Ethnic Studies

Shpresa thought “very, very hard” about emigrating to the West

Shpresa thought “very, very hard” about emigrating to the West.

BUJANOVAC, Serbia | Shpresa thought “very, very hard” about emigrating to the West, even of claiming asylum in Switzerland or Germany, where some of her family and friends live.

Had she gone, she’d have joined thousands of others from southern Serbia, mostly ethnic Albanians and Roma, who’ve emigrated to Western Europe, the numbers making some EU countries ponder re-introducing visas for Serbian citizens.

But that was before Shpresa, an ethnic Albanian, started college. “Now, there’s no point in it,” she said, smiling, in a corridor at the local Faculty of Economics, where she was among the first 69 students to enroll in October 2011.

The faculty looks nothing special on the outside – in fact, it’s still housed in the local cultural center. But special it is, because this is the first and so far only institution in Serbia, since the secession of Kosovo, where university level education is provided in Albanian. The attendance at the opening ceremony of the U.S. and British ambassadors to Belgrade and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s envoy to Serbia lent an importance to the event that reached far beyond sleepy Bujanovac.

Yet, the tale of this college and of Albanian-language education in the Presevo Valley is less glossy than the diplomats’ and Shpresa’s enthusiasm suggests.

One telling fact is that “Shpresa” isn’t the young woman’s real name. She agreed to speak only on condition of anonymity, a widespread attitude in the far south of Serbia, where ethnic Albanians are sizeable minorities in the towns of Bujanovac and Medvedja and the large majority in Presevo – all in all some 50,000 to 60,000 people. Residents of all nationalities often prefer anonymity to avoid getting mixed up in politics – and in this region, everything is politics, including education. Politicians in Kosovo and Albania regularly comment on events here, drawing the Presevo Valley into the ongoing political game over Kosovo and the whole balance of power in the Balkans.

Caught up in this whirlpool are the lives of individuals trying to make a living in one of the most deprived parts of Serbia. Shpresa’s faculty is one sign that things may be changing, but there are worrying reminders as well of the climate of violence that threatened to spread into the valley in the aftermath of the Serbia-Kosovo conflict. In January, police in Presevo on orders from Belgrade removed a monument to the Albanians who waged a low-level secession struggle in 2000 and 2001. With tempers only just beginning to cool, the president of the Coordination Body for Presevo, Bujanovac, and Medvedja stepped up. Formed in 2001 when NATO brokered a peace deal to stop the guerilla fighters’ efforts to make the area a part of Kosovo, the body’s members are the local mayors with a state official, Zoran Stankovic, as president. It mediates between the local community and the Belgrade government, delegating funding for projects that it itself suggests and oversees.

After the monument incident, Stankovic stressed the role of education in helping Albanians integrate into the wider local community; the OSCE showed its support by sending its high commissioner on national minorities, Knut Vollebaek, to Bujanovac. In late January he and Stankovic inspected the site where Shpresa and her colleagues will start the next academic year in a new faculty building paid for by EU funds.


Branko Balj teaches both in Bujanovac and at the faculty’s main location in Subotica, in the Vojvodina province at the other end of the country. In a break between classes, he explained that the OSCE and the Serbian Education Ministry chose the Subotica faculty to bud off the southern branch because of the multinational and multifaith character of both regions.

The diversity of the Vojvodina region, home to sizeable Hungarian, Romanian, and other minorities, gives the Subotica faculty useful know-how and experience which can be tapped to “cultivate a spirit of tolerance” in Bujanovac, Balj said.

Balj teaches business ethics, among other subjects, but he doesn’t speak Albanian. Many ethnic Albanian students, on the other hand, aren’t too good at Serbian. He explained the cumbersome process devised to accommodate both Albanian speakers and Serbian law.

“Speaking Serbian, I teach both ethnic Serbian and Albanian students from 9 to 12, and then at 12:15, Ermal arrives,” Balj explained, pointing to staff member Ermal Rexhepi.

“I then make a briefer summary of the material which Ermal translates into Albanian, and again everyone is present, both Serbs and Albanians.”

