North Macedonia – June 19 2020

Imagine being forced to leave your children

A mother faces the threat of deportation

Sevdije was a one-year-old girl when her parents escaped the war in Kosovo. Since then, this 22-year-old woman who belongs to the Roma community has been undocumented. She lives with the constant fear of deportation and separation from her children.

Sevdije lives with her partner and three children in a shabby house in the rural suburbs of Skopje, North Macedonia. The family gets by through small day labourer wages and the support of her former husband, a construction worker whose family also struggles with poverty.

Being undocumented is the major barrier for Sevdije to break out of the cycle of poverty and exclusion. Solving Sevdije's residence status would bring a relief in many ways: the family could apply for social benefits, Sevdije could enter the labour market, and the two youngest children could access key services.

Fear of being separated from the children

The biggest fear for Sevdije, however, is that she might be separated from her children. Due to being undocumented, a constant looming threat of being deported and thus also separated from her children has become part of her every-day life.

Svedije know what it feels to lose a child. "My first son got sick and a few weeks later he died,” says Sevdije, who struggles to hold back tears when speaking about the loss of her child. “After that my unwed union fell apart. I was devastated.

"I know how hard it is to lose a child. I wish for no one to experience the loss of a child. I don't want to spend a day away from my children.”

After a while, Sevdije met her current partner Ferdijan who soon made her little girl accept him as her father. "Melek calls Ferdijan dad. He's the only father she knows," she says.

The couple had two more children, their son Iljaz and their daughter Neibe. Despite their happiness as a family, the fear of being forcibly separated never leaves them.

"My parents told me they got an order for deportation to Kosovo. I can't marry Ferdijan because I don't have papers, so I'm still considered part of my parents' family, together with my brothers and risk deportation as well."

In 1999, Sevdije and her parents were among the 200,000 people from Kosovo who sought refuge in neighbouring North Macedonia during the Kosovo war.

“The only paper I had was an old birth certificate issued by the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. It was enough for primary school, but nothing else."

"The coronavirus pandemic temporarily put the deportation order on hold," she explains. "The borders are closed. My parents say the order will be executed when things go back to normal. As a mother, I shiver at the thought because my children will lose their mother."

There are only estimates of the number of people who face the same fate as Sevdije. The last estimates reported by the Macedonian Young Lawyers Association indicate that over 650 people are at risk of statelessness, with 70% of them being Roma. However, these people often stay invisible which is why the number might be higher.

Invisible children

Her children Iljaz and Neibe do not have birth certificates which means they are not eligible for free healthcare and their parents cannot claim any social welfare support for their care.

This puts the children at a disadvantage right from the beginning of their lives. They cannot go to a kindergarten or school without a birth certificate and status, which has a long-term negative impact for their development. Additionally, they grow up facing ongoing discrimination and violations of their basic rights as children.

Some type of care they do get, such as vaccinations which all children living on the territory of North Macedonia get free of charge.

A mother’s wish to simply be there and care for her children

SOS Children's Villages has helped Sevdije's family over the past five years through its family strengthening programmes so she can care for her children.

"SOS helped me a lot, especially after my son died. They gave us food and clothes. I talked a lot with the psychologist. This helped me to survive. Before I met Ferdijan, I only had SOS. I often tell them that talking with them was like school for me – everything was new and everything was useful. This still goes on. They don't give up on us. They said they'll try to find more legal help to keep us together," she says.

In addition, SOS Children's Villages provided the family with material support  including food and hygiene packages as well as diapers and baby formula. This was particularly needed since Ferdijan could no longer find work due to COVID-19 prevention measures.

Sevdije still has not found the courage to talk to her older daughter Melek about the risk of being separated. "She's four and the only one who will really feel and remember my absence. I don't know how to start the conversation. She'll ask me for how long I’ll be gone, and I can't answer this. How, what will I say? I know delaying this talk is not good, but can you imagine being forced to leave your children?

"I want my children to be happy and healthy and to become educated people. Ferdijan and I both only have primary school education. We want our children to have a chance for a better life than ours, and we want to be there for and with them as they grow up."

SOS Children's Villages remains committed to helping Sevdije stay with her children. The co-workers of the family strengthening programme of SOS Children's Village North Macedonia work to prevent the possible deportation of the mother and reducing the trauma for the entire family. Keeping the children safe and the family together is the highest priority.