Despite recent economic growth, two-thirds of Albania's children still live in poverty.
It's 10 o'clock in the morning and Shkelten Daljani, a rambunctious boy of 14 in a tattered "Route 66" T-shirt, should be in school. But if he wants to eat, he has to help his father collect scrap metal to sell. The previous day, he says, there was no metal and no food.
"If we have food, we eat," Shkelten says with a shrug. "If we don't, we don't."
Shkelten and his family live on the outskirts of Albania's capital, Tirana, in the neighborhood of Breju Lumi, which means riverside, though the only nearby water is a dry streambed cluttered with trash. The houses are a collection of concrete blocks and tin shacks without electricity, running water, or sanitation. The streets are little more than dirt lanes.
Shkelten's situation – inadequate housing and sanitation, poor medical care, and occasional hunger – is little different from that of millions of children throughout Africa, Asia, and Latin America. But his home is in the heart of Europe.
Millions of children in the formerly communist nations of Eastern Europe have been left behind as their countries made the transition from centralized economies to free-market capitalism. While in absolute numbers the number of poor children has fallen in recent years, advocates and researchers say that a new class of excluded children is emerging who suffer many of the same problems as children in the poorest countries of Africa – but receive far less attention.
"We used to say that everybody was equally poor," says Arlinda Ymeraj, a social-policy officer with the UN Children's Fund in Albania. "Now, if you compare, there are big disparities. A few people have gotten very rich, but more have stayed poor or gotten poorer."
The situation of Albania's children is among Europe's worst. Once one of the most isolated nations, the country remains one of the continent's poorest countries.
Despite recent economic growth, a third of Albania's children live on less than $2 a day. And according to the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF), a staggering 35 percent of children in rural areas are malnourished; in urban areas, 17 percent are. In terms of child malnutrition – measured by the percentage of children under age 5 who are underweight – the World Bank puts Albania just above Republic of Congo and Zimbabwe.