By Zana Idrizi (YES 2009-2010, Kosovo, hosted by American Councils in St. Paul, MN)
In the 2009/2010 school year, the YES Program in Kosovo sent its first cohort to the US to complete a year of high school in the US. I was lucky to be one of seven students who was chosen, and was placed in Central High School in Minnesota. I still remember the day I applied for YES. There were hundreds of young students, all who hoped to have an opportunity to see what life was like in the US, and learn with, and about, Americans. I was doubly fortunate to be placed with an amazing host family, who spent all their energy and time to make my year perfect, which they did. They used to tell me that after this experience, I would be a “citizen of the world” and my job was to make things better.
While in the US, I was strongly influenced by the importance of grassroots community work. When community members saw something that they wanted to change, they organized and changed it! It was important to me to carry that culture back to Kosovo. As a Kosovar, I have seen and lived the reality that women in Kosovo face - the challenges of living in a patriarchal society and day-to-day discrimination in all professional fields. Violence against women was the worst, and upon returning from the US, I was determined and inspired to transform my anger into something impactful.
I wanted to do more than a shallow campaign to raise awareness and host a lecture, which may be picked or just as easily overlooked and forgotten. I knew from experience that the best way to help women is to educate them or provide a space for empowerment.
I have always maintained an awareness of how blessed I have been with the opportunity to study in the US, having two sets of parents who strongly encouraged me to be educated, and being able to do bachelor degree at American University in Kosovo. Knowing that many did not have a chance to have a good education like I did, I was inspired to launch Girls Coding Kosova (GCK) together with some friends.
The initiative came to life in 2014, which aimed to fight the ever-increasing prejudice and bias against women and girls in IT. Many qualified and bright women were dissuaded from considering careers in technology due to this prejudice. As profitable as this sector is—especially for a developing and transitioning country like Kosovo—it fails to attract girls and women. This is mainly due to social constraints that suggest women do not belong in tech and are somehow incapable of performing tasks related to programming. One of the greatest moments of the initiative was one of our first events, where we did mapping of gender-related corruption risks and vulnerabilities in public service in Kosovo for the UNDP, and same time taught women programming languages. The project itself was exciting, however seeing over 40 women eager to be part of GCK confirmed the need and desire for activism at the nexus of tech and women’s empowerment.
For GCK, it is not only essential to provide programming training – integrating community outreach in that training is equally important. We also prioritized having a platform where everyone can share and come together to support each other. Later on, I was part of a great team with Kosovo Women’s Network and Open Data Kosovo which together began with the creating the application EcShlire (Walk Freely),an app to report sexual harassment. It was designed to allow people to report sexual harassment and see trends in an interactive map of harassment. Just last year, I was working on managing Ec Shlire app, and my primary task was to work with Kosovo police to get data and preferably work on sharing the platform it to Kosovo police so they can work on the sexual harassment trends and take pre actions.
In 2016, I left Kosovo to pursue my master degree in the US with a scholarship from Transformational Leaders Program (TLP), at the University of Denver where I studied International Security, a field known to be dominated by men.
While at the DU, I became the President of Denver Women in International Security, a student-led organization which organizes discussions on security related topics. In my second year, I was nominated by faculty and staff as a student speaker at the Donor's Dinner to share my story and the difference that supporting students makes. After coming back from the US, I continued giving to the community as a TLP alumnus and became a mentor at Qite Hapin, an initiative started by a Peace Corps participant in Kosovo. I became a mentor to high schoolers from Mitrovica who wanted to work on sexual harassment awareness in the high schools and promotion of the Ec Shlire app.
Currently, I am working at the UNDP Istanbul Regional hub which operates in the ECIS region and will be here until 2019. Besides my professional work, I am always in the search of finding gaps where I can contribute with community work to improve safety and quality of life in my communities.