Tuesday, April 12, 2016

The practice of reflection is integral to fully realize the experience.

I am a volunteer for 4 weeks with Project HOPE. All opinions expressed are my own and do not represent the positions, strategies, or opinions or Project HOPE.

The end of last week added some additional learning experiences on top of the work I have been doing at the hospital. Last post, I talked about how I have worked on teaching the internship students and medical students while at the hospital. After a day in the hospital, one of the internship students asked if I would like to go out and have a coffee or lunch somewhere in the city. It was a gorgeous sunny day and in the 70s (global warming…) and we went to a large national park within the city of Pristina called Germia. We took a bus which cost 0.40 euros to the park. At the park entrance was a bike rental, tennis courts, and an enormous outdoor swimming pool that is filled and opens in June. We walked through the park along a path that threaded through fields where children were playing soccer and on playground equipment. It was spring break here in Pristina, so the children and their families were taking advantage of the warm weather. On the other side of the path was a large hill with flowering trees and trees starting to bud. We walked along this path and stopped at a bench to enjoy the outdoor weather, drank at the fountain with reportedly some of the best water in Kosovo (at least in the city of Pristina!), and talked all along the way. Some teenagers that we passed shouted out a greeting and asked “Where do you come from?” I responded “New York.” He shouted back “I love America! I was just in New York.” We continued our walk to the end of the path where a large restaurant sits amidst the trees and the playgrounds and had a traditional local lunch of peppers in cream sauce with cornbread and garlic bread to dip as well as fresh salads of cucumbers, tomatoes, onions, olives, and cheese. My friend and I talked about everything - current TV shows and movies, hopes and plans for the future. I asked if she would mind telling me about her experience during the war. She said of course - it is one thing that friends don’t talk about much in Kosovo. Many people suffer from PTSD, and now that the war is over, want to put the past behind them. She says she knows everything about many of her friends, except where they were during the war. 

My friend was living in Pristina with her family. She was 11 when the NATO bombing started in 1999. They were initially told the bombing wouldn’t last for more than one week. After 10 days with no end in sight, her family fled south to Macedonia. They spent 5 days sleeping outside at the Macedonian border in a neutral zone then entered into a refugee camp inside Macedonia where they lived for 3 months before being able to return home. She remembers life in the camp to be well organized and structured. They did not worry for food or shelter. The biggest concern she remembers is that her sister was 5 months old at the time they fled Pristina and due to shortages of food, her parents were constantly worried that her sister would not survive. Her sister now has scholarships to study abroad in prestigious universities in the field of her choice. When they returned home, their house was still intact although there had been looting of some of their possessions. They had left everything behind except essential items and passports when they fled for the Macedonian border. I think about the current refugees and migrants sitting along the border in Greece where they are being sent in boats back to Turkey. So many people I have met who were in a similar crisis situation leaving their war-torn country only 17 years ago have been some of the most inspirational people I have met. They are people determined to advance their education and use that education to help improve this new independent nation that the war was fought in order to achieve. 

Later that evening I went to the local mall with one of my other friends. There is a 5-D “60’s” cinema that you can pick two short movies to watch. In addition to 3-D glasses, the chairs move so that you feel as though you are in the movie. When it rains in the movie, you get rained on in the theater. It was pretty entertaining. 

Due to some scheduling conflicts, plans to revisit the refugee transit center in Macedonia were postpones. Instead, my colleague and I decided to explore the immediate surrounding area of Pristina. We had a fantastic guide, Alban Rafuna (www.beinkosovo.com) who brought along his extraordinarily bright 7-year-old daughter Noliana with him. We visited the predominantly Serbian populated village of Gracanica where one of the best preserved Serbian Orthodox Churches/Monasteries is located. Like many Serbian churches, this one is surrounded by a high brick wall with barbed wire on top of it. The Monastery is still in active use by the Orthodox nuns and is beautifully preserved. We were not allowed to take pictures within the church, but the frescoes inside were breathtaking. It is hard to believe that they are the original frescoes from the 1300s when the church was build by the ruling leader of the time. After this, we headed to an archeological site, the old city of Ulpiana which dates back to the time of the Illyrians - the original predecessors of modern Albanians. Three areas have been excavated within a large area of farmland outside the city. It was picturesque with flowering apple tree orchards dotting the countryside around it. Here we met a beautiful stray dog who fed our scraps of food and spare water to. We traveled a bit father out in the countryside up to Novobrdo Fortress which is in process of renovation. The village below was filled with flowering trees surrounding an old mosque and the ruins of a church that have been many years without use. We had lunch at a restaurant atop an adjacent hill with views of cows and sheep grazing on the green grassland below. We took our leftovers from the meal and revisited the stray dog to feed her our scraps. 

Sadly, one of many stray animals in Kosovo

Prizren at night
That evening on a whim, I went on a drive back to Prizren with some friends in order to see the city at night from the top of the fortress. I hadn’t been feeling all that well the past few days after eating far too much of a milk cake that I think was likely going bad (unfortunately discovered post-consumption in the GI ailment that followed and persisted for days). But, sick or not, I did not want to miss this opportunity! I was not disappointed. The city of Prizren is even more magical at night. 

Friday brought along with it another enriching encounter with an inspiring Kosovar who is the executive director of an NGO called Action for Mothers and Children (www.amchealth.org). I was connected with the director through one of the internship students I met who was on the previous rotation through labor and delivery. This foundation has connections to Dartmouth in the US and she connected with them while spending 3 months studying electronic medical record systems at Dartmouth as part of an exchange program. AMC was originally founded in 2009 in conjunction with USAID with grant money. In 2012, that grant money ran out, but determined to continue the work of the foundation, it became a locally run NGO. Its emphasis is on women’s and children’s health with the original mission to reduce maternal and child mortality rates in Kosovo which was one of the highest in Europe. The statistics are mostly unofficial as there is not a system in place for keeping track. They have multiple projects with the primary aim of education. There are 5 educational resource centers throughout Kosovo which offer classes to women and their partners. Most of the classes are aimed to prepare women for labor and delivery and in prenatal care (nutrition, smoking and alcohol cessation). They also have classes on newborn care. Currently, they are working to establish a national screening program for cervical cancer and to create a national transportation system for babies to be transferred to the only Level III NICU in the country in Pristina when a higher level of care is required (currently, the babies are transported privately by car). The aim of AMC is to provide research and evidence-based information to the people of Kosovo and also to use that information to advocate for policy changes. Some of the advocacy is being done for the health insurance system in development to ensure that prenatal care is included as part of the health insurance package. Prior to AMC’s lobbying efforts, this was not included in the original plans. The main office has 5 employees who all take on a number of projects. They are a group of highly motivated people dedicated to the improvement of health outcomes for the people of their country. 

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