and the challenges they face.

Save the Children is working in 18 schools and 9 municipalities close together with civil society organizations and the whole community, including parents, teachers and children. While Save the Children started working in Kosovo in 1997, the collaboration with the IKEA Foundation began in 2013 as a three-year project that aims to reach 12,000 children in public schools.

After the office visit, we went to Gracanica to visit the Kralj Milutin primary school—our first field trip! This is the first Save the Children project to be implemented inside the schools in the Municipality of Gracanica, predominantly a Serbian-speaking municipality. Up until now, most other organizations have implemented activities outside of the schools.

Lunch at Kralj Milutin Elementary School in Gracanica - By Valid Zhubi

Lunch at Kralj Milutin Elementary School in Gracanica – By Valid Zhubi

When we entered the classroom, the students greeted us with enthusiasm and thanked Save the Children and IKEA for the opportunity to have supplementary classes. We were listening to the children and they explained how important the new supplementary lessons are for them since they started one year ago. Now they are able to read better and to have better grades, becoming better students.

After the first visit, we watched a pre-primary lesson, where the children develop their creativity and artistic expression through learning poems, singing and dancing, and theatre performances. Since it’s almost Easter, children were painting Easter eggs. It was fantastic to see their enthusiasm and happiness. Save the Children was able to provide them with the tools for this class through the funds raised by the Soft Toys for Education campaign. In the end, the children performed a traditional dance, and we danced and clapped hands together.

We are looking forward to seeing the new projects and meeting the children.

About Laura Cerqueira

I’m a store manager at IKEA Loures in Portugal. I have been working at IKEA for 10 years and have participated in the Soft Toys for Education campaign since the beginning, in 2003. I am very proud of the work the IKEA Foundation is doing to improve children’s education. I’m excited to go to Kosovo and understand how the Save the Children teams are improving children’s education and futures.

Learning about Kosovo’s past to understand its future!


Our IWitness team is visiting Save the Children projects in Kosovo this week. To kick off this series of blog posts, Ylber Kusari from Save the Children Canada talks about the special way the group started their trip.

By Ylber Kusari:

I was beyond thrilled when I received the news I would be accompanying IKEA co-workers on an IWitness trip to my home country of Kosovo.

We started our first day with an introduction to Kosovo by going to Prizren, a historic city in the south. For the IKEA co-workers to understand the contemporary reality of Kosovo and the work Save the Children is doing through the support of IKEA Foundation, it’s essential that they first understand the country’s history.

Prizren Castle Prizren - by Valid Zhubi

Prizren Castle Prizren – by Valid Zhubi

We climbed up a hill carrying our IKEA Foundation backpacks to visit a historic castle from the fifth century, while sharing stories of Kosovo’s evolution as a young country carving an identity in the global arena, and its implications on the education system.

Standing at the top of a hill, surrounded by ancient ruins under a clear blue sky, I realized how committed and passionate the IKEA co-workers are in making a difference through their workplace. Listening to their stories about fundraising for the Soft Toys for Education campaign and their desire to go on the trip was truly inspiring. I realized that the IKEA Foundation is giving its co-workers an opportunity to fulfill their personal legacy by getting involved through their workplace.

Prizren Castle Kosovo - by Laura Cerqueira

Prizren Castle Kosovo – by Laura Cerqueira

As an employee of Save the Children, I felt humbled and grateful that we have the fortune of working with IKEA here in Kosovo. Together we can make the future brighter for the children here in Kosovo and worldwide. I look forward to leading the group on an inspirational and meaningful journey over the next five days!

About Juli Riegler

Juli is the IKEA Foundation's Digital Communications Manager. Next to managing the IKEA Foundation's website and Facebook account she works closely with Save the Children and UNICEF and IKEA's yearly Soft Toys for Education campaign. She enjoys doing a lot of different sports, travelling and connecting with people from around the world.

What makes it all possible


Anton Nyman works for UNICEF Sweden, and he recently returned from an IWitness trip to Sierra Leone. Here he explains why the IKEA Foundation’s funding is so important for UNICEF’s work, and he thanks IKEA co-workers for helping UNICEF improve children’s education in Sierra Leone.

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Over the last couple of days, I have had the privilege of visiting Sierra Leone with five IKEA co-workers. The purpose of the visit is to see and learn more about the programmes that the IKEA Foundation supports in Sierra Leone, one of the poorest countries in the world.

