We fear the unknown. The virus is still unknown

By Mirjeta Qehaja

I have lived in Pristina since I was at the arts university. When I finished university, I became involved in the Roma Veritas Kosova organization, and due to work, I continued to stay in Pristina. But, when the lockdown started as a preventive measure against COVID—19, I had come home to Gjakova for only two days. But, since we worked from home, I stayed there for two months.

Young people are used to a more active life, work, university, going out with friends. To be locked home suddenly was interesting, it was a little grim, but it had its positive sides. For example, before, I would go to Gjakova only once in two weeks, but when I came home this time, it was more interesting because we grew closer, I had the opportunity to spend more time with my family, and this was the positive side.

In the meantime, I thought of projects and how I can help poor people. So, we have homes, we have a place to live. They’re appealing to stay home and we are staying home, but on the other side, what about people who don’t have a home, who live by selling cans and must go out? So, we made a project, we reallocated the budget of activities to prepare care packages and distribute them to people.

I left the house, but this happened only in the preparatory phase of activities and the moment we distributed the kits. Usually you have the eight—hour shift in the office, but when you work from home, time isn’t limited and I committed to work much more. Work took much more time rather than when I was at the office. This was a big change.

Everybody is scared of the unknown. COVID—19 was and still is unknown to us. Even though two months passed, now we’re seeing it as something normal, even though the situation is worse than in the beginning. This is more concerning, but, on the other side, as a family, it was very hard on us. We were scared because it was something new, it’s unknown, and we have to be very careful.

For example, my brother is the only one who went grocery shopping, and he was very careful. None of the other family members went out for two months. Generally, my brother is more careful about these things than us. He cleaned the products and their packaging before we used them, so they were all clean when we took them inside. We were very careful.

During this time, we didn’t go out and we got our information from the Internet solely. There were a lot of interesting things that are still continuing to happen. Even though, for a time, we thought that the situation got better, we were open to the idea that, “Okay, the situation got better. The pandemic is over.” And I came back to Pristina, I started working at the office, just like before. But, in an instant, it came back like a boomerang, now it has gotten even worse.

While in lockdown, I had staff meetings every morning. I started with meetings and 10:00, as we discussed activities, I started working immediately. I was mostly locked in my room, because I could do my work. I was in my room almost all day, and I only got out to eat and went back inside. In the evening, we gathered with my family, we would watch movies, or do some other activity together.

On the other side, my father and brother have a carpentry workshop where they work with sofas. In the meantime, they would get a sofa or something, and they would work on it in the yard, they didn’t even go to the shop. Then the work stopped, and they didn’t have work for a period of time. We were all jobless. I was the only one in the family employed. Luckily, the work of the organization was easily transferred online, because, otherwise, the carpentry workshop had stopped working. We were all locked inside.

In terms of gender roles, we don’t have a hierarchy in the family. We are a family that believes that everyone has equal rights. So, the pandemic didn’t influence gender roles. The relationships within the family remained the same, as they always were. There wasn’t any irritating situation of the type, “One does something, the other doesn’t.” We didn’t have these problems. Everything was normal, we each did as much as we could.

In those first two months of the pandemic, I didn’t paint much, because I had work at the organization. Although I shouldn’t make excuses because artists should be active and work all the time, but I don’t know why I closed down in this aspect. The lockdown had a great impact on both the psychic and the emotional side, and I didn’t have the inspiration, “Okay, I’m going to do something.” But now, the second time I came from Pristina, I learned from the first time and I created a working environment.

The pandemic was especially hard for the Egyptian community. In the organization we work with students of the Roma, Ashkali, and Egyptian communities, when the pandemic started, we reallocated the budget, and we thought, “Okay, we will help people who are poor.” So, we took the budget of the students to help people and optionally some students who are in very bad financial conditions.

In Gjakova, we chose the Kolonia neighborhood. The Kolonia neighborhood is known as the neighborhood with the worst living conditions in Kosovo. The citizens there live by gathering cans. If a place in Kosovo where you can describe a bad life exists, then that is Kolonia in Gjakova. So, as an organization, we decided that a bigger number of care packages be distributed in this neighborhood.

At a time when we had to stay at home, they couldn’t stay inside, because they didn’t have a way to provide food for their family. From that came the idea to distribute the care packages. But what happened was that all the citizens of that neighborhood gathered and there was a big crowd, they weren’t patient to wait for the distribution of the care packages. When you think about it, how much this crowd helps the spread of the virus. Moreover, the citizens who live there didn’t have hygienic means, they didn’t have masks or gloves.

It was very sad to see that scene, but, on the other side, it was a good opportunity for them to get free food. Their living conditions are provided by cans, and one can imagine what conditions they had during the lockdown in the pandemic. When we sent the care packages, it was a very important aid for them, “Wow, we got free food.” This was also the cause of the crowd that happened there. I personally experienced it very badly, because only me and the director went there from our organization.

For this activity, as a distribution point, we used the Caritas center. People would gather around Caritas, and at the moment we distributed them, there were many, many, many people who would sometimes grab me by my hands, “I also want a package.” There were different scenes. I remember when a woman started crying and said, “My children are orphans and I don’t have any, every aid that comes isn’t given to me.” When I checked the lists, we didn’t have that woman on the list.

On the other side, there were a lot of people who waited, and this was very tragic, and it will stick with me for a long time, and I think that I have to create some kind of artistic work about these events. I really like presenting the events I experience in a visual way, so at least through art, other people can process these experiences with me.

