Aid worker stories

Building a house, making a home in Kosovo

Crystal WhitakerFour walls and a roof: shelter can be simple as this. But while a house is straightforward to build, a home is more than just a structure and far more complex to create. 

Making a home is also inextricably linked to the ability to earn money and develop one’s own independence; to feelings of security and perceptions of safety; to being able to access help and support when you need it; and to a feeling of belonging. The interaction between these physical, economic, psychological, social, and cultural factors is particularly relevant to returning long-term displaced people back to what is labelled their “place of origin”, but what is really their home.

Meeting basic needs – shelter, water, food – is always the priority in humanitarian crises. However, return and reintegration projects have to be designed carefully to respond to the specific needs of individuals, communities, and sites. With unemployment at around 45% throughout Kosovo, the impetus to return must be more than economic. Sometimes mandatory returns are imposed by other countries who can or will no longer support asylum seekers or refugees.

Sometimes it is the lure of a home that has been connected to your family for generations that compels the move. How then can a durable solution – a truly sustainable, realistic, and successful return home – be ensured? This needs more than just providing a building.

Shelter in KosovoWorking in construction, shelter, and spatial planning for the Danish Refugee Council, UNDP, and other international organisations over the last three years in Kosovo, I have been involved in several projects that sought to integrate people from different ethnic backgrounds back into the communities that they fled during the 1999 conflict and the subsequent ongoing unrest.
While the construction of small, modular permanent homes is a major aspect in the return process. Agencies also facilitate access to other aspects that make a “Home.”

They provide assistance to help families generate income (like equipment to start up a welding business), advocate with local authorities and service providers (for example, to ensure that children have access to schooling), and negotiate inter-ethnic tensions in specific neighbourhoods. 

In Kosovo, as in much of the Balkans, homes are built up gradually by successive family members. It is a lifetime project, with each generation contributing to and leaving its piece in the construction. This is why the targeting of family homes during the Balkan wars hit communities hardest. It not only destroyed possessions, but also severed ties to the past. 

Understanding this, houses provided by humanitarian agencies are constructed with concrete frames, slabs, and aerated blockwork – materials that symbolise “home” and “security” – even if alternatives are cheaper, more efficient and more sustainable. The idea of future adaptation has been woven into the standard shelter provided to returning refugees: the small concrete frame is over-designed to permit a second storey, annex, or extension to be constructed as and when the families re-establish themselves.

When refugee house construction projects are evaluated, a key signal that the reintegration process is sustainable is the adaptation of the property: a garden planted, walls painted, or a new terrace laid.

The process of construction itself, both physically and psychologically, is often just as significant as the finished product. When it is combined with other activities in a refugee return project, such as help in establishing livelihoods, constructing a home, rather than just a house, becomes more realistic.

Crystal has been trained by RedR in Shelter Essentials and Water, Sanitation & Hygiene Essentials.

This article originally appeared in Near You Review published by The Institution of Structural Engineers

Photos: © Crystal Whitaker

More Personal Stories