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Trime Halili and Space Tetova

Space Tetova: A cultural centre for young people that has defeated the odds

It is from Space Tetova’s new premises that Trime Halili speaks with EED over video call, the organisation’s logo just behind her. She is sitting in the centre’s music room, and the logo was put in place just last night.

This is Space Tetova’s second premises since it was founded in 2018 as a centre for young people to gather, learn together and volunteer in the mainly Albanian speaking town of Tetova in northwest North Macedonia, inspired by a similar project Termokiss in Kosovo. Trime and her co-founders and friends, Arta Rexhepi and Taulant Salihi happened upon Termokiss during a visit to Pristina in 2016.

“We saw this building and we didn’t understand what it was. A bar? A space? We started asking questions,” she says. The three friends knew that their city also needed a similar cultural space for young people.

Promoting volunteerism

“Tetova has two universities yet it has no public cinema… You can feel the depression among young people because there is nothing to do. There is nowhere to meet people. There is no club. We used to say, that no one dances in this city. We were keen to build something that was not around when we were younger. We wanted to give something back and develop an inclusive space for all young people,” she says.

“Most importantly, we wanted to promote a culture of volunteerism, which is very rare in the Balkans… We knew this was needed and that people can learn in a group and in a community… We wanted a place where young people could come and explore their talents and their creativity,” she adds.

Eighteen months on, having also worked with the Belgian NGO Toestand Belgium, which provides support to build temporary autonomous sociocultural centres such as Termokiss, the Tetova team identified a building, a former radio station, abandoned for nearly nine years. Following agreement from the local municipality, they set about renovating the dilapidated structure.

“We couldn’t even walk up the stairs. We used ropes to get up, and we threw out dozens of bags of trash,” she says of the renovation.

A democratic team

For four years, the Space Tetova team continued to improve the building and invest in it, and they developed a wide range of activities and events for youths of the city in partnership with other local organisations, and they made the space available to young people to work and hang out. Run as a horizontal democratic structure, hundreds of young people passed through its doors, many going on to become volunteers.

In 2020, the team secured an EED grant to further improve the space and to expand their activities, which as Trime explains, are now organised along three main inter-connected themes: culture and media, social, and community.

A moment of crisis

But in October 2022, politics came knocking on Space Tetova’s door in the form of a letter from the newly elected mayor announcing that the group had five days to vacate the premises.

The team’s efforts to contact the municipality questioning this edict were ignored, and feeling they had no options left, they went public on their forced eviction gaining significant media traction.

During one charged moment, Tetova space volunteers faced off the mayor during a televised address. “He was not aware we would be there, and he got very angry,” she recalls, “The first thing he said was: ‘Who is teaching these youngsters to occupy places?’ But we were not occupying. We were using a space that had been abandoned.”

The media storm got much dirtier after this exchange, with the mayor claiming at a press conference that the centre was running illegal activities for minors, accusing them of pornography. Three months later following an investigation, the centre has been cleared of these false allegation, and they are now suing the mayor for defamation, although they still have to find a lawyer willing to take on the case.

Unfortunately, in the end, the Space Tetova volunteers were no match for the municipality, who tricked them into handing over the space’s key when they agreed to host an exhibition of a local artist with the municipality.

“At midnight that night, eight of them came, including a former minister of culture, and they changed the locks. We have it all on camera,” she says.

For two months, the municipality refused to let the volunteers access the building, or their equipment, laptops and other personal equipment. It was only following a concerted campaign involving the international community that they were allowed to collect everything. Now, their old premises stands virtually unused, whereas previously it hosted at least three events a day, and it was open to the whole community.

New beginnings

The group were forced to seek a new building, and unable to secure another public property, they secured an extension of their EED grant enabling them to rent what is now their new premises. Once again, they set about renovating this space, which this time also includes an outdoor area that the volunteers have developed into a garden, one of Trime’s long-held ambitions.

As Trime explains, she and other members of the community want Space Tetova to be a sustainable project that can continue to act as a hub for young people in the city now and in the long term. They hope to locate a new public building for the group, as without donor funding, they cannot afford to pay rent long term.

For the moment, the team are recovering from their ordeal and are working with their network of partners to ensure this new space is as vibrant a centre for young people as their last one.

“Through our work, we have shown that is possible for people to work in an equal fair way. Yes, it takes lots of effort and practice, but it’s possible. What the municipality did was an act of vandalism. They are the ones occupying our old space now. Over four years, we maintained the space and made sure it was alive for the neighbourhood, our community and our city, a city where usually nothing happens,” she says.

This article reflects the views of the grantees featured and does not necessarily represent the official opinion of the EED.