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The Courage of Teachers
Throughout Kosovo, in cities and villages, in both Albanian and Serbian communities, children and teachers are struggling together to find a way to rebuild their lives, to find a way to even imagine a future without fear or hatred.
courage1.jpg (24211 bytes) Amidst the devastation of war, students at the Asim Vokshi school still attend classes, play at recess and lead as normal a life as their teachers and parents can create for them

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 I’ve been interviewing thanks me for showing such interest in his people. He’s an elementary school principal in central Prishtina and this is a typical day for him.

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 people’s 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 school.

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. That’s why we’re here on this cold, dark December evening, to meet with teachers and students and with the team that leads the school.

The classroom is much colder than the principal’s 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 children’s 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.

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 colleagues.

But this evening, in this principal’s 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 don’t 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 child’s 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 democracy.

Sylvia Solomon currently works at the Ministry of Education. She has recently returned from Kosovo where she was working with the International Children’s Institute to help develop programs to support the psychosocial skills of Kosovo children. She can be contacted at For more information about the International Children’s Institute, call the Montreal office at 514-695-6757.