LOUISVILLE, Kentucky — The Kosovo War was devastating. From brutal military campaigns carried out by the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia and its then president Slobodan Milošević to intense fighting between these state forces and the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) — Kosovo’s ethnic Albanian rebel group whose primary goal was to secure Kosovo’s independence by force — Kosovo experienced widespread devastation which would take a toll on the region for years to come.
Of note, the war’s devastating effect on the Kosovan education infrastructure continues to be felt in 2022. The education system faced everything from forced segregation to the outright systematic destruction of school buildings. Today, more work is needed to address the impact of the war on Kosovan education.
As The New York Times wrote shortly after the war, “Two-thirds of the houses in villages across a wide swath of Kosovo are uninhabitable because of war damage, mainly burning by Serbs; most of the schools are severely damaged or destroyed; much of the water is polluted, and a large part of the agriculture is ruined…”
From the rebuilding efforts in the face of nearly 50% of all school buildings being destroyed— as well as a great deal of other valuable resources such as textbooks, equipment and facilities— to the remaining ethnic tensions and generational trauma which have made education more challenging, there are very real obstacles in which students and teachers come across even today.
A Closer Look
To get a better sense of the war’s lasting effects and how the country, and importantly its young people, seem to be responding to it all, The Borgen Project reached out to Dana Varady, a high school English teacher in Kosovo. She moved to the country from the United States in 2018 and is currently teaching at the Finnish School of Kosovo— an international school in Phristina, the nation’s capital, which employs the Finnish method of education.
When asked about persisting impacts of the war on Kosovan education, Varady points out the very real effects the conflict had on physical infrastructure: “I work in the private education sector, however many of my friends work in the public sector, so I have heard several stories. Books aren’t always readily available for students, the school buildings may not always have running water and classes are often too big for teachers to manage.”
Varady also explained her views on the quality of education in Kosovo today. For instance, she notes that, in Kosovo, continual education is not a requirement to remain a teacher and “once you get a job, you have a contract for life.” She compares this with teaching in the U.S., pointing out that she has to “take classes, participate in professional development hours and complete background checks every few years to keep [her]teaching license up to date.”
Indeed, when compared with other countries, Kosovo has ranked consistently low in terms of quality of education and there are often reports of reform efforts, whether it be talks of new textbooks, updated curricula or better teacher evaluation. However, progress remains slow, leaving many Kosovan students and teachers frustrated.
During a recent nationwide protest against popular Kosovan education, one student, speaking to Phristina Insight, voiced this frustration: “We still learn through dictation and script. We do not have books. We don’t want to go to school because those books are old and discriminate against women and marginalized categories. The school is boring, the system is old…”
Varady explains that there are a few key factors that uphold the status quo. “After the war, schools had to be completely transformed. Not only in the physical sense with buildings being rebuilt, but also within the schools. Teachers had to be trained and hired, and textbooks had to be translated from Serbian to Albanian,” she told The Borgen Project.
Additionally, as many of the young students in Kosovo today are the children of the very youth who experienced the war in the late 1990s, there is the reality of generational trauma making its way into the classroom. Varady sees this firsthand and uses recent events in Ukraine to illustrate this.
“When Russian troops invaded Ukraine, my students really struggled with processing it,” Varady explains. “Their parents were struggling at home as well and students brought a lot of those fears into the classroom…”
Scenes like this one in Kosovo, however, are a large reason why Varady just obtained her Master’s in Education with a special focus on trauma and resilience. A degree with which she hopes to help her fellow educators in creating a “more inclusive and trauma-informed” educational system in Kosovo.
Building a nation, especially a democracy, from the ground up, however, has growing pains. As such, there is also the serious problem of corruption. Varady observes, “It’s not news to anyone who lives in Kosovo that corruption is common. It’s not just in the financial sense, either…” For instance, Varady describes a feeling occasionally held by some students where they don’t feel the need to have good grades, or even attend school, due to their parents having connections that can get them into public university. “Whether it be bribery or knowing the right people, corruption is heavily impacting our students.”
Indeed, in 2021, Transparency International gave Kosovo a score of 39 out of 100 on its annual Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI). While there has been an incremental improvement over the last several years, there is still certainly a long way to go.
Respecting Tradition, Championing Change
Despite these numerous challenges, however, something fascinating— and inspiring—is occurring. For, within the students of Kosovo, there appears to be a clear, deep-rooted desire to bring the young country out of its dark past and troublesome present, into a bright and brilliant future.
From nationwide protests like the one mentioned above to smaller individual efforts, there appears to be a clear effort by Kosovan youth to improve their country, and the Kosovan education system, from the ground up. Excitingly, many are using their education to do so.
Varady details the actions of one of her students who is currently aspiring to bring change to Kosovo by teaching technology. “Most recently, I had a student who is passionate about women in tech, so she spent all of her free time making a name for herself in the European tech sector. When she finishes university, she plans on returning to Kosovo to help raise the next generation of young women in tech.” Varady emphasizes, “Things like this are what the students are doing to really put Kosovo on the map.”
She also points out a few other inspiring ways she has seen this occurring: “My kids are active in protests and politics, but they also engage in local arts and cultural events. Students really want Kosovo to be on the same playing field as countries like Germany and Switzerland, so they push for change and development in Kosovo.”
These kids’ desire for change and a better future, however, is also a unique mixture of the value of remembering tradition as well. “The kids here also want to uphold tradition. I believe there will be unique meshes of tradition and future change on the horizon—all due to this next generation of young people.”
– Riley Wooldridge