In the Peç district of western Kosovo remains a former Yugoslav era prison where inmates have long been gone; but today, the prison houses a new set of inhabitants who rely on its walls for shelter. These are families who have found themselves in such need of relief, that the only apparent answer was to make a former prison into a home. Among these families are women who have been caught in the current that pulls the disadvantaged and the abandoned people into the prison. Each of the women and their families have come to the prison for their own unique reason. Whether it be to escape an abusive father, the long-term dysfunction of an arranged adolescent marriage, or the decline of health and the inability to provide their family a home, these women have found themselves living in the prison as a last resort.
During its operational days, the Gjurrakoc Prison was used as a short-term detainment branch of the Dubrava Correctional Center. During the later years of the Kosovo War, in 1999, NATO bombing swept through parts of the country, and the Dubrava Correctional Center was targeted, resulting in most of the prison being destroyed. The Dubrava Correctional Center closed and later, the short-term branch in Gjurrakoc was repurposed into a shelter for returning refugees whose homes were destroyed during the war. After the refugees moves on to new homes, the building’s use as a shelter continued for those who are in need of housing.
As a part of an already marginalized country, economically lower standing women may find themselves even farther set aside by society. The social safety net in Kosovo is thin as is, so for women, it can be far too easy to fall into the cycle of poverty, especially when the opportunities they need are largely controlled by men rooted in traditional standards. For single women, it could be twice as hard to climb out of the poverty trap. At the Gjurrakoc Prison, these prospects have become painfully true for the women and their families living there.
The unemployment rate in Kosovo is high, although improving. According to Trading Economics, in 2016 Kosovo saw a record low but still very high unemployment rate of 27.5%, down from 32.9%. The unemployment rate is a huge problem for everyone involved, however, women have shown to be affected the most by unemployment. In traditional and rural areas of the country, women’s roles are often confined to serving the family, or marriage. This often discourages these women from obtaining active roles in society and to build skills for self-support.
The residents at the prison share many reasons for coming to this place, but the prison also has a unique hand in each of their lives.
For Gentianë Qakolli, 26, the prison is a hope for momentary relief, and escape from the abuse of her ex-husband. Her past hardships have followed her to the prison where she and one of her four sons suffer from pressing health issues and are without the finances to receive sufficient treatment. Each day Gentianë must choose between her and her son’s health, or providing for the rest of the family.
To Florentina Mehmeti, 27, the prison is a job she takes pride in, but it’s also adding to her declining health. She Works tirelessly to uphold her family as much as she can. And as she becomes increasingly sicker, she fears her illness could soon leave her six children motherless. Regardless, Florentina rarely rests, in an attempt to give comfort to her family where she never had it in her own life.
And for Lumnije Çitaku, 44, the prison has become a form of isolation estranging her from those around her. For Lumnije’s thirteen-year-old daughter, Njomza, her position in the prison and her family represents a crossroads; will the cycle repeat? Or will her life diverge from her mother’s life, and the lives of the women before her?
Gentianë Qakolli and her four sons, ages one to eight, are the most recent family to move into the prison. Gentianë first heard of the prison from members of her family who have also passed through there. An uncle of hers still has a room, and is one of the longest residing individuals. Gentianë made the decision to move into the prison after her husband left her for another woman. She struggled for years with an unfaithful and abusive husband whom she met in an arranged marriage at the age of 15. Since being left by her husband, she has put an end to the relationship and is waiting for her divorce papers to be processed. Even though she has faced the worst in a dysfunctional relationship, Gentianë has still allowed her heart to remain open. By growing closer to her friend, Lulzim Kameraj, 24, she has found new love and support while she leaves the past behind. Together, they now sacrifice what they have while waiting for the next stage of their lives to come.
Gentianë grew up in a traditional and conservative family. Her childhood was strictly controlled: “I had a very difficult time with my family” Gentianë said, “I was very locked, they didn’t allow me to go out, to have friends, to get dressed as other girls, but only what I was told by them. I never had someone to open up to, to talk to, to be a child with, or have a youth like other girls did.” When Gentianë was 15, her father caught her talking to a boy online, and out of fear for her running away, he immediately began arranging for her to be married. Hopelessly Gentianë obeyed her family, and followed through with the marriage that led to long term mental, emotional, and physical abuse by her husband and his family.
