KosovaLive360

Kosovo TV actors, producers are slowly building an industry

A flock of chickens surrounded the house, along with some turkeys and geese. It didn’t exactly look like the set of a famous TV show. It was hot outside, and almost as hot inside on set. Even the actors and crew felt it – but they remained composed and professional, every so often going back to the makeup/dressing room to touch up their faces and change clothes. The atmosphere was relaxed. An actress smiled and lit a cigarette. A crew member offered bottles of water.

The set for the next scene was a kitchen with a table full of food. There was a mixture of people setting up equipment and going back and forth doing who knows what else.

Once the hurry died down, people were shushing each other. Every crew member, one-by-one, in an order known to them, called off “SET!,” and then, there was the iconic “ACTION!” that everyone knows and loves. They were rolling for the next episode of Stupcat’s “Egjeli.

“Oh, my God!” said actor Vedat Bajrami, a tall man with a friendly face and even friendlier demeanor.

He followed with a few lines of dialogue… and nearly as soon as they started, they stopped. And the process began again.

In this show, they would perfect every scene. And so, the same lines were repeated over and over again, each time said slightly differently by Bajrami.

“Oh my GOD!”

“Oh! My God!”

“Oh my Goooood.”

“OHMYGOD.”

Nine takes later – maybe more – they finally stopped, apparently happy with the work. The actors and some others watched their performance back on a monitor, invested in their performance, looking back on their collaborative efforts with enthusiasm.

This part was over, but the tediousness of the work stayed the same. They would shoot the second, longer part of the scene now; and all the people in and out of the house, on and off the set, flitting between talking and doing their work, knew that the tedious effort they put in would be more than worth it, in the end.

“Egjeli” is one show produced in Kosovo that people love – there are a few more. “Kooperativa” is a show from executive producers Fisnik Vejsa and Flamur Kelmendi that centers on a group of people living together, and building a house for a poor family with a sick child. Think “Big Brother” meets “Extreme Makeover: Home Edition.” They play games, and get eliminated, but all the while making something great.

“Kafeneja Jonë” is comedy show designed to show the lives of everyday people, so popular that it ran for 10 years, and now it’s back with a new season.

While there are successful television shows made in Kosovo, it wasn’t always this way. Under socialist rule, far fewer entertainment shows were produced.m

Shkumbin Istrefi, actor and director of Kafeneja Jonë, ran his hands through his wavy silver hair, puffing a cigarette.

“Before, everything was financed by the state,” he said. “It was not a business. There was not any need to have an industry.”

He recounted the days when he studied acting, when the state closed Albanian language institution, so people were forced to study outside of the country or to study in secret, in private homes. He leaned in, his eyes serious. “We can feel that gap, but we kept learning. I think the quality of education dropped.”

Valter Lucaj, director of the newest season of Stupcat’s “Egjeli,” sat on a couch in a back room of the house where they would be filming. He shuffled some scripts around that he was reading as he diligently worked through lunch. Creating “Egjeli” could mean long filming days – sometimes up to 17 or 18 hours, aside from editing.

“Even today,” he said, “we don’t have that big of a market.”

Also, Kosovars who were brave enough to film under the Milosevic regime faced discrimination and oppression.

“Before the war, we were occupied by the Serbs, so we couldn’t film openly,” said Bajrami. Motioning to actor Afrim Krasniqi, he said, “They tried to kill him once, but thank God he’s alive… The soldiers were making fun of them, like ‘You’re not even people, how can you be actors?’”

Krasniqi sat on a couch, eager to talk about opportunities to come.

“I will never forgive myself for not learning English,” he said through a translator. He said he felt he owed America for its aid in the war, throwing in the occasional “God bless America.”

With excitement in his eyes, he talked about his favorite American actors and actresses, and what inspires him. He broke out in a smile when he came to Leonardo DiCaprio, who is one of Krasniqi’s favorites because of his performance in “Titanic.”

He said likes being an actor because our time here is temporary, but we can make a lot of good things.”

Entertainment media post-war strives to do something major. Triera Kasumi, CEO of Dynamic Media and partner of executive producer Flamur Kelmendi, stated that Kosovar Albanians are “one the most optimistic people you’ll ever meet.” She explained how the concept of “Kooperativa” is “to make something human.” She also said that she and her show are trying to make people aware about how people live with this project and that “the main moral is humanitarianism.”

“Kooperativa” is not the only show striving to do something meaningful. The Stupcat group has paired up with the United Nations Development Programme, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Denmark, and the Swiss embassy to create comedic skits that highlight corruption in the government. To Bajrami, it highlights “the effect a short sketch can have on the people.” For him, and for many, adding an element of political satire or humanitarianism is crucial to their work to show the state of Kosovo as it is – but that comes with its own hardships.

Most of the issues in entertainment television production are related to a lack of funding.

Istrefi explained, “Every TV series running is fully financed through advertising,” and an episode can run 10,000-11,0000 euros to produce” what he would consider “quality” work.

Kelmendi added that “It is very hard without money. If you have an idea, you need to get sponsors.”

One way that content creators get sponsors is through streaming on Girafa.com, where many Kosovar shows are streamed, including “Kafeneja Jonë” and Stupcat group’s work. Stupcat pulled out of YouTube because they felt as though Gjirafa was better for them and for economic development in Kosovo, whereas YouTube was a bad experience for them. Gjirafa, instead, would funnel more revenue for them through ads, as it did for Istrefi previously.

“Income is only from sponsors. Viewers often say there are too many commercials. It is the only way to survive in the industry,” Lucaj said. “It’s a tough practice in Kosovo.” Entertainment television “is not going the best way possible.”

“The industry is growing at a slow pace compared to the region – for example, Albania,” said Vejsa. “We have a lot of creative people, but little financial support.”

However, the hurdles that actors, directors, and producers face are nothing compared to the passion that they have for their work.

“I’m really happy that I live for my profession,” said Lucaj.

Bajrami added, “Since I was little, I had a dream. Since the first year I was in high school, I wanted to change something. I wouldn’t change jobs for anything.”

(Natalie Cooper is a reporting intern at KosovaLive this summer in cooperation with Miami University in the United States.)

