Blerta Begisholli – Kosovo
Stabilizing the Balkans through good government
“My childhood memories are not those of playing with dolls and running in the green grass,” says Blerta Begisholli. “My first memories are bombs, smoke, fear, tears, and screams for escape.” Her parents were so afraid of losing Blerta and her brothers that the children had to sleep with their clothes and shoes on. If the Serbian forces reached them during the night, they’d be ready to escape. At one point her father was taken, but he was able to get away. The tragic fighting and massacres caused between 8,000 and 11,000 deaths and millions of refugees.
“The first time I heard about NATO was not in the books, or from any professor,” Blerta says. “The first time I heard about NATO was from my mother’s lips, who was screaming this ‘divine’ name through tears of joy, as the helicopters were flying above our heads. There I saw we are not alone, that there is still humanity in the world.”
The 12th of June, 1999, marked the day the war ended in Kosovo. Seven-year-old Blerta and her family saw hope again. In part, because of NATO’s intervention, Blerta’s parents supported her education on a path of leadership, “so that one day I could make Kosovo a better place for their grandchildren.” The memories of her frightening childhood still drive her to work toward peace, “not for Kosovars only, but a regional peace in the Balkans to create a more stable Europe.”
The UN developed a controversial new policy after the events in Kosovo, the Responsibility to Protect (R2P), designed to prevent ethnic cleansing, genocide, and war crimes. Endorsed by all member nations in 2005, it needs to be developed more, Blerta says, because it touches national sovereignty issues. “But if we want to protect humanity, this is the way to go.”
Not until 2008 would Kosovo’s independence be accepted internationally. Many young people believe young Kosovars must migrate towards developed countries to escape the high unemployment rate and the lack of economic development. “But we belong here,” Blerta says. “This is our nation. The future of the upcoming generations is on our shoulders.”
In high school Blerta maintained a high GPA and dreamed of studying abroad, which wasn’t financially feasible. A new university opened in Kosovo, ISPE, offering a program that combined political science, law, and economics in the context of the European Union—three disciplines Blerta considered essential for a good future leader of her country. “I knew this was what I wanted to do for the rest of my life,” she says. She enrolled, studying for a degree in European Integration Studies. Blerta’s high energy level enabled her to also enroll in the University of Pristina, pursuing a second degree in English Language and Literature/Letters. Additionally, she joined the Kosovo Debate Team and began a series of competitions abroad, beginning with Krajska Gora and Ljubljana in Slovenia in November of 2012 and in Paris and Le Havre the following spring. She found the time spent with the other participants exciting. “We talked about the situations in our countries, the corruption, and unemployment. We talked about our dreams and the footprints we wanted to leave in life. We talked about music and books. And every time I went in my room, I could not sleep for a long time, thinking how amazing the world is.”
After the spring term, Blerta served an internship with the Kosovar Ministry of Justice in the sector of European Integration and Policy Coordination Division. An intense final year at her universities brought more rewards than her two BA degrees. She was one of the fifteen students with the highest GPA to win a scholarship to travel with an inter-rail ticket for a month to get to know European culture. Blerta traveled to Berlin, Amsterdam, Bruges, Paris, Barcelona, Lyon, Heidelberg, Dusseldorf, and Frankfurt during August of 2014. “This trip had a big impact on the way I see Europe and how I would like to develop my country,” she says.
Inspired, she and a group of like-minded friends formed the European Integration Organization—Change. Their activities focused on the visa liberalization process of Kosovo, stabilization, and fighting corruption as they presented information on citizenship in the European Union. “We also focused on the empowering of women in our patriarchal Kosovar society,” she said, where girls are expected to marry a man, without further schooling, just to meet the expectations of the society. “It hurt me to see most of my friends from primary school that were not less intelligent than I am, yet not pursuing a proper education and not following their dreams.” Blerta’s organization distributed information about the means to claim women’s rights.
As executive director of the organization, Blerta faced the challenge of raising awareness of the negative impact to girls and to society as a whole if girls were not educated. In one instance involving a village girl, Blerta and others decided to go to the family and try to talk with the parents, even though the father was against their presence in his house. He blocked the girl from going to high school and believed only he should have the final say. He was adamant that women are better and safer at home, and that education only brings conflict. “After quite a long conversation,” Blerta says, “we managed to convince him. I cannot describe the joy we felt. We proved to ourselves that there is still hope.” She served as director for six months, and remains on the board of advisers.
In January of 2015, the Minister of European Integration in Pristina hired Blerta as an assistant. She met other Ministers, the prime Minister, and ambassadors. After working there for seven months, she won a scholarship from the European Union Sigma Agile to study for two years in Salzburg, Austria and earn a master’s degree on European Union. “Finally my dream of studying abroad became true,” she says.
During the early summer of 2016, Blerta had earned another travel scholarship, and visited Olomuoc in the Czech Republic for a week’s excursion through the University for the purpose of exchanging knowledge on EU law, then over to Frankfurt, Germany to visit the European Central Bank, and on to Luxembourg for a visit to the European Court of Justice and to Brussels, to visit the European Institutions based there. By July, she’d become an intern for a stint at the Embassy of Kosovo in Vienna.
During her third semester at Salzburg, Blerta discovered Salzburg’s double campus program in Rome and immediately applied to continue her studies in the Libera Università Internazionale degli Studi Sociali Guido Carli di Roma, and do a double degree in International Relations. “In Austria I learned how to work, and in Italy I learned how to live,” she says. Soon after, she earned the Scholarship for Foreign Students by the Italian Government that would help her continue her studies.
Blerta and her team at HSI pitched an idea in the social entrepreneurship competition, derived from the micro-finance concept. The project, Kosogrow, will provide financial assistance to new and existing small and medium-size businesses in Kosovo, earning $2,500 in seed money. The motto is “Build your business, build Kosovo.”
Her goal is to become the Foreign Minister of Kosovo, “but for the moment my goal is to unite individuals towards a common goal for more tolerance and understanding.”