TIRANA – On the outskirts of Albania’s capital, thousands of tons of concrete were produced each day next to the banks of the river Tiranë in order to fulfill the fever dreams of the country’s bunker-obsessed former Communist dictator, who was always fearful of a Western attack that never came to be.
Now, the same forlorn area hosts a modern school funded by the European Union.
“The special thing about our school is that the facilities are built according to European standards,” its director, Gjergi Vangjeli, told EFE.
Inaugurated in September 2017, the Ardian Klosi school – named after a famed Albanian writer, publicist and translator – teaches children at both the primary and secondary level.
It is part of a larger urban complex that also includes a nursery, a preschool and a multifunctional socio-cultural center, all of which have been erected using EU funds.
The complex is located in Tirana’s Bregu i Lumit (“Riverbank”) area, which was once the main source of concrete used during Enver Hoxha’s bunkerization program (1967-86) that resulted in the construction of more than 170,000 bunkers which still riddle the country’s landscape, although they are now in an advanced state of abandonment.
Eduard Kukan, a Slovakian Member of the European Parliament belonging to the Group of the European People’s Party (Christian Democrats), visited the school on Tuesday as part of an EP delegation attending the 12th EU-Albania Stabilization and Association Council.
Albania has been a candidate to join the EU since June 2014 and has signed a Stabilization and Association Agreement with the bloc, which grants the Balkan nation access to funding and trade partnerships in exchange for strengthening its democracy and rule of law in order to promote stability in the region.
“I’m positively impressed by what I’ve seen at this school and it fills me with pride to know that this excellent project was funded with EU money,” Kukan told EFE during the visit.
The area surrounding the school has been restructured with new street lighting, gardens and paving, thus giving the neighborhood – one of Tirana’s poorest – a fresh, reinvigorated look.
Its 380 students are able to attend free extra-curricular activities such as painting, literature, song or dance classes, as well as take chess lessons and participate in multiple sports, which is unusual in Albania, as parents normally have to pay for these activities out of their own pockets.
The pupils have several laboratories, computer rooms and interactive blackboards at their disposal, while the school possesses locker rooms equipped with hot showers, an auditorium, a canteen and solar panels that provide power for heating purposes.
“We are already in the EU,” said Vangjeli. “Everything here conforms to European standards.”
Kukan said he was surprised that the children were able to communicate in English, one of the three foreign languages taught at the school, along with German and Italian.
Most of the students came from impoverished backgrounds: many were born into families that moved to the Bregu i Lumit area after the fall of Communism and built illegal shacks on top of the now-depleted former quarries that provided the rocks destined for Hoxha’s legion of bunkers.
Kukan also visited a community center that welcomed many children from the Roma and Egyptian ethnic minorities.
“The kids come here to pass their leisure time with different activities, they do their homework, and we play psycho-social games so they don’t stay outside on the streets,” Arjola Pciri, a social worker at the center, told EFE.
Albania, currently a NATO member, finds itself awaiting the start of accession negotiations with Brussels, which is set to kick-start a lengthy process that generally takes several years until it materializes into full EU membership.
The EU constitutes Albania’s largest financial donor, with an investment of 1.24 billion euros ($1.53 billion) between 2007-2020.
Out of the country’s population of about 2.8 million, one million citizens are under the age of 19, making it one of the youngest demographics in Europe.
Despite the economic progress achieved in the past decade, many Albanian minors live in poverty and suffer mistreatment.
In comparison to the country’s poverty rate of approximately 14.3 percent, child poverty stood at 20.1 percent in 2012, according to a report by the Albanian Statistics Institute and World Bank figures.