By Sylvia Solomon
It is 7:00 at night. Five of us are sitting around a table and the room is lit by
candlelight. As we talk, our breath can be seen in swirling vapour. There is no decoration
in this room; no framed images on walls, no carpet on the floor, nothing covering the
window to hide the jagged edges of the broken glass.
Our voices are quiet as we finish our two-hour meeting with words of comfort. The tall,
tired man Ive been interviewing thanks me for showing such interest in his people.
Hes an elementary school principal in central Prishtina and this is a typical day
The story of his school goes back 10 years, to the day that they were expelled from
this building because they were Albanians living in Kosovo. Until only two months ago the
school had been functioning in peoples homes; a class here, a class there.
The principal had continued to work with his staff and the teachers had continued to
work with the children. This went on year after year with no resources, no supplies and no
salaries. With the arrival of NATO troops last spring, the school shifted from being the
headquarters of a Serbian paramilitary unit to the headquarters of a NATO group and
finally, in July, it was turned back over to the principal. Still without resources
or salaries the teachers gathered as a staff to plan the re-opening of their
STUDENTS ATTEND SCHOOL IN SHIFTS
Since the war ended, there has been an increase of close to 30 per cent in the local
population. People from villages whose homes had been burned and whose friends had been
massacred have been migrating to the capital city to stay with relatives who still had
homes and had only lost all of their belongings through looting and vandalism.
Students were organized into three shifts to accommodate the numbers, with Grades 4, 7
and 8 coming from 7:30 a.m. until noon, Grades 1, 2 and 3 from noon to 4:00 p.m. and
Grades 5 and 6 from 4:00 to 8:00 at night. Thats why were here on this cold,
dark December evening, to meet with teachers and students and with the team that leads the
The classroom is much colder than the principals office had been. Forty-seven
students sit on chairs some of which are broken at 22 narrow desks designed
for two students each. The children all wear coats, hats and gloves, if they have them.
Some have no shoes or socks. Only a small blackboard and a few pieces of chalk can be
seen. The door of the room hangs from one hinge, letting the stench from the broken
toilets down the hall waft into the room. Sewage from broken pipes drips on
childrens heads as they drink from the only water fountain in the school.
Day after day the teachers come and the children come. They spend their few hours
together and when the children go home they sit in cold houses with candles and
flashlights and diligently do their homework. They treat their teachers with respect, and
they can often be seen huddling around a classmate who is crying because of the memory of
a missing brother, a friend being shot or their father being marched away.
DEDICATION OF TEACHERS
I have been a teacher for 25 years. I have visited schools in Canada and the United
States, in China and Tanzania. I have worked with hundreds of colleagues and scores of
administrators. I have always been proud to be a teacher, proud of the commitment of my
But this evening, in this principals office, I am almost overwhelmed by the
courage and dedication of teachers. Take away their building, and they find new places to
teach. Take away their supplies, and they develop strategies that dont rely on paper
or pencils. Take away their resources, and they become storytellers. Take away their
salaries, and they find ways to survive without money and still provide a cake to
celebrate a childs birthday. Take away their freedom, and they wash the only shirt
they have left and stand proudly in front of their students as they teach about peace and
Sylvia Solomon currently works at the Ministry of Education. She
has recently returned from Kosovo where she was working with the International
Childrens Institute to help develop programs to support the psychosocial skills of
Kosovo children. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
For more information about the International Childrens Institute, call the Montreal
office at 514-695-6757.