Both Gentianë and her five-year-old son, Dorentin, suffer from serious health issues that have gone untreated due to financial restrictions. Gentianë has a serious hernia, and lung issues. Her son, Dorentin, was born with kidney failure, leaving him with only one poorly functioning kidney. “Even though I don’t look that bad, the doctor told me that if I continue like this for a month or two, I won’t be able to take care of my children, let alone myself,” Gentianë said. On a daily basis she must make the hard decision between saving money towards medical treatment for herself and her son, or buying basic supplies and food for the children. “Lulzim has started to work sometimes, but when he does he earns 10 to 15 euros and we don’t know whether we should buy diapers for the baby or food,” Gentianë said, “And that’s why Lulzim started to work for the money we don’t have.”
For a time Gentianë and her ex-husband lived in Germany where her son was able to receive treatment for his kidneys. After he was born, she stayed there with him in the hospital for six months. “At that moment, while I had my son ill on one side, and on the other side the rest of my children were with my mother, then my husband decided to cheat,” Gentianë recounts, “I had so many things going on; I was young, only 20 years old and I could not handle it all. I did something stupid - I said to myself that my son won’t survive and I had so many other troubles - So I took pills, I tried to commit suicide.”
During her time in the hospital, Gentianë began wearing her veil and prayed diligently for her son’s health. “I cried so much for my son that I had no tears left” Gentianë said, “Prayers helped me a lot because they even told me that my son could die immediately, but he got better. They told me that he could not live with only one kidney, but his other kidney started improving.”
To Gentianë, the prison represents an opportunity to rebuild her life. She and Lulzim plan to spend the next year working in order to regain a footing. They hope that their stay at the prison will only be momentary, but they face many financial issues along the way. In the meantime, they must wait and sacrifice themselves for a better future.
Florentina Mehmeti is a diligent but deeply weary worker for her family. As a mother, she sustains her whole family regardless of the hard situation they live in. She appears aged far beyond her 27 years, with an exhausted breath, and hunched back. The doctors say she has a lung tumor. Her illness makes itself heard when she struggles to use her dry voice, and sometimes when she coughs up blood. “As soon as I came here, I became ill. I have a tumor in my lungs and I find it difficult to speak,” Florentina said. The very reason why she would seek treatment, to prolong the time she has to care for her children, is the same reason why she fears getting the treatment. Who will watch over the children while she is in the hospital? No matter her condition, Florentina pushes on. Counting only her children and her husband, Gazmend Vrankaj, as reasons to go on.
Florentina and her husband, Gazmend, first came to rely on the prison for housing eight years ago. At the time, they were living with Gazmend’s family all together in one house, located not far from where they are now in the town of Klina. When Florentina and Gazmend’s own family grew larger with children, and the house become increasingly more crowded with Gazmend’s extended family, they knew they would need to find another place to live. As the oldest of his five brothers, Gazmend had a right to inherit some of the land where his family’s home was built, but his brothers prevented him from gaining his right to land. He and his family were forced to leave the house and seek other means of shelter. For Gazmend, the only other option seemed to be moving his family into the prison. “I don’t think it can be worse than this, because these are bad conditions to raise children,” Gazmend said, “They may see another bed, but I don’t have enough money to buy another one. If I work 15 days it is ok, but we need food and water to live.”
For Florentina and Gazmend, the inability to give their children more weighs heavy on their hearts. Caring for six children is a huge financial burden for them, but for Florentina, her children are her life. Florentina lives in a culture where children are a necessity, and if a woman is unable to meet that expectation, she is at risk of being abandoned. Gazmend was pushed to leave his first wife because she was unable to have children. When Florentina married Gazmend, they discovered that Florentina also had trouble conceiving. Before receiving treatment, they tried for several years to start a family. During that time, Gazmend again was encouraged by some to leave Florentina for another woman who could provide children. Finally, Florentina became pregnant with her first son: “I thought I couldn’t have children, so some people, not Gazmend’s family, told him to divorce me.” Florentina said, “But, when I visited the doctor and he told me I was pregnant - From that moment, I felt I was reborn.”
