Uplifting communities at home and abroad
This episode of Our Voices focuses on an inspirational story of uplifting communities and educating the marginalised. Elizabeth is a 48-year-old teacher and campaigner who lives in Kosovo. Originally she planned on living in the country for 6 months having joined her husband on a work placement.
Sixteen years later and they are both still there. In order to understand Elizabeth’s connection to Kosovo, one has to be aware of three key moments from her past and how they led her to inspiring change.
Women of inspiration
The first concerns an activity Elizabeth would do at primary school in Hampshire, England. This would involve picking up laminated pieces of card which would contain the story of a historically significant person on one side and then questions for the student to answer on the other.The cards that particularly resonated with Elizabeth were those which told the stories of women of inspiration.
“ I’d steam through them. I’d go and pick up Gladys Aylward, and then I do the questions on her, and then I come back and get Elizabeth Fry and learn about prison reform and do the questions on her. And then there’d be one on Grace Darling, who’d lived in the lighthouse and saved lives of people drowning at sea.”
Through learning about these women of inspiration, Elizabeth herself became inspired at an early age.
Learning how not to fit in
The second event occurred while Elizabeth was this time at secondary school. She went to a boarding school and found herself thrust into a very materialistic and competitive culture. “Everything is scrutinised. So when you’re at boarding school then people know what shampoo you use, they know every detail of your life. And, believe me, they laugh at you when you get it wrong.”
Elizabeth initially tried to compete with the other girls in order to fit in. Until, one day, she realised that the best approach was to just stop caring. “that was the only way you were going to win, really, was to stop caring what people thought about you, and whether you have the right stuff. And, actually, that’s a brilliant thing to learn at school… certainly I think it gave me the confidence to do some of the things where I also didn’t fit in.”
Elizabeth was also inspired by her English teacher who gave her the tools to articulate her views and to deal with negative feedback. “That is a part of social mobility, and it’s a part of demanding your rights. And it’s a part of being able to articulate, as a woman, your place in the world.”
Elizabeth would go on to share these skills in her own career.
Providing access to education for children
It was after Elizabeth had begun her career that the third key moment would occur. She was working as a primary school teacher in Hackney, London and some of her students were travellers. One of the traveller students Elizabeth remembers particularly well was called Sally: “she was extremely well behaved and studious and sweet”.
As Sally was coming towards the end of primary school, Elizabeth began to worry as travellers form one of the UK’s most marginalised groups and they tend to fall through the system before reaching secondary school.
Elizabeth got to discover more about Sally’s situation when she went to have a cup of tea with Sally’s mother. She asked the mother how Sally was getting on with her reading at home and, during the course of the conversation, it became clear that Sally’s mother couldn’t read or write.
This meant that it was impossible for her to support her daughter at home with her literacy. Elizabeth took it upon herself to personally register Sally for secondary school. It was this incident which made her realise how important uplifting communities by being active in her students’ lives outside of the classroom could be.
A marginalised group
The next little girl Elizabeth would meet would completely change her life. This time she was in Pristina, the capital of Kosovo. There is a community known as the Ashkali, just outside of the capital. They live in poverty and survive from going through rubbish pickings, focusing particularly on plastic and aluminium.
Once they have found this waste, they will sell it on. The work is naturally unhealthy and unsanitary and it is often done by children when they would otherwise be at school. A 2012 study showed that only 4% of the community actually completed compulsory schooling. “When you’ve got that level of lack of education, that impacts on everything else. So it impacts on being very easily exploited and making poor health choices and not having ways out.”
While visiting the local area, Elizabeth met a nine-year-old girl called Jelana. By chance, she mentioned that she wanted to go to school but that the school was not allowing her to register. Elizabeth was puzzled by this, so she decided to investigate this.
“So I went to the Ministry of Education. And I said I think there’s a misunderstanding, this head teacher is saying that this girl can’t come to school. The woman at the Ministry of Education said to me ah, no, they’re just too hard to teach. And so that really drove me mad. The idea of any child being considered too hard to teach.”
As a result, Elizabeth offered to teach Jelana herself so that she could pass the entrance exam so that the school would have to accept her.
Remembering the women of inspiration
Jelana’s first response was to ask “Can my friends come?” This came as a shock to Elizabeth that Jelana’s first thought was about extending the opportunity she got. Elizabeth agreed to teach Jelana’s friends too. That night she couldn’t sleep.
The extent of the issues regarding this marginalised group made her think of the women of inspiration she had learned about at school. She was a teacher, she could speak Albanian. She realised that this could be her moment to become involved in inspiring change by extending access to education for these children.
By the next morning, she’d made a decision. She was going to give six months of her time in order to prepare these children for the entrance exams.
Educating the marginalised
So Elizabeth found a small room above a mini market from where she could deliver her classes. She placed curtains on the floor for the children to sit on as underneath there was bare concrete. But, despite the minimalist resources, the children saw that this was a fantastic opportunity.
“I thought that maybe five kids would come on the first morning. And then maybe by the end of the first week, we’d be up to 20 or something. But, on the first day, we had 23 kids come and by the end of the first week, we had 50 children coming.”
Other kind-hearted volunteers came to join Elizabeth in her cause. Eventually the school agreed to accept the children. But this proved only to be the beginning of Elizabeth’s focus on uplifting communities. Her project became a fully-fledged charity known as “The Ideas Partnership”.
It is now Kosovo’s third largest volunteering organisation.
“We work in five different centres. And, within education, we offer preschool, we offer support for kids who are in school, we also offer adult education… and bursaries for older kids or adults who want to go to high school or even to university.”
Looking to the future
The Ideas Partnership is making a real difference to many people’s lives by uplifting communities. Elizabeth won the Mother Teresa medal for her humanitarian work by the President of Kosovo.
The UK government has awarded her with the name “a point of light” for her volunteering initiatives. Elizabeth’s great ambition, however, is that the charity she was at the forefront of establishing will continue to focus on uplifting communities for many years to come.
“Although I hope I’m going to be part of the Ideas Partnership forever, I don’t want it to be “Elizabeth’s Ideas Partnership”. It’s got to be something that’s taken on beyond me if it’s going to really be successful. And that’s when I will feel really proud.