Other classes are held in Serbian for Serbs and Roma, while Albanians are taught in their mother tongue by staff of the Albanian-language Tetovo State University in Macedonia. Roughly 40 percent of the student body is non-Albanian.

“The law allows only 30 percent of the teaching to be in the minority language, with 70 percent in Serbian,” Rexhepi explained, “which means that students must know Serbian.” All ethnic Albanian students have been through a seven-month course in Serbian offered free of charge by the Coordination Body, he said – though outsiders often wonder why it’s necessary to teach people the country’s official language.

Albanian youngsters begin learning Serbian from the first grade, but in most cases the teacher speaks no Albanian, says Jasmina Lazovic of the Youth Initiative for Human Rights, a Belgrade-based group that promotes inter-communal projects in southern Serbia.

“These children have no idea what’s going on,” she said.

Telling for the result is that a group of ethnic Albanian Bujanovac high school students when asked where their knowledge of Serbian comes from, didn’t even mention school.

One student, Rexhep Hasani, said he picked up the language through living in a mixed part of town, while Besiana Fejzullahu said it was harder for her because no Serbs live in her village.

“But I watch a lot of Serbian television,” she said.

That young Albanians learn Serbia’s official language more or less at random – so that many happen not to learn it – is an embarrassment to the country’s education system, Lazovic said.

She applauds the opening of the Economics Faculty, but insists the Coordination Body needs to prioritize the quality of teaching in Serbian primary and high schools.

Milica Rodic, an adviser to Stankovic, said the body is now giving scholarships to students from the area, and that two Albanian women students are now studying Serbian language and literature at the University of Novi Sad.

She expects the pair to begin teaching Serbian back home after graduation. Two Serbian-speaking Albanian teachers would mark a start, of course, but communication between Serbs and Albanians is just one part of the story about education in the valley. Another chapter concerns education in Albanians’ mother tongue – and that tale is hardly brighter.


Until five years ago, there was no shortage of Albanian-language textbooks, since Kosovo, with its large Albanian majority, is just down the road. After Pristina proclaimed independence in 2008, Serbia stopped bringing in textbooks and banned the use of the old ones. The old books are still in circulation, although many teachers are said to avoid them for fear of punishment. In 2010, the authorities began bringing in schoolbooks from Albania.

Just 19 Albanian language textbooks have been approved for the use of primary schools (grades one through eight), although schools need around 100 books, according to local educator and coordinator of the Albanian-language textbook project, Zejni Fejzullahu.

Fejzullahu (no relation to Besiana) teaches high school in Bujanovac and also serves as chairman of the education board under the National Minority Council of Albanians. Recognized national minorities in Serbia are entitled to establish such a council to deal with cultural issues, media, and the preservation of “national identity.”

Education is another key task, with the council recommending textbooks for approval by the Education Ministry. Books for the use of Albanian schools are in some cases simply translated from Serbian, some are newly written by local authors, and others are imported from Albania – although these still need to be adapted, as the curricula differ, Fejzullahu explained.

“We hope to have 20 more textbooks ready for next year, but the ministry is taking an unreasonably long time to examine them,” he said.

But according to Rodic, 77 Albanian-language textbooks and workbooks are already available for the use of primary schools, and others are being prepared.

While the parties may disagree on the availability of Albanian-language books in primary schools, all agree that they have yet to reach the local high schools.

“We write what our teachers tell us in our notebooks,” said Jehona Alyi, a student at the Albanian-language high school in Bujanovac. “When you need to study later, it’s a bit difficult as you haven’t got anywhere to look things up, and you can’t keep everything in your head.”

Lazovic, the youth activist, insisted that the lack of textbooks represents what she calls “systematic discrimination” against the Albanian minority.

“It’s as though no [officials] understand that the state is obliged to provide teaching for children of national minorities in their mother tongue,” she said, stressing the requirement as part of both Serbian law and relevant European conventions to which Serbia is a signatory.