As a young girl, Florentina dreamed of becoming a tailor, “When I was little I used to take needles and pretend I was sewing,” Florentina said, “I used to tell my mother I wanted to be a tailor. She always said: ‘Let’s see what life brings.’” However, Florentina was never able to realize that future for herself. “What a man thinks he will become, he never does,” she added. While growing up, Florentina lived in a household with an abusive father, “He beat me when I was young, about 8-9 years old” said Florentina, “I had a very, very hard time with him. Also my mother.” Florentina first met Gazmend as a teenager. He took interest in her, and pursued her as a wife. For Florentina, Gazmend become a chance for her to leave the abuse in her home. So one day they planned to run away together. “We went to a hidden place where we talked of our potential escape. Then, I was convinced to escape, so I did.”
Now with six children, Florentina works endlessly to take care of her family and living space. She takes her responsibilities very seriously; cleaning, cooking, taking care of the children, tending to guests, and more. It’s what she takes pride in, but also what is slowly harming her more and more. Florentina expresses that her health is a result of long-term stress, and so much of what she has to deal with on a daily basis adds to that stress. In addition to that, the environment that they live only makes things worse. Hygiene and sanitization are one of the most pressing issues for the residents since they do not have access to a proper bathroom, or sinks to wash. Despite it all, florentina rises early to take care of all her responsibilities, and doesn’t rest until they are all done.
Lumnije and her family make up some of the longest residing families at the prison. They first came to the prison nine years ago. At the time, Lumnije was seeking help from the local municipality. Their answer was to move her and her family into the prison with the promise to relocate them soon after. This relocation never happened for the family. Like many of the residents at the prison, it had left Lumnije feeling forgotten and hopeless of any change. The option for relocation is an option for some at the prison, but only if the residents own land in the municipality where a home can be built. For those who do not own land, like Lumnije and her husband, they’ve had to wait in hopes that some opportunity might become available for their escape.
In moments of quiet, Lumnije can be seen rubbing the pain out from her stressed shoulders. Worn to the nerves at times, she is running out of the energy to give her children what they need. As her children grow they require new provisions; she must find school supplies and clothes for Njomza and Shpetim, or tearfully replace milk with solid food for her baby daughter while she cries for her breast. As the family grows up, they need more of what can’t be easily provided.
Bad relations with those around her have made Lumnije an outcast at the prison. Isolated from others, Lumnije relies on her oldest daughter, Njomza, 13, to take care of the family with her. Lumnije’s husband, Kadri Çitaku, is often away working as a cattle herder, or she may not know where he is for days. As a result, Lumnije is fully responsible for taking care of her four children, ages two to 13.
Njomza is a light-hearted girl. She takes pride in displaying her many paintings and her “girl time” anime themed school binder. She finely crafts her outfits, favoring a simple floral dress. She is at the cusp of change in her life. With many possibilities ahead of her, that is, if her life becomes different from the lives of all the other women around her. Traditionally in Kosovo, girls are often raised to perform specific jobs within the home, and this is the case for Njomza too. As Njomza matures she has found herself gaining more responsibilities within the family helping her mother.
By always observing and learning from her mother, Njomza has taken on many of the same responsibilities of her mother while taking care of the family. Njomza’s mother is training her the same way her mother and many other women were trained before her. They take great pride in the work they do as women for their families, but also struggle intensely while subsisting in the important roles they have, and in the difficult place they live: Making their nest within a cage.
- Dedication -
I dedicate this work to my mother, Christina, for all the sacrifices she has made while raising my six siblings and I in faith; teaching us to rejoice in fellowship and to have the strength while we stand alone. You have taught me to love unconditionally, and you’ve shown me the importance of grace, forgiveness, and to appreciate the work mothers do in raising the future generations. And to my sisters, Leah, Joanna and Sarah, who I’ve had the honor of watching start their own families; with all the tremendous joy, love, and heartbreak that comes through bringing life into the world. I saw you in the stories of these women, and while I was apart from you, I became close to them.
- Special Thanks -
Mjellma Asllani - Engin Avci - Donny Bajohr - Xhorxhina Bami - Jeff Bowden - Heather Casey - Karen Cetinkaya - Meredith Davenport - Jeta Abazi Gashi - Endrit S. Gashi - Sharon Hart - Adrian Jupolli - Amanda Kearney - Visar Kryeziu - Alexis Lambrou - Jim Myers - Gentianë Paçarizi - JuliAnna Patino - Jennifer Poggi - Dardan Selimaj - Shkëmb Shala - William Snyder - Jenny Sullivan - Robert O. VanWinkle - David Walter - Kaltrina Zeka - RIT-Kosovo - RIT Global Eduacation
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