17 February 2015 - Every day, dozens of packed buses leave Kosovo. They are heading to north Serbia, from where their passengers hope to cross into Hungary, the nearest European Union (EU) entry point. Ultimately, they hope to reach Austria or Germany.
There are no official numbers, but media estimate that around 100,000 Kosovars have left the country since August 2014. Those who are arrested in the EU, often claim asylum for economic hardship. None receive it.
No life here
Zeyneb with three of her children on the steps of the half-finished house where they are living. Photo: Katerina Ilievska
Sali Gashi is one of the thousands of Kosovar Albanians who sees illegal immigration as the only way out of a life of deep poverty and unemployment.
Sali, his wife Zeyneb and their five children live in a half-finished house, belonging to an acquaintance, in Fushë Kosovë, in the Pristina district of central Kosovo.
No one in Sali's family has a job. Sali and his sons make 3 to 4 euros a day selling recycled cans.
Often the family only have bread to eat. They burn garbage to heat one room of the house.
The youngest Gashi, eight-year-old Arife, is the only child who attends school. The rest dropped out two years ago when the family moved back to Kosovo.
"We lived in Belgrade [the capital of Serbia] for over a decade," Sali says. "It was bad. Zeyneb and I hoped at home life would be better. We were wrong."
Sali and Zeyneb can't get papers for their children who were born in Belgrade. Without papers the family can't apply for social welfare. Also, they will be homeless soon because the house owner will return.
Sali sees only one way out. "We will leave for Germany," he's firm. "With or without papers, we'll go. Like the others. There is no life for us here. I have to take my family somewhere else."
Is there hope?
Since August 2014, the Gashi family has been getting help from SOS Children's Villages Kosovo. The Gashis are among the 115 families that SOS Children's Villages is helping to get by and stay together.
It was because of this help that Arife Gashi started school. She likes the classes, but not recess: "All kids buy a snack except me."
"My heart breaks," her mom says. Though illiterate, Zeyneb knows how important school is. "I try to have a few cents for her every other day, so she can buy something like the other children."
Sali and Zeyneb with three of their children. Arife (8) sits in her father's lap. Photo: Katerina Ilievska
Arife is in constant danger of dropping out. In December, she would have stopped going to school because she had no shoes. Now, she won't take off the shiny boots that "auntie Nita brought me".
Turning lives around
Nita Luzha, who works for SOS Children's Villages, says: "Help in-kind is essential. We cannot do social work if children are starving and freezing. Of course, we don't want to create dependency, so we constantly check the families' needs."
"Had it not been for SOS, we'd starve," Sali says, adding that he used to dig garbage bins for food. "Only SOS helps us."
Through the programme, Sali's eldest son got a course in welding. He is now registered with the employment office and is waiting for a job. "We're cautiously optimistic," Nita says. "There is 40% unemployment among university graduates alone."
Employment would open the way to solving the Gashis' problems. And though Sali says he's firm in wanting to immigrate, Nita is certain that given enough time he'd change his mind.
"If together we start solving their problems one by one, Sali will come to realize that the best place for his children is in their home country."
A little time and help
Six families that SOS Children's Villages was working with have left Kosovo in the past two months. Nita learned about it when they called her from Hungary. What stops the Gashis from leaving?
"Sadly, what they want to escape from is what keeps them here. I've heard it costs about 500 euros per person to board a bus," says Nita. "But, I know we can turn their lives around. We just need time and help."