Paternity leave is determined by the family’s financial status

Today, men are more open to take paternity leave when they have a child, but in most cases, their financial status does not allow them to take this option.

Ardian Bega, a 37 year-old waiter from Prishtina and his wife Merita dealt with this dilemma.

He says: “My wife took time off work and after three months she only gets half her salary, for that reason I could not get time off too since we don’t have a good financial status, and having three children costs a lot of money.

Merita says that she took care of her children by herself until they were one year old, and then she started taking them to kindergarten.

She says: “When children are young they need a lot of devotion, it is challenging for a person to take care of them night and day on their own.

According to the law on labor, new fathers can take two days of paid time off or two weeks of unpaid time off until the child is three years old.

In a 2016 survey from the Kosovo Women’s Network, it is said that most men prefer to have a paternity leave that lasts from four days up to a month. From them, 54% also think that paternity leave should be up to six months on the condition that it is paid time off.

According to the same study, 38% of the surveyed people say that they would take paternity leave if they got paid 70% of their regular salary – the same as women. Only 9% say that they wouldn’t take paternity leave, be it paid or unpaid.

Lirim Zeka, a 32 year-old from Prishtina, who works at a private corporation, says that he took a month off work when his first child was born.

We had a better financial status at that time. My wife had a hard time taking care of the child on her own so I took an unpaid month off to help her,” he says, adding that his colleagues supported his decision.

However, he still hasn’t decided whether he will take time off for the second child that they are expecting since his wife has a lower salary now.

Arbnore, Lirim’s 29 year-old wife says that she can’t imagine what she would have done without his help. However, she says that it will be easier with the second child because she is more prepared and now they really need more money.

She says “Raising two children costs more, so I don’t believe that we can make it with half of our salaries.”

A study by the organization Democracy for Development shows that at the end of last year, 18.9% of surveyed men think that taking paternity leave would damage the family financial income; 11.3% believe that paternity leave would damage their career, and 15.1% believe that the decision to take time off when their kids are born would not be welcome from the society or their families.

Xhenete Hasani

Sexual education app for smart phones designed to reach young Kosovars

Dea Rexhepi was raised in a family that openly discussed everything, including sexual topics. She never hesitated when it came to asking questions about her body and mental health.

“I always read the chapter of the biology book and asked my parents and sisters, which are older than me, for things that I didn’t know, for example for physical changes in my body during adolescence, menstruation, etc.,” Rexhepi said.

However, the 22-year-old psychology student knew that a lot of people did not talk about sexual topics with their families or in school because they are considered taboo.

“I always think about my friends and people that I know, that couldn’t talk with their families, and often got the wrong information,” she said.

Rexhepi saw how the lack of sexual health knowledge hurt those in her community, particularly women. That is why Rexhepi  jumped at an opportunity to bring sexual health awareness to young Kosovars.

Rexhepi and three fellow psychology students from the University of Pristina – Tuena Govori, Eurisa Rukovci and Vlora Shabani – designed a program for smart phones called “Shnet.” It is an informational app that provides users with material on the many aspects of living a healthy sexual lifestyle. There are five categories separating the information: Let’s Talk Sex, Safe is Sexy, Anatomy, Sex Facts and Know Yourself. These topics include everything from menstruation to how to apply a condom.

Govori said the lack of sex education in schools and families prompted them to choose a mobile phone app as the platform to distribute information to the youth.

The creation of Shnet was funded by a 2,000-euro grant from Upshift, a gender equality project by UNICEF Innovations Lab. It was launched in February and is available on Google Play.

Prior to the launch, the creators of Shnet held presentations in 10 schools in Pristina in order to gather feedback from students and teachers.

Rexhepi said the task would be easier if Kosovo schools had special health classes on sexual education, so that students can get the necessary information.

“Even that the time passes, this stays the same,” she added. “It was same for me 10 years ago, and it’s still the same for today’s youth.”

Govori explained that the public’s response to Shnet was favorable.

“Although there is almost no discussion on this topic, the students have not hesitated at all to ask questions,” Govori said. “They also said that such an application is very necessary in our country. Also, the teachers gave us their support for the realization of these presentations.”

Proper sex education, especially regarding contraceptives, she said, is what many young adults need today.

Throughout Kosovo, contraceptives are usually available to the public. On Gazmend Zajmi street in Pristina, a pharmacy offers the medical basics – Band-Aids, cough syrup and different-sized braces for different joints. Along one wall, a small section of shelves houses plastic packets of birth control pills. These pills can be bought with or without a doctor’s prescription and cost one to three euros. Wrapped condoms sit in a bowl on the counter or packed in cardboard boxes on a shelf.

Genti Shehu, a 41-year-old pharmacist in Pristina, said he does not see as many teens buying forms of contraceptives.

“Older women buy the pills most, and they have prescription most of the time,” he said. “But kids not as much, not even for condoms.”

Sex education is scarce in Kosovo society, and unsafe sex practices are common, particularly in teenagers and young adults.

According to a 2014 survey by the United Nations Fund for Popular Activities (UNFPA) and the World Health Organization (WHO), one in four sexually active adolescents in Kosovo said they do not use any type of protection or contraceptive to prevent pregnancy or sexually transmitted infections (STIs). The sample was taken from 4,531 adolescents ages 11 to 15. The survey also showed that there is a significant lack of awareness about birth control, with more than half of sexually active students surveyed said they did not use any type of protective measure during their last sexual encounter.

Kadri Gashi finds the lack of sexual awareness in Kosovo unacceptable.

Gashi, a project manager for the non-governmental organization Peer Educators Network (PEN), said that a curriculum for sex education designed by the Ministry of Education, Science and Technology exists in schools, but it is often not adequately taught. Therefore, it falls on NGOs like PEN to educate younger generations on the topic of sex.

“You should inform the youth in the beginning,” said Gashi. “Also, the teachers of biology and other teachers, when they lecture on a topic and go to the contraceptive and generally about the sex, they skip that page and go to another page because it’s still taboo. I remember when I was in school, no one would talk about the sex, about sexology in general about the man, about the woman.”

