An Irish charity helping the boys and girls of Kosovo to smile again. . .
'Team Hope' volunteers are bringing gifts to the overjoyed local children, writes Graham Clifford
In a damp, unadorned hallway the boxes are carefully mounted on top of each other. Each one adds a much needed splash of colour to a bleak interior.
Bright sheets of wrapping paper, depicting smiling snowmen and flickering candles, are embraced by shiny bows, straps emblazoned with the words 'Team Hope' criss-crossing each rectangular container.
We are in the home of a young family in the mountainous Kosovar village of Demjan – a house with no central heating and intermittent electricity. It's minus five outside and the dreaded winter snow has started to fall.
Here the Irish Christian charity Team Hope has decided to hand out shoeboxes filled with gifts and word has spread that the volunteers have arrived.
"They're here, the boxes are here," shouts one animated toddler in Albanian – a beaming smile reaching from one ear to the next. In a small unfurnished room over 70 children sit waiting patiently.
Trucks filled with almost 10,000 shoeboxes, packed with presents donated by schoolchildren and families across Co Donegal, arrived into Kosovo a few days earlier. I've joined the Team Hope group of volunteers to distribute some of them in the city of Gjakove.
This Christmas the charity will distribute just under 170,000 shoeboxes to children in locations such as Kosovo, Romania, the Ukraine, Burundi and Swaziland.
After the volunteers perform a few verses of Rudolph the Red Nose Reindeer the children are told how these boxes were packed by youngsters just like them in Ireland.
A leaflet handed out to every child details the charity's Christian message but with toys so tantalisingly close they're discarded in the excitement.
Model cars, skipping ropes, dolls and teddies sit side-by-side with more practical gifts such as gloves, hats, toothbrushes and bars of soap. The charity advises families what to put into each box and help sort the contents before they leave Dublin.
Many of the children in this house go for days without food and usually could only dream of being presented with a gift at Christmas. Santa Claus usually doesn't come this way.
Understandably then smiles and laughter bring warmth on this freezing afternoon.
But seven-year-old Ardita doesn't smile – despite holding her shoebox closely. This is her house which she shares with her parents and two brothers.
When she was two a Christian-aid charity brought Ardita to New Mexico for life-saving treatment to rectify three separate heart defects. She's doing well but you can still sense great sadness in her little face.
"She is supposed to get check-ups but I cannot afford to send her to the doctors and the hospital is a long way away," says her father Kadri.
"Tonight I don't have wood to heat the rooms for my children. We'll sleep in one room because it's less cold when we are all together. We pray that God will protect us this winter."
Outside a school in a Romany community beautiful brown eyes peer up from underneath hoods as the Team Hope volunteers visit their next distribution site.
The Irish contingent is a varied crew. There's a shop assistant, a cameraman, musician, photographer, a housewife, bank official, Montessori teacher and a playgroup leader. Some, but not all, are devout Christians.
Inside the school the children are beside themselves with excitement. Some won't open their boxes until they get home; the risk of a precious present being nicked by another is just too great.
In a dilapidated shack we find 10-year Ramia who has cerebral palsy. In Kosovo those with special needs are often shut away from the outside world.
But Ramia greets us with a warm and joyful smile. In the corner of the two room house, which is home to six people, hangs a picture of Ramia's uncle who has been missing since the end of the war in Kosovo in 1999.
We meet a widow whose husband's body was returned to her four years after the war, children who grow up with fading memories of their fathers and people who lost all their friends in a senseless conflict.
Outside a primary school, which was used as a base during the war by Serb forces, Team Hope's Niall Barry explains the value of the project being undertaken.
"What seems so simple really has a dramatic effect. The children here are overjoyed to receive these gifts. For many it will be the highlight of their year and to see the joy in their eyes when they are given a box is amazing."
He also praised the generosity of those across Ireland who work to pack the shoeboxes year-in year-out.
"The Irish people have always been amazing to us – even now in very difficult times. The average cost of contents in a shoebox comes to about €20 but you can fill a great box for a lot less and the act of giving, especially at Christmas time, has a very positive effect on those who are doing it."
At a shelter for women who've escaped domestic violence their children put on a show for their Irish guests. Here I meet 51-year-old Leonora who was beaten and tortured by her husband for almost two decades. Her beautiful 16-year-old daughter Bardra also suffered at the hands of her father and the decision to escape was only taken after Bardra threatened to commit suicide.
"Life has changed so much for us. I don't live in fear now – I can go out without thinking that my daddy will appear in front of me or behind me and be angry," says Bardra.
"There is some hope here. I mean look around you at all the delighted little children. I have never seen them so happy. They are so overjoyed with their shoe boxes; no one ever gives them gifts, never, ever, ever."
To find out how you can fill a shoebox or donate to Team Hope visit www.teamhope.ie