Wednesday, July 4, 2018

Rebecca Waters on Freedom

Like most Americans, I have taken freedom for granted for most of my life. Don’t get me wrong…I wave my flag proudly. My heart swells when I hear the national anthem. There is something moving about standing in a crowd reciting the pledge of allegiance as one unified voice. I read news stories of people held captive abroad because of their beliefs and I revel in the freedom we experience in the USA.

But I never fully captured how incredible and far reaching this freedom is until I lived for an extended time in Kosovo. Sometimes when Americans move to a foreign country they come to that understanding rapidly because they live under the severe laws and tight restrictions of their host nation. That wasn’t my experience. My awareness came through teaching fourth graders.

The school where I taught, Prishtina High School, is an American school. All students study Albanian, their own language but all core classes are taught in English. The school implements the Ohio curriculum. This certainly makes it easy for American teachers to transition into the classroom there. However, I ran into one tiny glitch. If you know anything about American school curriculum, you know that in fourth grade all across the fifty states, social studies is centered on state history. My class consisting primarily of Albanian students did not need to study Ohio history. 

To make the lessons on history, geography, government, and economics relevant to my fourth grade class, I set out to teach these themes using Kosovo as the vehicle. There was a lot of research to do but I was not alone. I had fourteen eager research buddies working with me.

I learned everything I could about the history and geography of Kosovo first. I searched the internet, studied maps and began reading historical accounts of this area of the Balkans. My students were doing the same. Kosovo’s regional history is extensive and dates back thousands of years. We learned of the Romans and the Turks and the Albanians. We studied the region as part of Yugoslavia, learned of the Serbian influence, and examined the ever-changing borders of this small country. I won’t go into detail here about everything we learned over the course of a year…only about what it means to be free.

While I read published accounts of Kosovo from just prior to the documented war (1998-1999) to the present, my students conducted interviews with people who lived in the area before the war, during the war, and within five years after the war.

Actually, the war may never had happened if the Albanian Kosovars had experienced

·      Fair representation for the taxes they paid (Sound familiar?) and 
·      Freedom of speech (Yep, we’ve heard that one before.) and 
·      Freedom of religion (Wow, I’ve read this long before I came to Kosovo…nearly every Thanksgiving!) and 
·      If they had not been harassed in an attempt to drive them from their homeland.

Instead, Slobodan Milosevic, (a Serbian who rose to power in the 1990’s) tried to force Albanians who had lived for centuries in the province of Kosovo to leave the area. He heavily taxed the Albanian residents while limiting their work opportunities. He made it illegal to speak or teach the Albanian language. 

Kosovo is Now 10 Years Old
Milosevic instituted what he called a parallel society. Children attended "parallel schools."For example, at first, Albanian children were schooled on the lower level of the school building while Serbian children were schooled on the floor above.  The Albanians were not allowed to speak or teach the Albanian language. Everyone had to learn Serbian, even though by this time Serbians made up only around nine percent of the region’s population. The Albanian students had no books or resources. They were lucky to have a single piece of chalk for the blackboard. Teachers taught as best as they could and students memorized everything. 

Milosevic’s parallel society permitted the children to play... on separate playgrounds. However, the Serbian students had playground equipment and were allowed to engage in organized sports while the Albanian Kosovars were denied any equipment and were not allowed to play any sort of organized sport. I talked with young adults who, as children during this time period would bunch socks together to create their own soccer ball. One young man told me how he and his friends were caught playing soccer and sniper bullets rained down on the grassy area where they were playing.  He was six-years-old at the time.  

In Their Declaration of Freedom
From the Soviet Union,,
Hungarians Cut The Soviet Symbol
 From the Center of Their Flag

Who are these children now? They are the parents of students in my class. They are young teachers and administrators in my school. They are the entrepreneurs shaping the economy of the country. They are the members of parliament and government officials. They are the future of Kosovo. To their credit, few harbor ill feelings toward the Serbian population. They blame the politics and government of that era for creating an atmosphere leading to fighting.

I can’t go back in time and interview people in colonial America. I know they felt disenfranchised. I know they were taxed without having a voice in how that money was spent...and it wasn't being spent on them. I know many of them suffered religious discrimination. I know those we now call Native Americans were mistreated and forced from their land. I know our country has suffered many hardships throughout our short history as a nation. I can only imagine the early members of our society's strong desire for independence. 

But now, I can hear their many languages.  It is the voice of freedom. 

If you missed these posts, click on them to better understand Kosovo's pursuit of freedom.

Four Pieces of Wood: A Story of Two Neighbors in Kosovo 

Thank You, Mr. President: Students Learning About the War and President Clinton's Response

Happy Birthday, Kosovo: The Ten Year Celebration for This Tiny Country

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