Europe’s youngest country has had a tough start to its hard-won independence, but projects backed by Austria are helping bring hope to the west Balkans.

Teenagers like Flandrit are looking into the future with more optimism thanks to programs funded by the EU and the Austrian Development Agency. To revive its workforce, the country’s argiculture tot tech entrepreneurship are getting finacial and infrastructure support. // Courtesy of ADA

Flandrit Krasniqi, a 16-year-old Kosovar in a spotless lab coat, hands me a glass of luxuriously creamy strawberry juice that has been freshly pressed out on an elaborate stainless steel contraption. We’re in the glistening high-tech labs of the Abdyl Frashëri agricultural school in a scruffy suburb of Kosovo’s capital Pristina. It’s an optimistic welcome to a country that has for years been mired in pessimism.

The laboratories have been newly equipped, provided by supporting funds from the EU and from the Austrian Development Agency (ADA). Here young Kosovars are being taught skills that might bring them gainful employment. Flandrit, a long-lashed, softly spoken student, hopes to use what he’s learning to improve productivity on his father’s land in a village 60 km outside Pristina. “I’m learning more every day,” he says. “I want to keep building up my skills and to be able to make a better life.”

Tangible results

Flandrit’s upbeat attitude runs contrary to the typical narrative in this troubled part of the Balkans. Kosovo unilaterally declared independence from Serbia in February 2008, nine years after the end of a bloody civil war. But in the past decade, Kosovo’s development, along with its aspirations of EU membership, have been hampered by a sky-high unemployment rate of 33 percent that rises to an alarming 57.7 percent for young adults. That’s why NGOs and foreign donors have emphasized the sort of vocational training seen at the Abdyl Frashëri.

The school is working with a group called Alled, a beneficiary of €700,000 in Austrian aid money, that tries to prepare young people for the labor market by linking employers and educational facilities. Its representative Arianit Krasniqi (no relation to Flandrit) shows me around the tubular plastic-roofed greenhouse behind the labs. “Kosovo is a very fertile country,” he says as we stare into the verdant forest of leafy vegetables. After getting feedback from employers, Alled (in Albanian, the name stand for Aligning Education with Labor Market Needs) helps tailor the curriculum and training and to creating the sort of technicians that food companies say they need.

Kosovo has put this unusual focus on training agriculturalists, explains Krasniqi, because the agricultural sector is currently the highest producer of job vacancies. He sees it as a win-win situation because until now Kosovo has been reliant on food imports, to the detriment of the local economy. Plus, as he explains: “The majority of people live in rural areas, and supporting agriculture means keeping communities healthy.”

Such projects need to bear fruit if Kosovars are to believe that they have a future in their hard-won homeland. We head into that fertile countryside, a carpet of emerald under the early summer sun, to the town of Ferizaj to meet returnees supported by Back Home, a social project launched by the Austrian charity Caritas, with the collaboration of the local NGO Mother Theresa and supported by ADA.

Home is where I want to be

The rampant unemployment, coupled with widespread corruption, has led to a wave of emigration, both legal and illegal, that hit its zenith a couple of winters ago. In 2014 and 2015, a total 80,000 Kosovars tried to leave the country. According to Frontex, in December 2014, 40 percent of people detected illegally crossing the external border of the EU/Schengen area were Kosovars. Because Kosovo has been declared a safe country, many of these people have been forcibly returned, disillusioned about their chances of finding meaningful employment.

One of the 66 Kosovars being helped by Back Home is 34-year-old divorcee Hanife Kurtaliqi, who spent 18 months in Austria, shuttled between Vienna, the asylum seekers’ camp at Traiskirchen and Hollabrunn in Lower Austria, where she gave birth to twins. In November 2015, her appeal for residency was rejected and she was deported back to Kosovo. Back Home tracked her down and helped her reintegrate by providing access to a psychologist and then helping her find a job at a Ferizaj hair salon. “The returnees have lost faith with the government structures,” explains Miranda Gojani, a project assistant. “Our job is to show them what steps they have to take to rebuild that trust.”

Despite the name, Back Home isn’t only there to give a helping hand to returnees; it also works with socially vulnerable women to give them reason to hope and to stay in their homeland. In the nearby town of Lipljan, Sale Gashi, a 44-year-old widow, is stooped over a sewing machine as she works on a dress in a cellar-level workshop. The tools and the work space have been organized by Back Home, which Mrs. Gashi calls “a light at the end of the tunnel.” She describes how a veil of despondency had fallen over her family after the untimely death of her husband. But now that her daughter sees that she is working, she too has been more motivated at school and wants to become a tailor herself. The circle of despair has been broken.

Hope springs anew

There’s no despair at the airy offices of Rrota, a tech startup housed in one of Pristina’s tower block dominated suburbs. There’s a spirit of Silicon Valley here, 20 young Kosovar millennials huddled over computers. Chilled electronic music is playing on the office speakers and the young team takes breaks at the office ping-pong table. Many young Kosovars have taught themselves programming on the internet, explains Rrota’s executive director Donjeta Sahatçiu. “Everyone working here has a passion for digital communication and they want to try new things.”

A nation of millennials

Half the population of Kosovo is under 28, making it officially Europe’s youngest country, and startups like Rrota see these demographics as a force to be harnessed. “We do a lot of internships here. We take people on their school holidays and teach them how to code. We love to see the potential here.” Seen as a promising beacon of digital entrepreneurship, the company has been supported with €116,000 from ADA, in part as a way to tackle the exodus of talent from the western Balkans that began in the 1990s.

Sahatçiu and her motivated colleagues are determined to arrest the brain drain and build a successful career in their homeland. “There is a lot of energy here that we can channel,” she says. “Things are changing. We want to provide motivation to young people.”

Sahatçiu wants these ambitious young people to be the new image of her country: a youthful, forward-looking dynamo in an aging region rather than a caged land of sorrow.

“I want to stick around in Kosovo,” she says, “I have really high hopes that things will get better and better here.”