PEN was founded in 2002 and works on multiple projects that support youth development in all aspects of their lives. It recently traveled to different high schools throughout Kosovo, speaking about the importance of contraceptives to a healthy sexual lifestyle. Gashi recalled how members of PEN often had to speak to the students without teachers present in order to reduce embarrassment. Sometimes they even had to separate the boys from the girls.

Gashi said he does not want the same lack of awareness to affect his two elementary school daughters, and he has already begun talking to them about contraceptives and the importance of safe sex.

Dr. Myrvete Paçarada, a professor and gynecologist at the University Clinical Center of Kosova, said this lack of sex education, particularly regarding contraceptives and safe sex, seems to affect women more than men. She explained the stereotype exists that obtaining contraceptives is mainly a woman’s job.

Through a translator, Paçarada said that she sees a wide variety of female patients, but not many of her patients are young adults.

“Unfortunately, we deal less with teenagers, maybe because this is the duty of the high school professors or high schools to deal with them and give them some kind of counseling in sexual education,” she said.

When asked if she thought the high schools were doing this, Dr. Paçarada simply shook her head, a sigh escaping her lips.

Rexhepi recalls her own lack of sex education throughout school.

“As we all know, in Kosovo’s primary and high school’s curricula there’s no sexual education subject. It’s only one chapter about it in Biology subject, but teachers rarely taught it, and they always skip these chapters to avoid the subject. These teachers are usually 40 years or older and they feel ashamed to talk about sex with their students,” Rexhepi said.

Cultural and religious notions can also increase the struggle for young women to receive information on safe sex practices. In Kosovo, women under the age of 18 who want to visit a gynecologist are required by law to be accompanied by a parent. If a family believes that talking about sex is taboo then the daughter will not be able to receive consultation, Paçarada said.

Additionally, the options for birth control available to women are limited. Paçarada explained that the most common form of contraceptive she prescribes is pills. And as the procedure to insert an Intra-Uterine Device (IUD) is not performed at the clinic, the second most common contraceptive is condoms.

However, Paçarada said this can pose another problem for some women seeking contraceptives.

“People here see condoms as the man’s job. But there are men that don’t even buy condoms because they see that it’s the woman’s obligation to come here and take consultations. So, if a woman does neglect this part, it may come to having problems in birth control,” she said.

Rexhepi said the idea of a lack of sexual education affecting women more than men was a driving force behind their team’s creation of Shnet.

“This is the main reason that we even started all this project about Shnet app,” she said. “A lot of our female friends were forcibly married off as a result of unwanted pregnancies which came exactly from a lack of knowledge on contraception. Or if the couple decides to abort the baby, it’s again the whole burden at the woman’s side, because it’s her that goes through all physical pain during abortion, through mental problems and low emotional state. It’s also our mentality that gives power to men, and women that goes through these things often are called with names such as: kurvë (whore), rrospi (slut) etj. And of course, these are just a few from a hundred problems that women goes through by the lack of sexual education.”

Shnet has more than 1,500 downloads on Google play. Govori said she has a positive outlook for the future of sexual education in Kosovo.

“I think the young people in our country are beginning to become aware of the importance of sexual education in their overall health. However, much work still needs to be done in this regard,” Govori said.

Rexhepi and Govori are hoping to launch the IOS platform of Shnet in the near future, and possibly continue the lectures and discussions about reproductive health in other parts of Kosovo.

Rexhepi said their team will soon be working to measure the effectiveness of Shnet in communities.  In the meantime, Shnet is linked to a blog that encourages young Kosovars to participate in safe, open discussions about healthy sexual lifestyles.

Rexhepi said there has been a spike in participation on the blog, and she hopes to see it continue as more teens realize they can challenge stigmas that surrounds sex in Kosovo.

(Kierra Sondereker is a reporting intern with KosovaLive this summer in cooperation with Miami University in the United States.)

Pregnancy and maternity leave may be reasons women do not get hired

Some Kosovo women claim that their employers asked them to take a pregnancy test before hiring them.

A research study of the Kosovo Women’s Network (KWN) including 400 employers– 1,301 women and 374 men– concluded that 40.8% of women are discriminated against when it comes to getting hired, because women who are planning to have children are viewed differently from those who are not planning for motherhood.

In another study  done by  the Gap Institution in 2011, it is said that businesses have started to reexamine the positions of women and reevaluate their hiring policies, to be more selective when choosing their staff. At the time, over 33,000 women worked in the private sector; 30% of them were under 30 and could potentially take maternity leave over the next year.

A.Q. (the real name known to the author) says that she kept her first weeks of pregnancy a secret because she wasn’t sure how her employer would react.

She said:“I told them I was pregnant and to my surprise they welcomed the news and told me immediately that they would take care of me, make my job easier and that I could take the maternity leave according to the law.

They promised her to save her work spot for when she returns from the maternity leave, but in case they break their promise, she says that she will fight for her legal rights.

From the employers surveyed by the Kosovo Women’s Network, 14.7% declared that they prefer to hire women who are not planning to have children, 17% prefer women who want to have children, and 27.5% did not define their preferences. When asked if they ever didn’t hire a woman because they couldn’t afford to pay maternity leave, 14.2% admitted to doing it and 85.8% denied it.

According to the officials of the Ministry of Labor and Social Welfare (MLSW), the initiative to change and complete the 2010 law on labor that started three years ago, still hasn’t been proceeded in the Government of Kosovo. In the meantime, the MLSW in the labor plan for 2017 has foreseen writing a Concept Document to improve the field of work relationship.

In an answer from the media office it is said :“All the meetings and workshops that had to do with the case of maternity leave, MLSW has invited, informed and consulted the representatives of Kosovo Women’s Network, and this cooperation will continue in the future.”

The 2010 law on labor, allows employed women to get up to twelve months of maternity leave. During the first six months, the employer pays her compensation worth 70% of the basic salary, and the last three months of the maternity leave the Government of Kosovo pays her 50% of the average salary in Kosovo. According to this law, women can also prolong their maternity leave for another three months with no pay.

