The journey of a hard-working Roma woman providing for her disabled son | WeBalkans | EU Projects in the Western Balkans

The journey of a hard-working Roma woman providing for her disabled son

An EU-funded project supports returnees’ reintegration in the Western Balkans.

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For 25 years, Blerta Lushnjari from Albania went back and forth between Albania and other countries, motivated by securing proper healthcare for her son. Antonio was born with a disability and has a complex mix of conditions and Blerta’s hometown, Elbasan, had neither capacities for a proper diagnosis nor provision of free medical services for people with disabilities. With Blerta’s economic situation, it was impossible for her to pay private doctors.

Without a proper diagnosis, it was scary. Blerta was unable to care for Antonio properly without knowing the therapies or medicines that could help alleviate his pain. Nor did she know how to provide for decent living in the future. In the search for better medical attention, they again went abroad, finally managing to get the diagnosis – paraplegia and mild intellectual disability – and secure proper care. However, without settled status, they had to return home to Albania. “When we were abroad, the doctor visited Antonio once a week and he had physiotherapy. But when we came to Albania, there was no such service: nothing at all. So his condition deteriorated.”

“Life was harder. I couldn’t feed my children. Homeless, I was moving between relatives: one week at one person’s house and the next at another’s.”

Blerta Lushnjari, returnee

Many people from the Western Balkans go abroad for work opportunities, but the Roma face particular challenges reintegrating when they return. The most common challenge reported by returnees in the region, including Albania, is employment, followed by lack of decent housing and access to education. In Albania, there was no social protection programme targeting returnees specifically. Back in Elbasan, Blerta was without a home or work, and now had two children to support. Lack of formal education made it difficult for her to find profitable work, and posed challenges for the paperwork needed for a stable life. “Life was harder. I couldn’t feed my children. Homeless, I was moving between relatives: one week at one person’s house and the next one at another’s,” says Blerta.

Despite all the challenges, Blerta was still full of the positive energy which is apparent in the warmth of care for her family: her main goal was to fulfil all her children’s needs. She joined many NGO activities developed for women and their integration in society, and was particularly involved with a vocational training programme for women returnees. The project was called “Strengthening national and local systems to support the effective socio-economic integration of returnees in the Western Balkans”, funded by the EU and implemented by UNDP. Mirjeta Ramizi from UNDP Albania explains that Blerta has been actively involved in many project activities. One of the activities was a business idea for production and marketing of natural handmade soap. Along with other women, Blerta was trained in this craft and provided with raw material and marketing assistance. This income-generating activity is in its initial stages and is running well but, according to Mirjeta, the ladies have higher ambitions, and their newly founded company is looking to expand their market.

As an ambitious and hardworking woman, Blerta also joined another programme, focused on the development of individual business ideas. Since she returned to Albania, she had been making a living through the repair and resale of second-hand goods. Now, with the support of the project, she is planning to turn this part-time activity into a fully developed business. The project is helping her to develop a business plan for opening premises or a trailer-like mobile shop to sell the second-hand goods.

“Through this project we established effective local and national partnerships and drew attention to the needs and challenges of vulnerable communities and returnees.”

Mirjeta Ramizi, UNDP Albania

In Albania the project is providing support in the municipalities of Berat, Devoll, and Fier, where the number of returnees is higher than in other municipalities. Apart from direct assistance to the returnees, which is implemented in cooperation with partner NGOs, the project also provides support to Albania’s local and central government in developing strategies and action plans to address the needs of returnees. Mirjeta from UNDP explains that the economic crisis caused by the war in Ukraine and earlier crises caused by the COVID 19 pandemic have shifted the attention of government into these immediate issues. “Through this project we established effective local and national partnerships and drew attention to the needs and challenges of vulnerable communities and returnees,”she says.

Blerta’s son, now 17, is doing much better. He receives regular physiotherapy at home and at a local centre, supported through a UNDP project with EU and Sustainable Development Goal Fund financing. He has access to better medical care and is still surrounded by a loving family who give attention to his development and care. Blerta’s daughter Leje, now ten, has interest in languages, has won several running medals and loves spending time with her brother. The family still faces struggles with housing though, looking for a home with basic facilities that they can afford. Blerta says, “The biggest dream is to have a house for my two children, so that even when I’m not with them, they will be organised and live a decent life.”

About the project

The “Strengthening national and local systems to support the effective socio-economic integration of returnees in the Western Balkans” project is part of the Instrument for Pre-Accession Assistance (IPA) II Multi-Country Action Programme entrusted to UNDP, the World Bank and the Council of Europe, to support the fundamental rights of Roma and other vulnerable returnees, in Albania, North Macedonia and Serbia. The project addresses the reintegration of the significant number of returnees from the EU during recent years, since the Western Balkans countries were declared “safe countries of origin”. The project works closely with local institutions responsible for providing services for the reintegration of returnees, with a focus on those from Roma and Egyptian ethnic minorities, as well as with local civil society actors and the local business community. The community of returnees is considered both a beneficiary and a partner during the implementation, aiming to create ownership of the activities by the returnees themselves.

Photo credits: UNDP

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