6,691 shoeboxes full of toys were recently dispatched to Lesotho in southern Africa from Team Hope HQ on the outskirts of Roscommon Town.
Their departure signalled the end of Emma Clapison’s time as the Roscommon coordinator of the Team Hope Shoebox Appeal.
In 2016, Emma travelled to Kosovo, a country that 20 years on is still feeling the effects of a bloody war, which took place there from 1998 to 1999. Emma told Dan Dooner the story of her journey with Team Hope to the region.
Day 1: I flew out to Kosovo – a trip of almost 16 hours – at the crack of dawn on Friday, December 9th 2016. We landed in Pristina in temperatures of -8 and began a two-hour drive to Gjakova just north of the Albanian border in a minibus with no seatbelts and no heating.
We stayed in a church hostel and were briefed by our hosts Nore and Metush Kaja when we arrived.
Nore explained that most of the gifts which are put into Christmas Shoeboxes are now available to buy in Kosovo but she quickly added that poverty-stricken families who live on around 50 cents a day couldn’t even afford the basics.
Day 2: Following a long drive up treacherous mountains, we reached the Roma community. I was advised as I got off the minibus not to look at the children’s shoes and, when we did meet them in their community centre, I saw that many of them were wearing little more than sandals without socks. Hardly any of them had coats on and they were physically shaking with the cold.
Back in Gjakova, we visited a pre-school and the community centre from which all of Nore and Metush’s projects are run.
People were desperate for us to take photographs of them. When I mentioned this to Nore she explained that it was their way of making sure that they would not be forgotten!
Day 3: On Sunday, we visited the children’s ward at the hospital in Gjakova. The most striking thing about the hospital was that, apart from police in the corridors, it was completely deserted.
Even when acutely ill, people do not go to the hospital because beds are so scarce that there is little point in attending because the doors are locked until a bed becomes available. In addition, medication and supplies have to be paid for in advance so the patient’s relatives have to go and purchase the medication from the pharmacy or the equipment from a supplies store.
My brother, daughter and son-in-law had all made up boxes for teenage boys. I gave this as one package to a young boy named Edward whose mother told me that he had a brother only one year younger than him and that she also cared for her teenage nephew. She couldn’t believe all three boys would benefit!
We also visited the home of a young boy with Down Syndrome who could not get over the tennis ball in his shoebox. What was really significant about this visit was the love his parents and grandmother had for him. There’s historically been such a stigma in Kosovo about disability that nobody knew people with disabilities existed because they were actually kept hidden. Due to Nore and Metush’s work in challenging this attitude we were welcomed into the home and filmed our time there for TV3.
Day 4: On Monday, we visited a secondary school where we spent time with children and their parents. Children only attend school in Kosovo for two hours a day as there is no money to pay teachers. After that, they study at home or visit community centres such as the one run by Nore and Metush to do homework.
Education is seen as key to improving life by all young people, most of whom want to be journalists because telling stories of life in Kosovo is seen as the way to bring about change and is highly valued following so many years of Communist rule during which freedom of speech was strongly repressed.
We then drove out to a hotel in the mountains to lend international support at the disability awareness event attended by a Minister from the Kosovan Government.
Before we left, Nore and Metush told us their personal story of the war in Kosovo. It’s not my story to tell and it couldn’t be printed in a family-read newspaper. I will say that I think that hearing them tell it was the thing that affected me the most from the trip. Not just for the atrocities they experienced but for their return to Kosovo several years after they fled for their lives, for how they’ve found peace and for the sheer scale of the work they do to rebuild the communities in Gjakova in the absence of any initiatives led by the Kosovan Government.
We left Gjakova and flew back to Ireland that night. It took 24 hours to get back to Roscommon. A year on and I am still processing but I can honestly say that it was one of the greatest opportunities I’ve ever had! I got to see first-hand just what a huge impact a single shoebox has on a child’s life and what a difference it can make to their future.