With a medical certificate, an employee can start her maternity leave up to 45 days before her due date. In a period of 28 days before the due date, the employer in accordance with the employee can ask her to start her maternity leave if the employer believes that the employee is not able to complete her work duties.

Employers are obliged to respect the rules set by the law. In case they break the law, the sanctions vary from 500 € to 35,000€.

Adeline Gjergji

Pristina Film Festival fosters Kosovo moviemaking

He is only called Grandfather.

Grandfather lives alone on the outskirts of the city. His wife died recently and now he struggles to take care of himself. He struggles with grief. The only joy that is still in his life comes from his 12-year-old granddaughter, Zana.

Grandfather plays dominoes with other widowers and widows in the neighborhood. He doesn’t want to remarry because that would go against the culture he was raised in. Zana wasn’t raised with the same ideas, though. She just wants him to be happy again and makes a pledge to find him a new bride. This proves to be more difficult than she imagined.

It’s a cinematic plot, described by the director as “a social drama with a comedy twist.” Valon Jakupaj directed “Pledge” during the past year and plans to release it in September.

After spending more than a decade producing films in Kosovo, he knew the industry and the audience very well. But when he and his screenwriter, Dituri Neziraj, took the stage at the National Theater in Pristina last year to pitch the film to a panel of judges and an audience of hundreds, he was nervous.  The winner would get 60,000 euros.  

 “You know a lot of people in the room. Presenting in front of someone you know, it’s a lot harder. The crowd was bigger than other festivals,” Jakupaj said.

The Pristina International Film Festival is a key part of the film scene in Kosovo. The ninth edition of the festival, nicknamed PriFest, starts Thursday.  It brings in a slate of international movies for show Kosovar audiences and compete for the Golden Goddess awards. Five films from Kosovar directors will compete in the middle and feature-length categories. This year’s lineup also includes the best documentary from Berlinale, three award-winners from Cannes, and a few world premieres.

But for most people involved in making movies, PriFest is the key for the future of the industry. The Best Pitch program, which Jakupaj and Neziraj were in last year, gives upcoming directors a two-day workshop to improve their ideas and compete for a paid production. And even the directors who showing films come to improve themselves.

“Pristina is a small city and a small scene,” producer Shkumbin Istrefi said. “PriFest offers for us a huge opportunity to expand our networks and our film industry.”

PriFest was started in 2008, months after Kosovo gained independence. The two festival directors, Vjosa and Fatos Berisha, had been in the industry for a while as producers.

According to Vjosa, they were inspired by other festivals they had visited in the region but specifically by the Sarajevo Film Festival. Not only did the festival have international respect and an impressive slate of films, but it had helped improve the reputation of the city after the war.

“We had this kind of dream. When Kosovo becomes independent, we could have a festival like that,” she remembered.

The first year of the festival, Vanessa Redgrave came to Kosovo and led the jury handing out film prizes. Now the Vanessa Redgrave prize is handed out to the winners of the Best Pitch program, along with at least 60,000 euros to help finance the film and a co-producer.

Making feature films in a scene as small as Kosovo is difficult. Many directors, like Jakupaj, are in the industry for years before getting the chance to make a full-length film.

Kaltrina Krasniqi, whose film “Vera Dreams of the Sea” was also in the Best Pitch program in 2016, is one of the most established short-film directors in the country. She was one of the first students to study film at the University of Pristina when the program started in 1999.

“At the time, there wasn’t a film scene yet. It was only the old directors that were already independently producing. It was the first time the youngsters were able to do the studies,” she remembered.

The production scene was destroyed by the war, but so were the options for showing films. For years after the war, Kino ABC was the only theater in the city of Pristina and they mostly showed the big American releases.

Since then, Krasniqi has studied at UC-Berkeley, directed multiple music videos and short films, and had a short documentary shown at DokuFest. Her producer, Shkumbin Istrefi, had been in the business longer. His production company has been around since 1996 and the last feature he produced was Kosovo’s first submission for the Best Foreign Film Oscar. But even they went through PriFest and the Best Pitch program to get funding for “Vera Dreams of the Sea”.

Shkumbin said the success of the last film he produced, “Three Windows and a Hanging,” shows a larger change in Kosovo’s film industry.

“Until a few years ago, we were limited in our heads. We thought we could produce only for our market. Slowly, we became much more open-minded.”

The new generation of directors is also starting to broaden the focus of Kosovar films.

“We had a lot of films that were concerned with war,” Krasniqi recalled. “And to be honest, I think we will be making war films for a very long time. But there’s a generation that’s coming up now that is not preoccupied with it and wants to talk about other topics.”

Krasniqi’s first feature lands her within that new trend. “Vera Dreams of the Sea” is about a 64-year-old widow fighting to get control of her late husband’s estate.

In the pitch he gave at the festival last year, Istrefi focused on the reality that the film reflected. “The tradition here is that only the male family should inherit the property. It’s very interesting for the worldwide audience because it’s a tradition which is still active here.”

Although the festival is important to help the Kosovo film industry, very little at PriFest is set aside exclusively for Kosovo. One exception is the case study shown during the workshops. Berisha explains that they select a previous film by a Kosovar director to screen during the PriFORUM workshops, including the Best Pitch program. These films are chosen because they had succeeded internationally and could hopefully inspire the starting filmmakers.

In 2013, BlertaZeqiri was the case study of success. When she was attending the University of Paris-VIII for theater directing in 1997, a professor called her into his office.

“He told me directing is not a profession for women. He said, “If you apply for this you’ll only take the place of a guy that will do something,” she recalled.

Fifteen years later, she stood on stage at the Sundance Film Festival. Her short film “Kthimi”,about a couple trying to return to their normal lives after the husband spends four years in a Serbian prison,had just won the jury prize for short international films. It was the first win by a Kosovar director at a major American film festival.

“It was a dream come true but I didn’t dare dream of it,” Zeqiri remembered.

Attending the festival also helped her realize how tough it is for even the most successful Kosovar directors.

“It’s a totally different game. If you win in Sundance and you’re an American making American stories, investors will always come to you and help you. Since I make Kosovo stories, I had trouble getting investors.”

