Kosovo emergency leads to art exchange
After the 1999 conflict in Kosovo, Samir Zajmi’s nonprofit organization had some pretty simple goals — help the people get the food, water and shelter they needed.
“Immediately after ’99, we found a million of people were pushed out of Kosovo,” Zajmi said. “Our first work was emergency work, stabilizing the life of the people, because 70 to 80 percent of the houses were burned.”
As immediate needs were taken care of, Zajmi’s group had another goal: to encourage understanding between people.
Since then, Zajmi’s group has engaged in restoration of historic cultural sites, held arts events, and found ways to bring different religions, ethnicities and cultures together.
Zajmi, from Peje, Kosovo, gave a presentation at the Blanden Memorial Art Museum Monday to leaders looking to build new connections between Fort Dodge and its sister city, Gjakova.
Peje is the sister city of Johnston, Iowa.
Eric Anderson, director of the Blanden, is the head of a committee to create an art exchange between the two communities worlds apart.
“That would be our component, building this cultural connection between us and them,” Anderson said. “Showing how the world really isn’t that big of a place, and people from one country are very relatable to people within Iowa and also Fort Dodge.”
After helping with the immediate needs, Zajmi’s group worked with experts from Italy to restore a mosque that had been badly burned.
“Because Kosovo is a diverse society, we didn’t want it to be concentrated on only one ethnic group, or one religious group or one cultural group,” he said.
The group immediately went on to restore frescoes at some Orthodox holy sites, not because they’d been attacked, but because they needed the work. They also brought aid to Catholic churches.
“When somebody asked me which monument you consider yours, I say all those monuments are mine. Because I grew up around those monuments, the cultural aspect — they are part of my identity,” Zajmi said.
One idea for the exchange would be to send cameras to Gjakova, Anderson said. People would be selected to capture images of their town and how they live, and people from Fort Dodge would do the same.
Possibly a book could be published showing the contrast between Fort Dodge and Gjakova, Anderson said. Money from selling the book could fund further art opportunities for both communities.
It’s similar to a project Zajmi has run numerous times.
Zajmi’s art colonies have brought together students of Albanian, Bosnian, Egyptian, Roma and Serbian ethnicities to interact for a day of painting, he said. Thanks to the work Zajmi’s group has been doing, the students were able to access churches that would normally be closed to an art project.
“The goal was not to produce a high-quality painting,” he said. “Our goal is for them to socialize, and express themselves. It is amazing what they do in just one day.”
Dan Kinney, president of Iowa Central Community College, met Zajmi on a June trip to Kosovo and was eager to explore opportunities for exchanges.
Getting Iowa Central students exposed to new cultures and other countries is important, he said.
“We will stay in contact on the art colony,” Kinney said. “I think that art colony would be a neat idea to do. I thought just college students, but as I’m sitting here, you know, high school, the youth we had go over in the exchange this year, the leadership camp, I just think there’s a lot more exposure.”
And it would be great to get Kosovo students over here as well.
“Especially in the summertime, I’ve got residential halls open. We’ve got housing opportunities where it could be fairly cheap,” Kinney said.