When I had the “Holocaust” exhibit, I presented the tragedy that happened to people. We know that when we mention Holocaust, we think, “It only happened to Jewish people,” but even in history books in Albanian, there isn’t mention that Roma were also victims. So, for me it was very important to include these experiences.

I started the “Holocaust” exhibition after a week—long visit to Auschwitz, where I saw the artifacts from that time. This visit, I took it very hard, and I thought that I would present it through the colors so that others also could see what racism did, even why racism should be stopped. After Auschwitz, the second—worst experiences are the scenes in the Kolonia neighborhood that I was part of, and I think it should be visually represented in painting.

There are around two hundred houses in the Kolonia neighborhood, and the Municipality of Gjakova provided assistance to only twenty houses, and this assistance was only a sack of flour. It wasn’t much help. When you go to that neighborhood, you either have to have enough for everybody or just not go at all. You have to prepare two hundred care packages, because you can’t help one and not help the other. This creates a way more difficult situation. We talked to a friend of ours who works at the Council of Europe, and they also distributed kits at the same time, so she made it possible for us to go with two hundred care packages.

While I spent that time helping others, I neglected myself, of course I don’t regret it. I had the will to work. For those who had time, whether or not they’re artists, it was a very good moment to go back and think more about themselves and what they want to do in the future after the pandemic.

My second home is the atelier, although it is not personal, but I’m used to that environment. We who do art know that the environment where you’re used to working plays a big role. I mean, I wasn’t used to working at home, I was used to working in the atelier. Therefore, it was very hard for me when the Faculty of Arts closed, because I was there all the time. When I came home, of course, I wanted to create an environment, a space where I could work and bring all the materials, but I didn’t even take the materials here with me.

I had to get the materials, but I didn’t have inspiration. It could be empathy, because I experience it very badly if something bad happens to someone, and I try to find a solution in any way. So, knowing that I have a role in the organization, I tried to do everything possible to use all my time at work to help people in need. In this respect, I left myself aside and I didn’t work on my art. Art was not my priority.

For me, it’s best if I don’t open any other exhibit for the next two years. It isn’t a problem for me because I haven’t painted in so long. But, after two years, I can come out with a new cycle of paintings. So, it’s good to take advantage of this time. On the other hand, I will miss the visits to the gallery, to see new works, see new art, be it conceptual art or whatever. I will miss this part, but in the personal aspect, I don’t think so.

I will miss the communication about art with my colleagues. Considering that inspiration is momentary, it’s not like you have a certain time, “Okay, I will be inspired at this time.” So, conversations with colleagues about art or about events that happen during the day are very important. Every detail, every item can influence the artistic process. Considering this, I will miss this time and contact with people a lot. On the other hand, of course, publishing my work online doesn’t seem very effective to me.

Luckily, in my family, no one got infected with COVID—19, and I hope it will not happen, but we know how the situation has escalated now. Each of us knows someone who is infected, someone we knew or something like that. The worst part is that many cases of the people who are infected with COVID—19 are dying, which makes us be more careful. Even though, unfortunately, there are people who believe that coronavirus doesn’t exist. People are going out and not caring about other people, and they don’t know the damage they’re causing to society.

We need to have more awareness within the population so that everyone can help to not spread the virus. We’re very careful as a family. While there is no vaccine, we’ll have to be very careful. If we were only young people in the house, we probably wouldn’t have cared so much, but we have the greatest care for our parents, especially for our father who has diabetes and heart disease. We are extremely careful that the virus does not touch our dad. This is our greatest fear.

As far as the Roma, Ashkali, and Egyptian communities are concerned, during this period, there was no institutional care. Independent organizations and the Municipality of Gjakova have provided masks or gloves, and thus have helped little in this regard. In these communities, there are people who beg for cans, even those who are professors. So, we are always talking about those people who have very difficult economic conditions and who live on cans. If the rest of us live, they survive. I mean, they have food for the day.

There aren’t many people from the minority communities who were infected, and I think this is very strange. When the statistics are published, it appears that there aren’t any. I know only one person in Gjakova who died of COVID—19 lately, but I haven’t heard of cases where they were infected. I don’t know, it’s very strange, and I think maybe they’re not reporting them.

If we don’t take care of the health of the minority communities, it will be much worse for society as a whole because it will allow the virus to spread. You can be racist and not deal with minority communities, but, if those cases are not addressed, the virus will spread even more. Everyone should be treated equally. It is very strange how so far there aren’t many cases within the community that has the coronavirus. I say strange because COVID—19 doesn’t recognize ethnicity.


Mirjeta Qehaja (b. 1995) is a painter and minority rights activist. A member of the Egyptian community in Kosovo, Qehaja calls attention to the discrimination and human rights violations that members of Roma, Ashkali, and Egyptian communities face in Kosovo and around the globe. Qehaja’s work has been featured in numerous exhibitions throughout Kosovo. In 2017, she earned the top prizes at the exhibition “Privacy violated” at the Faculty of Arts at violated” at the Faculty of Arts at University of Prishtina and at the exhibition “Color: The Eye Candy of Art” at the Kosovo Art Exchange Gallery in Mitrovica. Later that year, she opened her first solo exhibition “Barriers.” Two years later, Qehaja opened her second solo exhibition “Holocaust” at Galeria Qahili. She is currently working on her master’s degree in painting.