What is the work of TOKA about and what is your role in TOKA? (Please give a brief overview about what TOKA is doing and about what your tasks are in TOKA.)

TOKA is non-profit organization based in Prishtina, Kosova, that has been working in the field of education and youth-development since 2015. Using innovative teaching methods, learning by doing, experiential education and volunteering, we strive to provide important skills that should unlock the full-potential of disadvantaged young girls and boys.

Over the course of years, lack of or better education always comes up as the main reason young individuals do poorly or excel in life. By reaching out to young girls and boys early on, you can have a greater impact on their life trajectory. We believe that a better education brings a brighter future, so youth can lead a better life than their parents before them.

No matter how effective the programs are, without support from all involved, its effects will be short-lived. Therefore we try to build a coalition of the willing with teachers, mentors, local/central government, Faculty of Education, Municipalities, Universities, regional and international partners. In this way, we create stronger bonds that can support the vital volunteering and experiential learning programs, for longer.

My name is Fjolla Shaqiri, just turned 28, and I am the Youth Leadership Program Manager at TOKA. My day to day tasks besides capacity building coordinators and assistants, is to fundraise, develop and implement projects that will build skills of youth to become youth leaders, and find ways to reward the existing youth leaders, i.e. international exchanges.

How did you get involved with TOKA?

I was in my third year of studying Psychology and working part-time as a fixer and field translator for an American journalist, who one day sent me out a link of Assembly of Kosovo’s Twitter. It was an open call for the role of Civic Educator for TOKA in a program called Democracy Workshops, that was being introduced to Kosovo for the first time from Austria in partnership with the Assembly of Kosovo. I had been a trainer and a youth leader since I was 14 and it naturally fit my interests. On the last day of the open call, I rushed from a Neuropscyhology exam and barely made the deadline to submit my application. It was the most important rushed submission of my life. Now, almost 7 years later, here I am!

What does working for TOKA mean for you?

TOKA is undoubtely my home. TOKA is a concept so rarely met that when you come in contact with, is very hard to stay away. It has changed my life, my perspective, my self image and my focuses.
The first day I showed up at the Assessment Center, I felt like an alien. I come from a small town, who’s opinion on looks and appearance were more important than anything, and if you were ever seen reading or playing music you were belittled and bullied. Entering TOKA, it was like all the negative words spoken at me were amplified in my head and I will never forget how by the end of the first week I stopped feeling strange or weird.
I was met and accepted just like I was and was seen for who I truly am. I’ve met great mentors and leaders who quickly became my friends. I’ve met coworkers, who just like me, were struggling with their mental health and identity and needed an anchor, an ear, an open heart. We are to each other what we unfortunately couldn’t get out there, and we teach others how to pass this on. TOKA is a feeling, is a force to be reckoned with, and a daily reminder that anyone can get better.

 

What does TOKA do to attract new young activists to TOKA and its vision/mission/values, what are challenges in motivating new people for TOKA and how does TOKA handle those challenges?

We provide a couple of entry-level programs with the simple approach of Outreach – we go to them and we meet youth as they are today. Even before that, we train with our methods their teachers, their community workers, and recently we’ve started to train even their teachers’ professors at the Faculty of Education (the only central institution in charge of producing new teachers).

We strongly believe that in order to break the massive ice that has wrapped our progress in education, we need to start as early as possible. 7 years in, we have introduced in Kosovo a proper experiential learning approach and are building a tremendous network of youth, teachers, parents, University’s professors, school’s principals, Education Department’s directors, Municipality Mayors, even minister’s and President’s of our country – who are working every day to shift the status quo and give this generation a bigger chance of succeeding in life.

Our challenges remains the same as every other organisation in the youth field. However, we don’t lack motivation or desire to change, we lack a foundation of skills that young people need to succeed in this century that makes our goal harder and slower to achieve. These include communication, critical thinking, problem solving, creativity, teamwork – which are also included in the European Commission’s Recommendation on Key Competences for Lifelong Learning identify eight key competences needed for personal fulfilment, a healthy and sustainable lifestyle, employability, active citizenship and social inclusion.[1] We have to go back and adjust our offer to the level of our participants and very often we are challenged. Change is frustrating sometimes, since it requires knowledge, practice, experience and good judgment, not just motivation.

Using our guiding principles, such as Do not duplicate, We all have rights AND responsibilities, Volunteering is not (just) nice – is essential to change, Important issues are cross cutting issues, and others, we tackle head on these challenges, and so far, we are happy with our impact in Kosovar youth.

 

What are the aspects or values of TOKA you  identify yourself personally? And how did this identification influence the fact that you’re involved in TOKA already for so long?

As with a lot of youth in our programs, I met TOKA and TOKA came into my life at a very important stage in my life. Lost for meaning and in desperate need to find like-minded people who accepted me was something that I couldn’t get elsewhere. I think the same is true for all the people that came in touch with TOKA. Some stay longer, some leave earlier, but everyone is transformed forever.

The mix of experiences that TOKA people have and the central intelligence that is our Executive Director – Jehona Gjurgjeala, who has had an amazing career outside of Kosovo and got back with the sole purpose of serving Kosovar youth, is I believe the backbone of this identification. What I do in TOKA is not simply a job, is a calling. The passion I have to serve well our people, when being met with the rewards of seeing youth open up, accept themselves, getting accepted, building skills, and exceling in whatever field they chose, is beyond rewarding – it gives my life meaning. I see the same passion in my coworkers so we are together in this battle, making it far less scary for each one of us and way more enjoyable as we too grow and evolve ourselves.

 

[1] EU’s Key Competences for Lifelong Learning are: Literacy; Multilingualism; Numerical, scientific and engineering skills; Digital and technology-based competences; Interpersonal skills, and the ability to adopt new competences; Active citizenship; Entrepreneurship; Cultural awareness and expression. https://publications.europa.eu/en/publication-detail/-/publication/297a33c8-a1f3-11e9-9d01-01aa75ed71a1/language-en