Zeqiri left the festival without a wider distribution deal. The same year, a short movie about Somali pirates called “Fishing Without Nets”won the jury prize for short filmmaking. The American director, Cutter Hodierne, was quickly picked up by Vice Films and he released a feature length version two years later. The next year, the US Short Film prize at Sundance went to a proof of concept for a feature about a jazz student and his aggressive teacher. The film, “Whiplash”, immediately got funding and was turned into a Best Picture nominee the next year.

Part of the change comes from the networking opportunities and investors at the festivals. But Zeqiri thinks that the festivals themselves can help to improve the quality of films. “How can you learn, how can you see what’s going on in the world if you only see blockbuster films?”

The production groups at PriFest can cross the most hostile of borders. The film that won the Best Pitch contest last year, “The Witch Hunter”, was a co-production between Serbia and Macedonia.

While the Serbia Film Center has never acknowledged the festival, Berisha said a lot of Serbian directors and producers come through to get help on their projects.  “It’s quite important to make these connections with other countries. Through film, you see we are not different from each other.”

“A lot of new producers and filmmakers are learning that they need to get into co-productions with another country to produce their film,” Jakupaj explained.

After the Best Pitch competition last year, he received grants for his film from the film centers in Kosovo and Macedonia. That international support allowed him to move forward on the film, which he hopes will be finished by September.

Jakupaj doesn’t have an idea of what he will make after Pledge is finished. But he still plans to be active at PriFest this year and try to make new connections.

“Everybody who can should apply and attend as many workshops as they can. Even if they are not accepted, at least attend the presentation of Best Pitch. You can see what other filmmakers are saying and learn from them,” he said.

 (Brennen Kauffman is a reporting intern at KosovaLive this summer in collaboration with Miami University in the United States)

Houses transformed into supportive homes for elders in Kosovo

Jakute Turjaka,  an 80 year-old woman, has been alone since after the war. Her husband had died. She never had children. After a while, she decided to leave her home and continue her life in the House for Elderly People With No Family in Prishtina. Now, she doesn’t feel lonely. With time, she befriended the staff and the other people that live there. She says that they take good care of her and she has regular medical check-ups.

Jakuta says:“I feel good, from time to time I get visits from my family members. In this house they take good care of me.”

Jakuta spends most of her days knitting and chatting with the other residents. For her, choosing the retirement house for a new life was the best decision she ever made.

Qazim Gashi, leader of the Disability and Aged People Division, of the Ministry of Labor and Social Welfare (MLSW), says that there are four elderly houses in Kosovo: in Prishtina, in Skenderaj, in Istog (Gurrakoc) and Graҫanica.

Gashi says: “An elderly house was built in Mitrovica in 2008 but it is still out of service because there is no budget to hire staff.”

He adds that from January 2016, the houses in Skënderaj, Istog and Graҫanica have been maintained by municipalities that take care of the buildings, staff, clients, and budget, whereas the government only monitors and inspects the services.

Gashi explains: “Only the institution for elderly people in Prishtina is of a national level. It has 130 beds and is currently sheltering 66 people.”

He adds that the elderly houses are not full in Skenderaj, Gurrakoc (Istog) or in Graҫanica either.

Gashi says: “In Skenderaj, 19 out of 29 beds are occupied, in Gurrakoc (Istog) 17 beds are occupied although there are 20 in total. In Graҫanica there are 10 available beds, and 9 are occupied.”

Gashi explains the criteria old people have to meet in order to use these houses. They have to be 65 years old, be a citizen of Kosovo, not have any biological or adopted children and not to have any mental illnesses.

In the elderly house in Prishtina, there is an extra service: the social service. They get regular visits from a family doctor, a dentist, a dental technician, a psychologist, and nurses.

Behxhet Shala, leader of the Council for Protection of Human Rights and Freedom, said that they visit these few homes. He thinks that the elderly house in Prishtina needs to be relocated.

Shala says: “The home is not in an appropriate place. It doesn’t have enough room for the elderly to take walks, and they don’t have much privacy.”

He adds that the society should treat this social class with dignity and not look down on them. “They are part of this society and they have contributed for this country.”

The elderly staying at these houses complete their days reminiscing about the old times, knitting, doing needlepoint, sewing, painting and doing other games and activities.

In every floor of the building there is a socializing space for everyone, and all of these spaces are equipped with televisions.

Puhiza Bekolli

Farm-fresh meals draw tourists to village restaurant

Arben Nikqi owns a lot of land. His farm has been in the family for several generations, since before his grandfather could remember. He has a menagerie of animals on the farm- twelve cows, dozens of sheep, and a handful of chickens. Between the farm and the restaurant is an orchard, with “up to 350 trees” that provide food. The family has a house down in Peja, where his two kids stay during the school week.

But the one thing he’s the proudest of is a small white certificate in a language that he can barely read. He’s so proud of it that it hangs outside the front door of his restaurant, as the first thing tourists see when they enter. It was issued by a tourism company as a verification of the authentic Kosovar experience that waits inside the building.

“We only use regional ingredients,” it says in small green letters.

            “This is very important for us,” Nikqi said in Albanian, through an interpreter. “This is why I keep the cows, to promote products from this region.”

Most of the food at the restaurant is not just regional, it comes from Nikqi’s own farm. Fresh fish are brought uphill from a nearby stream and kept in a large clay tank at the restaurant’s front steps. Fruits and vegetables, including what he estimated as “over 2,000 potatoes,” are grown in the family garden. Next to the garden are three ashen circles in the gravel, where he and his wife prepare flia over an outdoor fire.

The restaurant’s success is partially based on the luck of its location. Nikqi’s village, Shtupeq i Madh, is the first village that tourists pass through on their way into the Rugova Mountains from Peja. And the first building on the road into Shtupeq is Restaurant Bjeshka.

Bjeshka has been open since 2005. Nikqi had always used the restaurant to process the food available on his farm and make a small profit. But the rise of tourism in the last few years has allowed the restaurant to become the main financial support for his extended family as well.

