Oliver Twist, a Sceptical 9th Grader, and an Orthodox Monastery: The Making of a New Generation in Northern Kosovo

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Eager hands reach toward the ceiling as children at the Ismail Qemali school in Mitrovica, northern Kosovo, desperately try to attract the attention of an author who has come to talk to the pupils about her new book. They want to know more about the central character – a young refugee who finds herself in a strange new country – and about how to be a good writer. 

Such a scene was unthinkable before The Library Project began its work in the region, building new libraries, bringing books into schools for the first time, training teachers in new methods, and implementing ‘Reading Hour’, an activity in which the entire class participates in a discussion of a book’s themes, plot and characters. The NGO’s overall aim is to use group literacy activities to instil a love of reading and among children and young adults in Kosovo. This collective approach, which has collaboration, engagement and discussion at its heart, contrasts to the divisions and alienation which have hung over the region since the Yugoslav wars of the 1990s. 

Last April, ethnic Serbs boycotted the Kosovan mayoral elections in a protest over broken promises of autonomy; in July the hospital in Mitrovica faced shortages in medical supplies due to the closure of border crossings; and by September four men had lost their lives in a confrontation between Serbian paramilitaries and Kosovan police. Symbolically, this last conflagration had taken place in an Orthodox monastery only twenty minutes away from the Ismail Qemali school in Mitrovica. 

I came across The Library Project whilst desperately trying to understand what has been going on between Kosovo and Serbia over the last twelve months. Frustrated by my ignorance, which I sheepishly blame on a school history syllabus that rarely strayed further into the contemporary period than the 1980s, I plunged down an internet search hole.  

By the end of my Wikipedia spiral, I came to the rather obvious conclusion that the legacies of the ethnic tensions and consequent wars which defined the breakup of Yugoslavia in the 1990s refuse to disappear.  

In fact, The Library Project itself was born from the founder’s experience of the Serbia-Kosovo conflict, in which campaigns led by convicted war criminal Slobodan Milosevic resulted in the displacement of over one million Albanian Kosovans, and the deaths of thousands. 

Safete Binaku was one of those forced to flee, moving to Sweden aged 13. Memories of her school days are not filled with novels and the opportunity to discuss literature, but of being taught in separate classrooms to the ethnic Serbs, and not being allowed to play with them at breaktime, before finally leaving Kosovo. She describes her flight in terms that convey the chaos, pessimism and tragedy of the era: “as we left everything burned down behind us, there was no return”. 

Fittingly for someone who runs a NGO based on the power of books, she explains that the brutality of the 1990s was a consequence of the fact that Serbs and Kosovans had “two completely different stories”, and neither group sought to understand the other’s. It was partly her desire to make sure that today’s young Kosovans are able to engage and understand others’ stories, experiences, and opinions, that encouraged her to set up The Library Project in 2017 with some friends in Stockholm. 

The charity’s overall aim is to use group literacy activities to instil a love of reading and among children and young adults in Kosovo. This collective approach, which has collaboration, engagement and discussion at its heart, contrasts to the divisions and alienation which have hung over the region since the Yugoslav wars of the 1990s. 

But she also insists that this crisis of mutual ignorance isn’t limited to northern Kosovo, but palpable in many of the conflicts we see today, cautioning that by “not reading, ever, that story of the other group, that is the easiest way to shut them off”. 

Owing to her promotion of tolerance and dialogue, I wanted to know if her experience of the famed culture of acceptance in Sweden had also played a role in the establishment of her NGO. Her answer is nuanced. 

On the one hand, she describes how proud she was to associate herself with Sweden up until 2015, recounting how she signed up to volunteer with Syrian refugees but didn’t get a spot because so many people had put themselves forward. 

However, like in much of Europe, the country’s right-wing populist party has seen significant gains in recent years, and in 2022 it became part of a government coalition for the first time in its history. The innocuously-named Swedish Democrats’ doubt the viability of multiculturalism and often point to the situation in Malmo, a city with a 35% foreign born population, which has long suffered with high crime rates and has been described as having ‘no go zones’ for police. 

Safete laments the rising trend of politicians laying the blame on immigrants, but feels that Sweden still has a “very giving culture”, highlighting that it is currently the fifth biggest donor to Kosovo. 

But she also directly credits her experience of the Swedish education system as inspiration for the NGO, citing the injustice she felt when she was helped to pick out a book at secondary school, knowing that Kosovan children didn’t receive the same attention as she did. Understanding the transformative potential of a single book, she wanted to bring that empowerment to her homeland. 

Safete believes that part of the value of being a lifelong reader is becoming comfortable with perspectives that challenge your own. She tells me how Wonder, a book about a boy with a facial deformity, and the orphaned Oliver Twist, have had a particularly strong impact on the Kosovan children who have received books thanks to The Library Project.

Nonetheless, Suzana, a teacher and Safete’s co-founder, highlights the children’s “hunger for more stories that speak to them”, a desire that is being met by The Project’s drive to get more Kosovan literature into the classroom. By seeing their own childhoods reflected on the pages of books, it is hoped that pupils will also gain the tools to articulate their own experiences to others.

