Pristina, 29 June 2009 – In a desolate corner on the outskirts of Pristina, Kosovo, two men sit on the bare ground, mending a bicycle that is a lifeline for their families.

Without their bicycles they could not earn the money they need to keep their large families alive. And what they earn is little enough because their days are spent sifting through the city’s garbage for what others throw away.

“We work in the garbage containers, collecting tin cans, copper, scrap metal, aluminium, whatever we can find,” Besnik Hasanik says with a sad, gap-toothed smile. “Sometimes I can’t find anything because I’m not the only one who’s looking,” he adds.

A marginalized life

Mr. Hasanik is one of at least 30,000 people who identify themselves as belonging to the Roma, Ashkali or Egyptian ethnic groups – Kosovo’s most impoverished communities. They live on the fringes of society, often without the identity papers that would entitle them to the benefits available to other citizens: social welfare, unemployment, even schooling.

In the cramped family compound where Mr. Hasanik and his brother support an extended family of 19 in three small shacks, an oven built against one wall belches black smoke as the family’s bread is baked. The fire is being fed with old shoes and sneakers that Besnik and his brother have found in garbage containers that line the streets of Pristina outside its many apartment blocks.

When half a dozen toddlers sit down to lunch on the ground, they dip the home-baked bread in ketchup that has been scraped from the bottom of containers discarded by wealthier citizens.

“What can I say?” says Mr. Hasanik. “The living is bad. We all know it does have a [bad] impact on our health and we may get illnesses and diseases. But without having any other means to buy food, it’s our only option.”

Lack of documentation

As Kosovo rebuilds after years of conflict that led to a declaration of independence from Serbia, too many members of these marginalized communities do not know how to go about getting the birth certificates and citizenship papers they need.

“The problems are many because if the children aren’t registered, they can’t go to school. And within a few years those children will grow up, get married, establish their own families – and then they won’t have documents for their children, who can’t be registered either,” says social worker Barjam Marolli.

The acting head of UNICEF in Kosovo, Tania Goldner, calls it a “vicious circle of poverty.”

Hope for the future

Many Roma, Ashkali and Egyptians in Kosovo understand that better education will break the cycle. A number of community organizations, some supported by UNICEF, have been set up to encourage parents to send their children to school and support them once they are enrolled.

Besnik Hasanik with the youngest of the 19 people he helps to support by trolling Pristina’s garbage bins. Some 30,000 people live in the city’s ethnic ghettos, where unemployment is nearly universal.

“Most of them are aware, but the ones who live in extreme poverty are simply not aware of how important education is,” says Ridvan Gashi, a Roma and volunteer at one community centre that helps children with their homework.

“Those who are unaware just want to go out looking for a job,” adds Mr. Gashi. “They beg in Pristina. They collect cans. They don’t think about education. Their main concern is eating, and when you don’t have enough to eat, you don’t think much about education.”

Thousands left behind

Mr. Hasanik is amongst those who are focused mainly on survival. He knows his children should go to school but he says he cannot afford the books they would need.

His greatest fear is that the authorities are planning to ban scavengers from the city’s waste bins, as has been rumoured. If that happened, what little hope he has for the future would evaporate.

“What is there to hope for?” he asks, wiping his face in despair. “I have nothing to hope for – not for me, not for my children.”

It is an urgent problem, because tens of thousands are being left behind in Kosovo, and their despair is growing.

Video report