Nikqi’s story of success is not unique in the Peja Municipality, or Kosovo in general. Last year, Kosovo received 83,710 foreign tourists, its highest number ever. More foreign tourists came to Kosovo in the summer of 2016 than in the entirety of 2008. And according to Blerina Batusha Xërxa, who heads the tourism sector of the Swiss NGO Promoting Private Sector Employment, Peja has reaped many of the benefits of the tourism boom.

            “A lot of people are coming just to visit the Rugova Mountains,” she said. “For most people, if they want to go to mountains, they want to go for the pleasure. The mountains are quite virgin here, not like the Alps.”

The numbers back up Xërxa’s claim. After Pristina, the Peja region has the most tourists of any municipality. About 15 percent of all tourists to Kosovo come through the municipality, and the Rugova Mountains seem to be a major reason.

According to Blerta Begolli, head of the Tourism Information Office in Peja, more than 10,000 tourists came to Peja in 2016. Government data puts the number closer to 12,500, more than double the 5,700 tourists that came in 2014.

Begolli said the single biggest months for tourism are June and September.

“This is because we can do more hiking in these months. In the summer, it gets so hot that people cannot go on hikes.”

Between the farm and the restaurant, Nikqi stays busy during the summer. He often dresses more like a restaurant owner than a farmer. His black shoes and silver belt buckle are perfectly shined. He doesn’t even have the sleeves rolled up on his dress shirt as he crosses his field. But his face is worn from over 50 years in the mountains and his command of the land is clear.

“If you want to do this job,” he explained, “you do it until September. If you want to work, you can do work. Now it’s technology and that is the job.”

The Peja Tourism Office works closely with many of the hotels, restaurants, and tour companies in the region. Their website recommends nineteen Kosovar businesses throughout the mountains, including Restaurant Bjeshka.

The company that certified the restaurant, Peaks of the Balkans, opened in 2013 and leads tours to all three countries (Kosovo, Albania and Montenegro) along the Rugova Mountains.

Another business that works with the Peja Tourism Office is Hotel Rudi. Ylber Rudi opened the hotel in 1992, making it the first guest house in Bogë. Recently, the city has become the main skiing destination in the Rugova Mountains and attracted more tourists and companies.

 “We have more people now than when we started,” Rudi said. “And we hope for more and more.”

There are clear economic reasons for the new businesses, but Xërxa credited the culture of hospitality as well.

“They cannot always put a price on what they offer. They are very nice and giving, this is what distinguishes people here.”

She also cited a famous quote from the Kanun saying the guest “shall be welcomed with bread, salt, and heart.” Albanians started living by those rules in the 14th century, and their spirit continues to the modern tourism industry.

The spirit of the Nikqi farm captures that older version of the region. The only technology he has on the farm is an old tractor and a milking machine for the cows. He stays in the mountains during the winter to manage everything, which Begolli found unusual for a farmer.

“Most farmers come down to the city during the winter,” she said.

Tourism numbers are lower during the winter months and the farms tend to struggle as well. And the family could stay at their house in Peja. But too many people depend on Restaurant Bjeshka for it to close during the winter.

The Nikqi family farm has recently become the sole family business. “My family and brothers and their families and my father all live from these cows,” Nikqi said. “All of them are unemployed so they all survive from these incomes.”

The extended family does what it can to help the restaurant.  Arben’s 13-year old son, Arianit, is helping this day after his uncle gave him a ride up after school.

 “It’s unusual to be here,” Arianit said through an interpreter, “because school is primary. If it is possible because of transport to come up I will. Otherwise, it’s only Saturday and Sunday.”

Now that the school year is over, he and his sister will be doing a lot more work there.

Rudi has also felt the economic pressure. There are no guests at the Hotel Rudi right now. A group of Germans is scheduled to arrive soon, but his biggest hope is from the diaspora.

“This year is different. We want a lot of people from the diaspora to come as guests and stay here.”

Xërxa sees a lot of family businesses in the region. Her group, PPSE, works to promote businesses and enterprises in Kosovo. While they try to promote women in business and expand business opportunities to everyone, they aren’t against the family model that the Nikqi’s follow.

“We are happy as long as there is employment, even if it’s just family members,” said Xërxa.

While the tourism increase helps, many small farms and families are still struggling. “In Rugova before,” Arben remembered, “there was a person who had over three thousand sheep. Now it’s maximum one hundred. There is not a person or family that has more than a hundred sheep.”

Arben doesn’t know how long his children will keep working with him. They frequently come to help at the restaurant now. But his daughter is 17, his son 13, and both plan to eventually leave Peja to attend a university. It’s a different kind of life than Arben led, but one he can accept for them.

“We had to deal with the farm because we had a hard life. This is only way to live in the mountains. Otherwise, we would like to live as gentlemen.”

(Brennen Kauffman is a reporting intern at KosovaLive this summer in cooperation with Miami University in the United States)

The increased tolerance for individual freedom, takes off the veil of the taboo from divorce

Gentiana Terpeza, a 35 year old from Prishtina, got divorced from her husband of 10 years about a year and a half ago. She says that after the divorce, she feels as if she was reborn.

She says that the divorce did not have any bad influence on her position in her society either; they treat her same as before.

“I feel as if I have been released from10 years in prison, and now my mind is at peace and I can be close to the other people. Now I realize how much time I have wasted…,” Terpeza explains.

She is very thankful to her family, who has always supported her. Terpeza asserts she did not feel judgements from others, but even if there were judgements, she would neglect them.

“The others` opinion does not matter as long as I feel good,” she expresses.

The sociologist Dr. Vjollca Krasniqi no longer considers divorce a taboo in society, and believes there is an increase in toleration for individual freedom, even though in a conforming society, divorces break the societal balance.

“In a society where traditional values dominate, the divorced, especially the women, are stigmatized. Many of them do not have the support of their families and also have no institutional support, e.g. child support,” Krasniqi asserts.

The number of divorces is growing more each year, according to y the data published by Kosovo Agency of Statistics (KAS). There were 1,040 divorces recorded in 2013, and there was an increase of 200 more divorces in 2014, whereas 1,268 couples got divorced in 2015.

In sociologist Krasniqi`s opinion, the increasing number of divorces is an indicator of the transformation of intimate relationships in Kosovo.

