A mother goes far to support her child

With EU's support, UNDP is implementing solutions to economic and social empowerment of returnees across the Western Balkans.

December 2, 2022
Mother with two children

Blerta spends family time with her son Antonio and daughter Leje.

Photo: UNDP Eurasia / Sanja Knežević

Like many Roma, Blerta Lushnjari went abroad for better opportunities. For 25 years, she went back and forth between different countries abroad and Albania, working here and there, in hope of a better salary and social security system.

In her case, it was not just economic but also health-related: to seek proper health care for her son.

Her son Antonio was born with a disability and has a complex mix of conditions. Their town Elbasan lacked capacities for a proper diagnosis and to provide free medical services for persons with disabilities. With Blerta’s economic situation, it was impossible to pay private doctors.

“The doctor was checking my son and was not telling me the truth or giving the right diagnosis,” she remembers. “He was even asking money from me to get the diagnoses in order to be able to get social protection from state.”

Without a proper diagnosis, or knowledge of what health conditions Antonio experienced, it was scary. She was unable to care for him properly or seek necessary therapies or medicines that could help alleviate his pain or know how to accommodate for decent living in the future.

Mother looking over sleeping child.
Photo: UNDP Eurasia / Sanja Knežević

In the search for better medical attention, they again went abroad, finally managing to get the diagnosis – paraplegia and mild intellectual disability – and secure proper care.

However, without a settled status, they had to return home to Albania.

“Abroad, the doctor was visiting my son once a week and he was taking physiotherapy. But when we came to Albania, there was no such service. Nothing at all. So his condition deteriorated.”

Many Roma from the Western Balkan go abroad for work opportunities, but face challenges reintegrating when they return. The most common challenge reported by returnees in the region, including Albania, is employment, followed by decent housing and access to education. In Albania, there is no targeted social protection programme for returnees. Back in Elbasan, Blerta was without a home or work, and now had two children to support. Lack of formal education makes it difficult for Blerta to find meaningful work and poses challenges for the paperwork, registrations and services needed for a stable life.

Blerta cooking in the kitchen
Photo: UNDP Eurasia / Sanja Knežević

“Life was harder. I could not feed my children. Homeless, I was moving around to my relatives, one week at one and the next one at another.”

She looked for work, but also had to keep care of her son, and could only work for a few hours a day. Lack of access to quality and inexpensive services for him with still an issue looming large.

In 2004, she moved to Bilisht-Devoll with her partner and children to try to build a healthy family. She feels more welcomed and supported. She has been able to get social protection and her daughter, now ten years old, regularly attends school. But the socioeconomic challenges facing Roma, especially returnees, are amplified when it comes to a family member with a disability.

Despite having a proper diagnosis for her son, his condition still is challenging to manage. Throughout the years, she has followed up with physiotherapy for him, but the family cannot afford the cost of traveling to the next largest city for specialized care.

With his condition, it is hard to leave the house every day to work. She currently sells used clothes, traveling around all day to surrounding villages to earn income for their food and housing, but worries about being away from the house.

Her daughter Leje takes good care of her brother, but it’s important for Blerta that her daughter focuses on her schoolwork. All efforts are made to ensure Leje gets a good education.

“We have a special relationship, we play, I help him walk, rub his knees, massage him,” Leje says. “Also, when his hands shake, I rub them with gel. We understand each other very well, I stay with him when I come home from school. I understand what he wants at any moment. I do my homework in the evening, when mom comes.”

They still face struggles with housing, choosing a home they can afford with minimal conditions. But Blerta worries it’s not suitable for the needs of Antonio and Leje. Currently, the municipality helps her collect documentation and obtain rent subsidies, but the lack of a solid home means an increased risk of ongoing economic and social problems, like health risks that may exist there or occasional displacement due to the owner’s wishes not to rent the flat longer.

“The biggest dream for my two children is to have a house, so that even when I won’t be with them, they will be organized and live a decent life.”

Despite all the challenges, Blerta’s positive energy still flows and it’s apparent in the warmth of care for her family. Her main goal is to fufill all her children’s needs. She has joined many NGO activities developed for women and their integration in society, especially a vocational training programme for women returnees.

Now 17, Antonio is limited in his abilities, but is doing much better. He receives regular physiotherapy provided at a UNDP-financed center and at home via the Ministry of Health and Social Protection’s "4 wheels in service" project. He has access to better medical care and is surrounded by a loving family that gives attention to his development and care. Leje, now ten, has interest in languages, has won several running medals and loves spending time with her brother. She aspires to become a physiotherapist to be able to help people in need like her brother.

Two children, Leje and Antonio, playing together.

“In life, running and my brother make me happier.”

Photo: UNDP Eurasia / Sanja Knežević

UNDP's Reintegration of returnees project is helping people like Blerta across the Western Balkans by working with partners to implement holistic solutions to the economic and social empowerment of returnees. The initiative is supported by the European Union.

Original story on UNDP Eurasia website.