Mitrovica!

Written by Peter DeWit

What on earth were we doing here? Have you heard of this place? I tried getting my bearings as I walked the wet potholed streets on an iron-gray evening to find our meeting point. I heard roosters crow and stray dogs bark. I picked up a big stone just in case one of the stray dogs charged at me. They were all harmless in the end. I wished the different groups of people in this part of the planet could get along with each other as well. I had done some research.

Mitrovica is a city divided by the shallow Ibar River. In 2013 it became official, now there is the majority Serbe Northern Mitrovica and the majority Albanian Southern Mitrovica. There are over 80,000 inhabitants, 65 per cent under the age of 30 years. But the tension between the two sides is palpable. A symbolic bridge was built in 1999 in the hopes the two sides would find a way to live peaceably together. Sadly, the bridge is guarded by the KFOR, an international peacekeeping force and no cars are permitted to cross this bridge meant for peace. The divisions of fear and hate are as deep as ever. 

It was into that environment that Jay Benfante, a 29 year old American, felt led to start a Serve the City chapter. In 2023 I traveled there for the first time along with Sara Tchaparian of Serve the City International for their first volunteer weekend. There Jay welcomed us and we were a small team of volunteers from America, Canada, Brussels, and both sides of Mitrovica. We gathered at Handikos, a center for disabled people. There we helped clean and paint, along with a gardening project and a fence painting project for the Roma Educational Center nearby. 

This year the volunteer weekend started at the same Handikos Center on a Thursday night and ended on Sunday late afternoon. There were local volunteers joined by others of us from America, the Netherlands, Ireland and France. Joining us later were Carlton and Shannon Deal, founders of Serve the City. We all agreed that the best part of this experience were the volunteers from Mitrovica, especially those from the Handikos Center. They also took part in all the activities! Matthew Lunders from Maastrich writes, “It was so special, not only to serve vulnerable groups in Kosovo, but also to serve alongside new friends from the same groups!” 

There is real value for our Serve the City chapters to visit other cities that have a Serve the City chapter. You’d be surprised at how much you can learn about serving, culture and even experience change after one of these exchanges. Ronan from Dublin wrote,  “I was surprised by how quickly everyone bonded as a team. Everyone was there to serve in whatever way they could and it was beautiful.”  Indeed, we not only served together during the day, but the evenings were dedicated to intentional discussions. Our first evening we heard from one of the founding staff members of Handikos. She shared the joys and challenges of working with disabled people in the context of Mitrovia. The next evening at a family restaurant we had a session led by two Irishmen, Ronan and John, on peacemaking, taking the example of Northern Ireland and the impact it had on John personally. 

We often say we are Better Together and it was true during our work days, we accomplished a lot. Not only did we do physical work, we did relational work too. Jay explained that the greatest highlight for him was bringing kids from different communities together in Mitrovica. “We had sport’s and art’s camps at an American run private school that serves mostly Albanian children. What made this special is that we  brought kids together from two other schools, that included Roma, Ashkali, and Balkan Egyptian kids. Unfortunately kids from these different communities get very little time together and this can reinforce prejudice and stereotypes. It was an honour to get to bridge the gap for these kids for a weekend and watch everyone just be kids together. Play and friendship is universal and these kids can easily understand that.”

Serve the City Mitrovica works often with children in a large Roma community nearby the Handikos center. One unique need was to build them picnic tables for activities and for eating. Rebekka, a law student from the Netherlands, was tasked to lead this project. With a small team they had to buy wood, bolts, washers, and stain, then build from scratch two picnic tables. She had never made anything like this in her life. But by watching Youtube tutorials, and by having a young local man on her team, Dion, whose dad taught him a lot on the construction sites, they amazingly created two sturdy tables that will be appreciated for years by all the kids and staff of the Roma Educational center. Goetso, Rebekka! 

Another local young graphic arts student, Emma, only 22 years of age, had her first Serve the City experience. She helped lead the art workshop over two days. There were easily 25 kids beading, painting flower pots and planting seeds, and the best part, making a delicious dessert with gummy worms and Oreo cookies! She writes, “The kids were full of energy and it seemed  that they were enjoying  their time at the camp. I am looking forward to the chance of meeting them again on other volunteering opportunities! They were the highlight of my week.” 

Do weekends like this matter? Serve the City founder Carlton Deal answers succinctly, “At first glance the Big Volunteer Weekend in Mitrovica was building some picnic tables, playing games with kids, and sharing meals with friends. But then you take a step back and remember where you are. It’s Kosovo, still a very young country, one of the poorest countries in Europe. It’s Mitrovica, where a bridge divides the Serbian north and the Albanian south and the divisions in the city are obvious to everyone. And then you see who’s serving, and being served. A Roma community, and an international school across the street that opened its gates to its neighbors for the first time. A community center for people with disabilities, overlooked by most, now a valued STC core team. And international volunteers from Dublin and Belfast, Paris, Brussels and Maastricht. Simple sports and meals and crafts and gardening become so much more meaningful when you take a step back and realize just how many lines you’re crossing, and how beautiful and impossible that group photo really is.”

All those who participated in this special Volunteer Weekend will not forget the joy of serving in Mitrovica. One unforgettable moment for me was when one of the disabled volunteers asked what it was like for us able-bodied volunteers to work alongside them for these three days. Watching these guys daily had impacted my heart so much that I stood up and said, “It’s been the highlight of this trip to work alongside you! The incredible joy that I saw on all your faces was a beauty so rare. I actually saw the image of God this weekend in you as you joyfully served with us.”  Maybe this is the greatest benefit of volunteering, we get to experience true inclusivity and see up close the best versions of humanity. How can anyone remain indifferent when there is so much love to go around? Maybe you would like to join the next time when one of our Serve the City chapters has another exchange.

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