“The most recurring of these transformations are related to the job, the country and the education in a society that is getting modernized quickly. Even more, many individuals nowadays consider it impossible to live according to the society`s expectations and want more freedom. Also, many individuals leave behind the intimate relationships which are not fulfilling, do not make sense, or are being kept alive by force,” she says.

Krasniqi considers that the main causes that lead to divorce are early marriages, the failed expectations, violence and non-equality between partners.

The main reason why Terpeza got divorced is because she couldn`t find a common language with her husband. She suggests to young girls not to enter into early marriages without previously knowing well their partner, since early marriages usually fail.

“I also suggest that women who do not have a good relationship with their partner end their marriage, since it is a psychological torture,” Terpeza finishes.

The largest number of divorces in 2015 occurred in the second year of the marriage- 13.6%. This is followed by divorces in the first year of marriage- 13.2%, whereas there were less divorces in less than a year of marriage- 9.9%.

As for the age-groups, in 2015 women aged 25-29 had 292 divorces, or 23.0%, and men aged 25-29 had 277 divorces, or 21.8%. Statistics differ from the preceding year; 25.2% women aged 25-29 got divorced, whereas 25.3% of men aged 30-34 got divorced.

The biggest number, or 61.8%, of divorced spouses have no children, 14.2% have two children, and 11.7% have one child.

The divorce is experienced in different ways by different individuals.

“Media often exaggerates the impact of the divorce upon children. Children develop better in family relationships where love dominates, and in a home where they feel secure and valuable,” Krasniqi says.

Terpeza, who works at Prishtina International Airport and takes care of her daughter on her own, and says that she didn`t seek anything from her ex-husband–not his fortune or anything for her daughter, in order to have an easier divorce.

“…I got my daughter from that marriage, and I wouldn`t change it for any price in the world, because she is the one who fills my life with happiness,” she says.

 

Gentiana Maxharraj

 

Women finding space to pray in mosques

Vjosa Molliqaj stepped into a long skirt, wrapped her head in a scarf, and kneeled to pray. About a dozen women, young and old, sat silently around her reading the Quran or praying in the women’s balcony of the Mosque, located in the neighborhood known as Katër Llulla in the center of Pristina.

Molliqaj did not have a space to pray in a mosque before she moved to Pristina four years ago. The two mosques in her hometown of Decan did not have a woman’s balcony.

In Pristina, she prays every day in her noon lunchbreak at the mosque that is just a few minute walk from her office. She is at peace in the mosque, where she can talk to Allah, thank Allah, and be with other Muslims.

“It was a great feeling for me being able to go to a mosque where women can also go too. There I could meet a lot of Muslim sisters and that made me feel much stronger in feeling and practicing Islam,” Molliqaj said.

Besa Ismaili Ahmeti, senior lecturer at the Faculty of Islamic Studies in Pristina, said women are more bound to houses and private spaces, rather than attending mosques to pray. After so many years of men dominating mosques before the war of 1998-99, men were uncomfortable to see women in those settings, Ismaili Ahmeti said.

   “Generations of men get used to nonpresence of women in mosques,” Ismaili Ahmeti said.

But this attitude is changing as younger generations of women and men become educated in Islam and accept women into the spaces of mosques, Ismaili Ahmeti said. Many women come to the mosques on Fridays, the Islamic holy day.

            “It is changing. It has to, it is unIslamic,” Ismaili Ahmeti added.

Women are equal in Islamic law, she explained.

Ajni Sinani, an imam and lecturer at the Faculty of Islamic Studies, agreed.

 “The participation of men and women in the mosques has no limitations, they are equal,” Sinani said through a translator.

Sinani said that women do not come to the mosque in as great of number as men, partly due to years of Serbian influence, when many Muslims did not feel secure going to the mosque. Women stayed at home to pray, and this tradition kept many women from going to the mosques, but that tradition is changing.

“That tradition started changing after the war, when women flooded the mosques,” Ismaili Ahmeti said.

Another reason that women may not go to the mosque to pray is that men are obligated to go, while women are not. But, Sinani said it is still preferable that women go the mosque to pray,especially for the Jummah prayers.

And even if they don’t go the mosque in as great of number, Sinani said women are always welcome in mosques.

“According to the Muslim religion, there are no impediments in going and doing the prayer inside the mosque,” Sinani said. “Neither the religion neither the imams prevent women from going and doing their prayers in the mosque.”

And many women, such as Molliqaj, pray on the carpet of a mosque.

Molliqaj was done with her prayers. Her lunch break was over, so she had to go back to her work as a computer programmer at 1 p.m. She walked back to the office while more women filed up the stairs.

One woman handed her small child a phone to play with. He perched on a plastic stool and faced the window. Some women sat alone, some in pairs.

At 1 p.m., the women rose together and lined up shoulder to shoulder, enough to form a row-and-a-half. There are more women now than when Molliqaj arrived from her lunch break. The women bent and kneeled, praying in tempo with each other while the imam chanted his sermon.

Nehare Janjeva also attends the Four Lulla mosque. She walked up the mosque’s marble staircase at about 10:30 p.m. on a Wednesday evening. She took off her shoes and went upstairs to the women’s balcony. Some women already had their hair wrapped in hijabs while others stepped into shapeless skirts and long headscarves. She talked quietly with other women before the prayers began.

The women gathered in rows with feet and bodies in line. They prayed to the sound of the imam’s voice, standing and touching their foreheads to the floor. The men downstairs outnumbered the women.

Janjeva said she feels the same peace in the mosque as Molliqaj. She is comfortable in the mosque, and comes almost every Friday for the Jummah prayer. The mosque is just a few minutes from her apartment and her office.

 “I feel comfortable here as a woman,” Janjeva said.

She finds peace in being with Allah and in being with other Muslims, and she finds peace in being able to speak to Allah about her life.

Janjeva said there is mutual respect between the sexes, and each treats the other with love. Many women pray at home because they take care of their family. If they left to go to the mosque, they would lose valuable time at home.

 “It’s good to be at home, women do things that are important for family,” Janjeva said.

It is a person’s choice whether they pray at home, in their business or at the mosque, Sinani said. However if you pray with other people, you have the support of fellow Muslims.

