When Haxhere Gashi enrolled her nine-year-old daughter in a child sponsorship program in 2018, she never imagined that after three years her participation would end in suspicion and recrimination.
Three years ago, World Vision, an evangelical Christian organisation that has sponsored children all over the world since the 1950s, launched a program to support children in the Kosovo municipality of Lipjan.
The NGO and the local government signed a cooperation agreement containing several points.
The project involved collecting data on some 3,000 children in need, aged 3 to 12, from about 30 villages in the Lipjan area.
Under the terms of the program, the donors send letters to sponsored children, in most cases Americans.
But three years on, some parents began to suspect that World Vision was misusing their children’s data.
While they were told that the data was being taken only for World Vision’s internal use, parents claim that photos of their children with descriptions that have religious content were published on the website without their permission.
Haxhere Gashi told BIRN that when she realized that her daughter was receiving letters with Christian messages about Jesus, she did not allow her to continue the program.
“When she received a postcard, we did not give it to her because I thought that the bad content would have a negative effect on her,” she says.
“The content is completely religious and more or less says: ‘Hello. How are you? Are you OK? Jesus loves you and I love you.’ It does not have a date, nor anything else, only the name of my daughter and his signature [the sponsor’s] if it was a real signature,” Gashi said.
She is not the only parent concerned about the use of her children’s data.
Veton Gajtani, from the village of Janjevo, parent of one of the children enrolled in the World Vision program, says that the publication of photos and videos of children with religious content was unacceptable, and he never gave his approval for it.
“As a parent, it bothered me a lot, because they published photos of the children and also videos. When we found out, I immediately stopped my child [participating],” Gajtani told BIRN.
Gajtani says he also talked about his concerns with the police.
“I was interviewed by the police and showed them these details,” Gajtani added. “The descriptions in the photos of the children had religious content. This means that misused them [the children],” Gajtani continued.
On the World Vision website, a video of a child named Aulona is published with the following description: “10-year-old girl from Kosovo who Jesus loves.”
The girl is Muslim, like almost 90 per cent of the population in Kosovo. The description below the video says that Aulona indeed lives in a Muslim-majority country, but adds that “this Muslim-majority territory is known as a place open to other religions”.
Haxhere Gashi says the first letters from sponsors for his child did not have any religious or dubious content.
“The first letter was OK. There was no bad content. The donor told us about his life, that he wants to help children, and wished him a happy birthday and sent gifts. Gifts were usually money, but organisations here in Kosovo also bought clothes. But then the letters changed completely.”
Gashi said that parents wanted an explanation from the organization.
Metush Jashanica, director of the Migjeni primary school in the village of Rufc i Ri in Lipjan also enrolled his daughter in the World Vision program. He says that in the past, cooperation with this organisation was good, but its approach changed.
“I cooperated with this organisation for years, but what I noticed recently is a small inclination towards religious [Christian] tendencies. I noticed that during the Christmas holidays, Orthodox Easter and so on, they sent best wishes to the children, while when we had Muslim holidays, they did not. It was at this moment that I started to doubt,” he says.
Jashanica said that he also gave a statement to the police after seeing photos of local children on the World Vision website.
“Together with the police, we also saw on their website that the photos of the children are completely open, everyone had access! We did not directly give the children and students the letters that came from World Vision in the village because we saw that they had religious and dubious content,” he added.
These concerns prompted Jashanica to cease cooperation with World Vision.
Complaints that World Vision was ‘not transparent’
The agreement signed by the municipality of Lipjan and World Vision in 2018 said that the sponsored children “should be properly cared for, protected and enjoy a comprehensive education from the integrated services at the municipal level”.
The agreement, according to Elmaze Behluli, director of education in Lipjan, aimed at improving the welfare of local children. But, after almost three years of cooperation, Behluli says the agreement was not respected by the organization.
“The municipality considers that World Vision was not sincere and transparent in explaining the details of the program and their purpose.
“Consequently, after the start of implementation in various phases of the project, we have seen that other technical activities are being developed that were not mentioned in the agreement,” Behluli said.
According to her, World Vision’s activities did not correspond to the legal and constitutional system of Kosovo. “We have also seen that there are other goals beyond what was written in the agreement,” she added.
She said that after they received concerns from the parents of the children, they had asked for explanations from World Vision.
“Although we have warned them several times verbally in various meetings, the management of World Vision has not taken them into account and has neglected the municipality and the agreement in question, which forced us to send a warning letter to terminate the agreement on January 21, 2021. They did not respond to this letter,” she explained.
“Because of this arrogance and irresponsibility, including concerns from parents and schools, we decided to terminate the agreement permanently,” Behluli said.
According to her, World Vision exceeded the agreement by publishing photos of children and descriptions. Behluli also said she had suspicions about the gifts.
“We and the families of children were not made aware of the publication of images of children with denigrating descriptions, portraying all the children as poor, even though they were not poor, and with slogans with religious messages,” she said.
Elmaze Behluli confirmed that police were investigating the case.
“Investigations are underway. We will continue to cooperate with the police and other institutions because it is our legal obligation to reveal the truth of the illegal activity of this organisation, and ensure other municipalities do not sign such an agreement,” she said.
The Ministry of Education in Kosovo has also started collecting information. “The ministry has met all the parties involved in this case, as well as the director of the organisation for Kosovo. We are analyzing the data we received and will soon come up with a decision,” the Ministry of Education told BIRN.
It added: “As a ministry, we have not been notified by the Municipal Directorate of Education in Lipjan about the termination of the agreement and we have not yet received information regarding this issue.”
‘We make every effort to explain our work’
Eljona Elmazi, representative of World Vision for Kosovo, has denied that children’s data was being misused.
She said the sponsorship and correspondence program was currently suspended, but they were negotiating with the local authorities to resume it.
“World Vision is reviewing the processes of the children sponsorship program, while we are cooperating with local authorities to ensure that the sponsorship program in Kosovo can resume again,” she told BIRN.
Elmazi said that World Vision operates in about 100 countries and the number of children in the program exceeds 3 million.
“In all the countries where we work, we make every effort to explain the work of World Vision, as well as the values of the organization, the mission and the way sponsorship program works,” she said.
Rejecting accusations about the misuse of the photos, Elmazi said that parents were informed in advance about their publication. She did not say whether the parents were informed about the descriptions in the photos, however.
“Before a child becomes part of the program, each parent or guardian is informed in advance where the photos of the children are published and which data are made public. We obtain their approval and permission to use the images and information of the child, respecting international and local standards of child protection,” she says.
Asked about the religious content of the letters, Elmazi said: “World Vision serves all people based on their needs, regardless of religion, race, ethnicity, gender or political affiliation. This support is made possible in addition to the comprehensive cooperation we have with institutions and partners.”
But a group of local World Vision employees told BIRN in a written answer that children were not informed about the publication of the photos by the organization.
The group which includes eight employees said they have suspended their work with World Vision when they realized that the messages in the letters sent to the children “were against the secular spirit that is applied in Kosovo, and without religious indoctrination”.
“We considered that the sensitivity of the content of the letters with religious messages, and many other elements of the letters coming from the sponsors/donors, did not correspond to the legal, cultural context of Kosovo, even less to the age of the children,” they said.
“What has been shocking to us was the publication of photos of children where they are described as poor, without being such,” they said.