October 6 2004
Snow Children and Sun Homes
Almost everything in Donika's* world in the first year of her life was white. When an SOS Children's Village co-worker picked Donika up to take her with her, the baby started crying. So the co-worker was given a white coat to put on the child; the sterile world in white with which Donika was familiar was a hospital. The reason why Donika had to spend a whole year in hospital after her birth was that she was an abandoned baby.
From an emergency aid programme to a centre
From a centre to a village
In Kosovo, unwanted babies left behind in the maternity wards by their young and/or unmarried mothers or simply abandoned are taken to one of the clinics in Pristina or Prizren. Here, these mostly healthy babies receive adequate material and medical care but are neglected in terms of their emotional, mental and physical skills development. They are washed and fed and have their nappies changed, but receive little attention. Children like Donika see the light of day as healthy babies; it is the lack of love that makes them ill.
That is why the children who are taken in by SOS Children's Villages and given a place in one of their short and medium-term transit houses in Pristina are often retarded in their development. Many of them have never even been in the fresh air before, and cannot sit or eat. There are four SOS Transit Homes in the Kosovo capital. In Albanian they are called 'dielli', which means "sun". There babies and small children up to the age of three waiting to be fostered or adopted receive loving care. On average it takes six months before the authorities find a suitable place for them with a Kosovo family.
When the project first started, children arriving at the centre were aged between five and eight months old, sometimes even a year. Now, however, the average age is between one and two months. It is surprising how quickly they respond to their new environment and start to catch up. It is the women who look after them and the warm atmosphere in the homes that has this therapeutic effect. For many of these babies it is a new experience to be held in someone's arms, to be lifted out of their cots when they awake, and to hear someone sing and have someone play with them. In the meantime Donika is a lively and friendly girl who only loses her temper when she cannot find her teddy.
From an emergency aid programme to a centre
The four homes for babies in Pristina developed out of an emergency-aid programme for Kosovo refugees in Albania. After the NATO air strikes put an end to the war in Kosovo in 1999, most of the refugees returned to their devastated homes. In international law, the province is still under the sovereignty of Serbia and Montenegro, but it is administered by the United Nations (UNMIK - UN Mission in Kosovo) and has autonomous status with its own parliament and president. In economic and social terms, and also with regard to coexistence between the different ethnic groups, the situation in Kosovo falls short of normal European standards.
SOS Children's Villages wanted to take in abandoned children as soon as the fighting had stopped, but UNMIK favoured a policy of adoption and fostering, and a permit for an SOS Children's Village was not obtained. It took lengthy negotiations with UNMIK and the local authorities before permission was finally given to build an SOS Social Centre in Pristina. However, the centre - which comprises the transit homes, a kindergarten for 125 pre-school children (the only licensed private kindergarten in Kosovo) and an official playground - soon proved to be more than a compromise solution. It made it possible to help precisely those children who had previously been left vegetating in the hospitals.
In 2002 the original rented accommodation was replaced by a complex with four semi-detached houses. In the meantime these "diellis" have helped SOS Children's Villages bridge the gap for over 120 babies and small children in the extremely difficult period between abandonment and adoption. Life in the homes is like life in an extended family, with five women in each house looking after up to twelve babies and toddlers. Children with special needs receive special attention to match. The homes are furnished with the focus on the children: bedrooms with four or five cots, and a spacious and friendly living room with toys everywhere and the walls lovingly decorated with pictures and photographs.
From a centre to a village
The SOS staff do everything they can to give the children in their care all they need. Bora* ("snow") was four weeks old when she was admitted to one of the Sun Homes. Shortly after her arrival she developed intestinal problems and began to lose weight. The doctors at Pristina hospital could not help because they did not have the necessary medicine or medical equipment. Bora's condition soon became critical.
So the SOS Children's Village staff swung into action and organized a passport and the necessary travel permit in one afternoon while their colleagues in Macedonia handled the preparations for Bora to be admitted to the hospital in Skopje. Next day Bora was taken to Macedonia. Her arms and legs were like matchsticks, her emaciated face red and exhausted from crying. But two weeks later the all-clear was given and Bora was able to return to Pristina, where a big party is being held this year to celebrate her first birthday.
Bora will be adopted and in later life will not remember the people who cared for her so well as a tiny baby. But there are other children in the Sun Homes who will soon be of school age and have poor prospects of being adopted or finding a foster home. And yet there is a ray of sunshine here, too. In a change of policy, the welfare authorities now appreciate the need for an SOS Children's Village and recognise SOS Children's Village mothers as foster parents.
The number of children available for adoption is declining and there is a general ban on adoption abroad. Following the official conversion of the "diellis" into an SOS Children's Village, however, those children who have reached a certain age and are still living in one of the SOS Transit Homes, and those who are retarded in their development will be able to grow up in an SOS family. The first two candidate mothers have already completed their training. In the course of time all but one of the 'diellis' will become normal SOS family houses.
Eleven of the children living in the "diellis" today are handicapped. In future, they will also live in an SOS family house, where they will receive the loving care and therapy they need. One of them is five-year-old Mesut*. He has speech problems and also poor eyesight. When he arrived at his Sun Home at the age of three, he went to the refrigerator and said "Good morning".
Mesut was traumatised because he was abandoned first by his parents and then by his foster parents. In the SOS Transit Home, unloved Mesut found affection and human warmth for the first time in his life. By attending the SOS kindergarten he also grew closer to other children. It is a long time since Mesut spoke to the refrigerator.
*Name changed by the editor