‘Reading Hour’, similar to activities like ‘class reader’ in the UK, is unlike anything Safete experienced at school in Kosovo in the 90s, when the education system was strongly grounded in strict discipline and rote learning. In fact, today’s Kosovan children struggle with the concept initially as a result of comprehension and analysis skills still being completely left off the Kosovan curriculum. They are often uncomfortable with the concept of debate, answering questions intended to elicit their opinions with memorised paragraphs of the book, but soon begin to passionately advocate for or critique the central characters in every story.

All the books are handpicked by the Project, based on their ability to generate discussion on a pressing theme, whether that’s friendship, LGBTQ+ issues, or bullying. Some of the themes even allow teachers to tackle taboo topics in Kosovan society, and Safete explains how Anne Frank’s diary provided a surprising example.

“They didn’t know that you could talk about having a negative relationship with a parent”, she says, describing the shock the children felt when Anne expresses less than generous thoughts about her mother. It is not part of Kosovan culture to talk about feelings openly, especially any sentiments that might betray disrespect to one’s elders, and so it is unsurprising that several children told their teacher that they were going to start a private diary. For their sake, I hope their parents don’t read them..

Another female protagonist that proved inspirational was Kosse, who is based on real-life footballer Kosovare Asllani, who scored Sweden’s winning goal in the bronze medal match of the 2023 Women’s World Cup. Asllani, like Safete, is part of the large Kosovan diaspora who lives in Sweden, and her story – which revolves around her brothers not letting her play with them – prompted several female pupils to ask indignantly, “why don’t we play more football?”.


But the impact of the project is felt far beyond the conversations during ‘Reading Hour’. In the absence of a clearly defined curriculum, Kosovan teachers are often left with little guidance on how to educate the children, a difficulty compounded by the scarcity of resources written in Albanian. One of the first ways that The Library Project sought to make a change in Kosovan classrooms was by training educators in small sessions, before sending them back to their respective schools and asking them to spread the new methods amongst their colleagues.

“We’re trying to put the system in place and then hand it over”, Safete explains, a philosophy which reflects the sense of independence, creativity, and initiative that she is trying to instil in the children themselves.

Image credits: The Library Project via Instagram (@libraryproject.kosova)

Testimonies all attest to the impact the project has had on educators’ professional and personal lives, with teachers Ermira, Donita and Merita all commenting on how it has revolutionised the children’s learning and their own approach to all subjects, and Naime – the very first teacher to receive the training – saying that Reading Hour, loved by the children, “has become very dear” to her as well.

But scrolling through the NGO’s Instagram account, it is striking that almost all the pictures of the teacher training sessions include only women. Though empowering the female educators the project works with, Safete admits that male teachers are often more resistant to learning new techniques.

This is only one of the challenges they face, the greatest of all being the scepticism exhibited by children, headteachers and parents when approached by the NGO.

“Kosovan kids are not like the Swedish kids”.
“You are never going to manage to build us a library”.
“They don’t read that way”.

The second of these statements of doubt was uttered by Ardian, a ninth-grader who was incredulous at the prospect of his run-down school having its own library.

A few years later, Safete was in a café in Kosovo and Ardian bounded up to her, excitedly telling her that although he had now graduated, his younger siblings were using the newly built library at the school.

Such success stories as this will fuel the project’s current plans, which will involve more teacher training and setting up a library in Pristina, Kosovo’s capital. Like the other facilities set up by the NGO, it will have a rotating collection, so local schools will be able to take out a full set of books to run ‘Reading Hour’, and when they come back for their next set, their previous loan will be passed on to another school to borrow.

The plans are ambitious, but there are a huge number of people across Sweden and Kosovo propelling the NGO forward. Safete has never had to advertise for volunteers because people somehow find the NGO, something which she says was particularly surprising when it came to the building phase of several of the libraries, for which many unemployed Kosovans offered their help.

One of the volunteers, Leurita, says one of the most memorable moments was when she was able to personally deliver books to the children. Merely “seeing the joy in the children’s eyes” was what inspired her commitment to TLPK. 

Last September’s escalation of violence perforates this sense of optimism, but also re-asserts why The Library Project’s work is so crucial. Serbian children still learn a different version of history to their Kosovan counterparts across the border, and without a mutual understanding of one another, it is difficult to imagine a context in which the two groups might be able to live in relative harmony. With 200 new UK soldiers joining the 4,000-strong NATO task force based in the region, and the US accepting Kosovo’s application to buy Javelin anti-tank missiles only two weeks ago, 2024 could see tensions boil over again.

Amidst this dark, uncertain backdrop, Safete insists she is no hero. But The Library Project’s mission, articulated by co-founder Suzana as using books to pave “the way to a brighter future for children and young people in Kosovo” certainly seems heroic. 

Image credits: The Library Project via Instagram (@libraryproject.kosova)

To find out more, or donate to the Library Project, click here: https://www.gofundme.com/f/new-childrens-library-at-pallati-i-rinise

This article was emended on 12/3/2024 to clarify the mission of the Library Project.


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