March 06, 2009


The car hugged the corners at a cool 85 mph, its hood glinting in the early morning sun. Low-slung mountains of gray rock sat off to the right; to the left ran a long, uneven field spotted with typical red-roofed Macedonian houses and some random wandering livestock. It could have been a commercial, save for the woozy traveler in the passenger seat. That was me and I was mildly regretting my decision to join this quick jaunt to Skopje. 

And it was quick: a normal one-way trip to the capital for us is just over two hours. On the day in question, we drove to Skopje, picked up our passenger and were back in town in two hours flat. Behind the wheel sat David, a young German and part of a three-man team who'd come to check on the Roma kindergarten. The three men--David, Peter and Fritz--come from an international high school in Stuttgart and along with them come the funds for Safet's kindergarten. In other words, they are the donors. Or, I should say, the fundraising their students conduct is the donor.

Jillian and I had spent the previous night eating and drinking with these three energetic men (especially Fritz, who, at age 66, has all the spunk of any PCV I've met), filling them in on the status of the program, recommending changes and generally just having a great time talking to someone who understands what we're dealing with. So all that homemade wine and rakia wasn't exactly what the doctor ordered before our mad dash to Skopje the next morning with David. I blessed every straight stretch and cursed every curve, all the while talking with David about Macedonia and the center and Safet.  Our mission, by the way, was picking up Aida, a woman who works in a Roma organization in Skopje and also serves as their German-Macedonian translator.

The Germans, delighted to find two Americans working at the center, quickly included us in all their meetings with Safet and local government and school officials over the course of the frenetic three days. In short, the funding for the kindergarten will continue. Really great news. Now, and rightly so, the Germans are demanding that the kindergarten transition from being merely "better than nothing" to "something resembling educational." Oh, how simple that sounds! And now, like a tumble down Dumbledore's pensieve, we land in one of those meetings...

We are seated at absurdly small tables, tables usually smeared with ketchup and instant mashed potatoes by the three year olds who daily dine there. The Germans and we are joined by Safet and Ljatife, a fierce, impressive Roma woman from Skopje who the Germans have invited in to help. She specializes, we are told, in going after public schools who don't comply with anti-segregation laws. At this juncture, Fritz has told Safet that Ljatife will be coming to the center twice a month to help communicate to parents the importance of getting their kids to school, another of her fortes. Safet adamantly refuses.

"But Safet," she says patiently, "I'm coming here as a volunteer. Twice a month."
"No chance," he repeats, pushing back away from the table and wagging his finger. "You're not taking control of my center." 
Ljatife chuckles a bit at this. "No one is talking about that, Safet. This is about helping you with enrollment. I'm an advisor."
"No way. No way. You're not taking control."
Fritz has been boiling. The lid flies off. He rises. "Then forget it Safet!" he shouts in German. "In September, no money! It's over."
Safet, for reasons rooted firmly in pride, shouts back "Fine! Good! I'll find another donor!"
"Where?" an incredulous Jillian asks.
"I'll...I'll put an ad in the newspaper," Safet smugly says. 

...Yes, Safet's insecurities run pretty deep, folks. To watch him reject help from a professional, successful Roma woman was baffling, but also quite telling. Safet's mantra, "Сум еден човек," or "I am one man," which he repeats ad nauseum, is the battle cry of person who doesn't want help, doesn't want anyone infiltrating the wall he's erected around his perception of how the world works. Inside that fortress of self-imposed solitude, he's free to believe things like "all Macedonians are terrible people" or "all Roma organizations are corrupt, except mine." 

But he's not the only roadblock...City hall meeting room. Next day. 11am.

Finally, an adult-sized table. Over the table sits a cloud of smoke, heavy in the air from the half-dozen people lighting up during the meeting. The ache in my head from alcohol has been replaced by an ache from trying to follow a conversation that is being conducted in Macedonian and German, which I studied in college and remember just enough of to make this really frustrating. 

The meeting is being mediated by the mayor's first assistant, a helpful and patient guy, I think. I hope he's got some extra varnish laying around after the battle lines that are being drawn on his table. This is a classic case of a group of people trying to find any path to the solution and an opposing group seemingly looking for any obstacle they can throw up. The subject of the meeting is finding a way to eventually integrate the Macedonian and Roma kindergartens, which share a building. 

The Germans and their translator/consultant, Aida, are pushing for ways of bridging the gap--including turning the Roma kindergarten into a center for Roma and disadvantaged Macedonians, since kindergarten is not free--and the kindergarten staff resists. They're being led by the school psychologist, who apparently recently contracted rabies and is scaring the rest of us with her angry outbursts. Then she starts defending Safet (who's not design), regaling the room with her opinion of how great he is, the amazing work, blah, blah, blah.

It's obvious things aren't going to move too far when the kindergarten staff refuses to allow the Roma kindergarten to use their washing machine. They cite some obscure rule about the inspector or something. I can't wait for this meeting to end. I'd like to cite how filthy some of these poor Roma kids are. Then I'd like to cite the Mercedes that psychologist drives and suggest she have a heart, dammit. Eventually they agree to contribute towards purchasing a new machine. With a curt, "Нема проблем," which, given how they said it, roughly translates as, "No, really, it's no problem at all, you a--holes," they are on their way and the meeting is over.

...And soon the good Germans were off as well, leaving us with a rather large load of responsibility of implementing changes at the center. But with that comes their backing and the knowledge that we now have some real leverage with Safet to bring about some fundamental restructuring of how things are done: a new, healthy menu; a longer school day; a daily routine; training for the teacher on basic childhood development and classroom practices. The list goes on. And there's no time to waste.

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