But although the state bears ultimate responsibility for communal relations, Lazovic noted that the National Minority Council “faces great challenges,” and that some of those challenges are intra-Albanian.

When the council was formed in special elections in 2010, less than a third of voters turned out. The reason was that the strongest forces are “rightist,” especially in Presevo, Lazovic argued, “and their eyes are turned to Tirana and Pristina.”

The only significant political force locally to back the formation of the National Council was the Party of Democratic Action, led by the only Albanian deputy in the Serbian parliament, Riza Halimi.

Most local politicians, however, don’t support the National Council, and in general don’t accept cooperation with Belgrade, Lazovic said. This has created “an atmosphere of ambivalence” because Albanian culture, education, “and everything that characterizes an ethnic community” is in the hands of the council, “and yet, the council has faced strong obstruction at the local level.”

This internal split was on display at the start of this school year, Lazovic said, when Halimi called for talks with the Education Ministry and other state institutions on the textbook issue to be speeded up, only for Presevo Mayor Ragmi Mustafa – a proponent of annexing the area to Kosovo and one of the National Council’s main opponents in 2010 – to retort, “Our pupils manage without books, and there’s no need to talk with Belgrade about new ones.”

Fejzullahu acknowledges that intra-Albanian disagreements prevent the council from working optimally, and some potential textbook authors simply refuse to cooperate with the council. In an effort to cool the political heat, Fejzullahu added, he has left the Party of Democratic Action.


But Lazovic said that politicization of daily life in the valley “will continue as long as the Kosovo question isn’t definitively solved.”

Most politicians in Belgrade look on the valley as an arena in which to show their patriotism and firmness toward the Albanians, Lazovic said. But their posturing comes at a price, allowing Mustafa and others to strike a nationalist attitude.

If that spiral isn’t broken, Lazovic warned, Albanians “will stop voting for Riza Halimi, who all the time has wanted to work with Belgrade” – including through the National Council and its textbooks. But she does see some light in the tunnel.

In Lazovic’s eyes, the creation of the National Council was a step forward – both for the position of Albanian culture in Serbia, and for ethnic relations. And the Economics Faculty is welcomed by not the least young Albanians, many of whom cannot afford to leave home for university, whether elsewhere in Serbia or, more often, in Kosovo or Macedonia, high-school student Besiana Fejzullahu said.

The sheer poverty of the area is one reason that it’s important to have a faculty locally. Although Belgrade recently agreed to recognize degrees from Pristina University, that process is still expensive and time consuming.

Fejzullahu and her friends from school welcome the arrival of the faculty. However, neither she nor Jehona Alyi, Rexhep Hasani, or another friend, Sarah Shaqiri, said they intend to study there.

Their preferred fields are not on offer in Bujanovac – which shows the limits of the school being restricted to offering business courses, Zejni Fejzullahu said. He notes that while 60 ethnic Albanians began studying at the faculty last year, around 800 graduate from area high schools every year.

On the other hand, not many communities of 60,000 have any kind of higher education facility, and the local economy will struggle to absorb the faculty’s graduates, not least because the area is among the most economically backward in Serbia with around half the work force unemployed.

A revealing adage often heard, not least because it rhymes in Serbian, goes, “the farther south, the sadder it gets.” In January, Serbian Prime Minister Ivica Dacic said he would soon call mayors from the wider southern region together with the aim of forming a body to nurture the economic development of what he called this “strategically important region.”

Shpresa and her fellow students will lend support to that process, Rodic believes. She predicted that in a few years, this cohort of young people will become “initiators of development and progress in business and all other areas.”

When Albanian pupils rallied in Presevo 18 months ago under the slogan “We want textbooks in our mother tongue!” local politicians tried to use the event to send political messages, Lazovic said, concluding that textbooks and pupils “are merely a means to score political points.”

Education and most other aspects of life may be subject to politicking here, but there is general agreement that ethnic tensions in ordinary life are largely absent. “Only people inpositions have problems,” Alyi said.

Story and photos by Uffe Andersen, a freelance journalist in Smederevo, Serbia.


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