 “You can say good words to someone or help someone and the people you meet might have any problems and you can discuss with them and offer them solutions. You’re an active person in your society,” Sinani added.

But some mosques in Pristina do not have the same space for women as the 4 Lulla mosque.

The Yashar Pasha mosque, built in 1835, sits near Mother Theresa Boulevard. The faithful gathered for mid-afternoon prayers at 4:30 p.m. on a weekday. The women’s balcony in this mosque is much smaller, about half the size of the Four Lulla Mosque. The balcony remained empty while men occupied about half of the downstairs.

Just a few minutes away, the faithful trickled in for prayers around 5 p.m. at a larger mosque. Men filled about half of the lower room. This balcony also remained empty. After the prayer, the men strung up a teal curtain in the courtyard, blocking the view of the entrance.

Ismaili Ahmeti said women should be able to see their imam, without their view being blocked by a curtain.

Yosef Estes, who attended the mosque, said the curtain is to separate the women and the men for that evening’s prayers, a special prayer in the month of Ramadan. Women sat outside in the courtyard, while men took their place inside.

Women are always welcome to pray, he said, but women also have duties at home. They can pray at home if they have to take care of the children.

Ymer Gushlla regularly attends a mosque in Prizren. He said men and women pray separately because praying requires a great amount of focus, and Muslims don’t want any distractions while they are praying.

Gushlla said he does not see many women praying in the mosques, and even less when it is not Ramadan. Women are relegated to the small balcony of a second section at the back of a mosque.

 “I’m pretty sure if there was more space women would come to pray,” Gushlla said.

But women are finding peace in the mosque, such as Janjeva and Molliqaj. Here, the women can talk to other Muslims with the same purpose for being there.

“You meet a lot of people there who have the same purpose for being there and that makes all the people there feel like sisters and brothers even if we see them for the first time,” Molliqaj said.

Molliqaj said she can learn from other people in the mosque and from the Imam. Molliqaj said she has an inner happiness because she has a place to thank and pray to Allah.

(Laura Fitzgerald is a reporting intern at KosovaLive this summer, in cooperation with Miami University in the United States.)

 

Experts say preventive measures, not just punishments, are mechanisms to fight extremism

In December 2016, the trial panel of the Serious Crimes Department at the Basic Court in Ferizaj, sentenced Fatos Rizvanolli seven years in prison for the criminal offence of recruiting terrorists. He is not the first to be sentenced for terrorism. According to the authorities, approximately 40 people have been sentenced and over 127 arrested by the Kosovo Police.

In September 2015, The Government of Kosovo approved the Strategy on the Prevention of Violent Extremism and Radicalisation Leading to Terrorism. However, a lot of experts in this field think that approving a strategy and a law that prohibits the citizens from joining foreign wars, is not enough to prevent this phenomenon.

Journalist Serbeze Haxhiaj thinks that Kosovo could use other mechanisms to prevent extremism, besides arresting.

She says: “I have seen suspicious activity inside the institutions of Kosovo, or an inadequate form of prosecuting the people involved in religious extremism and terrorist organizations. There is a selective approach and cases from Syria and Iraq are not treated equally.”

Skender Përteshi, researcher at the Kosovar Center for Security Studies(KCSS) believes that Kosovo is a bit behind on dealing with religious extremism. This phenomenon, which started in 2012, wasn’t dealt with until 2014. Although the government’s reaction was late, Përteshi says that they are satisfied with the measures taken.

He does however believe that there should be a larger budget to improve the social and economic conditions that have influenced them to go to war, so that when these people come back to Kosovo, they won’t have to face the same problems.

The Government of Kosovo isn’t the only one that got criticized; some representatives of the civil society believe that the Islamic Union of Kosova needs to work more on preventing religious extremism.

According to the journalist Arbana Xharra, the Islamic Union of Kosova is responsible because certain people have recruited citizens in mosques that were under the Islamic Union’s Jurisdiction.

Xharra says:”Until now, their silence has had a negative effect. They can fight extremism by appointing traditional imams that would be more successful in convincing the youth than someone who is not religious.”

 Burim Ramadani from Security Research Center (SPRC) sees the Islamic Union as a key institution in preventing extremism.

Ramadani says: “I am not only talking about the possible terrorist attacks or with specific acts that the police, intelligence and other security institutions deal with, but the Islamic Union, like the other institutions that offer public services, have a huge part to play in informing the public what the universal religious truth is and what manipulating feelings is.”

The spokesman of the Islamic Union of Kosovo, Vedat Sahiti, says that the Islamic Union has used religious speeches in mosques to appeal youth not to join such wars, and have suspended the imams that have lawsuits against them.

Sahiti says:”The essential characteristic of extremism is surpassing the average, the average itself is relative, and therefore, definitions of extremism vary. The danger lies in the radicalization of extremist that can lead to violence.”

He thinks that the law preventing extremism has had a big success at restraining young people from going to these wars.

However, Arbana Xhara, who was present while the Government’s Strategy on the Prevention of Violent Extremism and Radicalization Leading to Terrorism was being written, does not think that this document is enough.

Based on the research she did on this topic she concludes that France is where different campaigns against extremism are organized. They use speeches from people who have returned from Syria or the parents of recruited people to share their experiences and convince other people not to go.

Xharra says:”We should work closely with our people; we need to organize debates with parents, with their mothers. There needs to be more teacher trainings, schools need to have psychologist that can spot early signals, there need to be more efforts on preventing it.”

Sociologist Sibel Halimi agrees with this. She criticizes the government for only dealing with this phenomenon’s statistical aspect and not giving much effort on initiating various TV campaigns or campaigns in schools.

She thinks that this kind of traditional security wasn’t very efficient and didn’t give the outcome that the involvement of experts that know the social and psychological context of every category of the society would have.

Halimi says: “When we discover their techniques we need to use the same technique to create the counter narrative of what they promote and recruit.”

Ramadani from SPRC adds financial control as an aspect that the justice and intelligence institutions should develop, because according to him, that is one of the elements that contributed to spreading this ideology.

Bulza Çapriqi