Here we have met teachers, children and community leaders, and we have seen and experienced a lot. And from my experience, I can truly say that the money donated to UNICEF’s programmes on child-centered teacher training and emerging issues is making a massive impact and gives more children access to a good education. But that does not surprise me at all. Actually, that it is something that, as a UNICEF employee, I expect to see on a visit like this. It is our job and mission to support vulnerable children and to make sure that their rights are listened to and acted upon. There is still very much to be achieved in the work for children in Sierra Leone, but the work done is really pushing in the right direction.

School picture - by Martin Nordin

School picture – by Martin Nordin

What really has made an impression on me during this visit is what makes it all possible. Of course, there are a lot of factors that have to work to make it all happen. We need the right staff, the right local partner, a connection with the right authorities, and so on. But without money coming in from private donors, corporate partners and governments, none of this would be possible. Without the support from the IKEA Foundation toward this specific programme, fewer children would have the opportunity to get a good education. It is as simple as that.

The most common comment I get when telling people that I work for UNICEF is: “It must be great to work for an organisation that really does something important. That really makes a difference.” And yes, it is truly a privilege to work for UNICEF, because children and societies really benefit through the work that we do.

But the change made for children is not just thanks to UNICEF or any other non-governmental organisation. It is thanks to dedicated people. It is thanks to our engaged donors and partners. It is thanks to people like you, working at IKEA and making it a successful business, that more children in Sierra Leone and many other places can get the quality education they have the right to get. It is your engagement and dedication to do a good job that makes it all possible. It is from the sales of beds, lights and bookshelves that children in Sierra Leone are given the tools they need to rise from poverty. It is thanks to your work with selling soft toys that more children can face a better future.

Soft Toy picture - by Martin Nordin

Soft Toy picture – by Martin Nordin

So all I can say is thanks. Thanks for your engagement and dedication. It must be great to work for an organisation that really does something important. That really makes a difference for a lot of children.

Feel pride in what you do, because what you do is great!

Best regards,
Anton Nyman
Senior Corporate Officer
UNICEF Sweden

About Juli Riegler

Juli is the IKEA Foundation's Digital Communications Manager. Next to managing the IKEA Foundation's website and Facebook account she works closely with Save the Children and UNICEF and IKEA's yearly Soft Toys for Education campaign. She enjoys doing a lot of different sports, travelling and connecting with people from around the world.

The children who form their own government


When we visited Musaiya village in Sierra Leone today, we were able to speak to some primary school children who have formed a children’s government, supported by their local mothers’ club . They were so inspiring!

By Natalia Hahn

By Natalia Hahn

These children take on responsibilities that most children would never consider. Most of us are not used to having schoolchildren cleaning their own schools, maintaining toilets (outdoor latrines), fetching water, maintaining a garden, teaching other about hygiene, organising school assemblies, managing sports activities, taking care of vulnerable students, advocating to keep girls in school, deciding on important tasks for maintaining the school property, taking attendance, etc.

By Natalia Hahn

By Natalia Hahn

These children are voted into their positions by the whole school, and hold titles such as president, vice president, secretary, minister of education, minister of agriculture, minister of health, minister of sanitation, minister of information, and minister of finance.

These children are proud of their responsibilities and take them very seriously. They hold meetings and make requests to both the mothers’ club and to the principal about changes they want to make in the school.

They take on these responsibilities every day and even come to school much earlier than the rest of the students—sometimes after walking for up to 45 minutes to school.

By Natalia Hahn

By Natalia Hahn

Because of them, other students are empowered and have a voice—they have a say about how their school is run and what issues are important. For some schools, acquiring or fixing a well is the first issue on the list. For others, it is finding a supply of soap for the outdoor handwashing stations.

These children are so thankful for the opportunity to go to school, to be educated. They are so proud of their schools that they volunteer so much of their energy and time to make their educational experience that much better. What an inspiration!

About Natalia Hahn

I am a sustainability leader for IKEA Group, focusing on co-worker engagement and community strategy. I work closely with the IKEA Foundation to ensure relevant and timely communication within the IKEA Group and to our co-workers. I come from IKEA Canada, where I worked as a sustainability manager before moving to Sweden in January 2013. I have a two-year-old son whom I love to spend time with.