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Community support is vital to women athletes: Kosovo alpinist Uta Ibrahimi

Uta Ibrahimi. Photo used with her permission.

Uta Ibrahimi, an alpinist from Kosovo, is the first ethnic Albanian woman to climb Mount Everest, which she did on 22 May 2017. Afterwards, she climbed Manaslu, Cho-OyuLhotse and Gasherbrum, making her officially the first woman from the Balkans to summit five peaks taller than 8000 meters.

Through her alpinism and media appearances, Uta seeks to raise awareness about nature, the mountains, and human rights, particularly in Kosovo and Albania. Uta is also a Sustainable Development Goals Champion, promoting gender equality, youth empowerment and environmental preservation.

In this interview you will read more about her mountaineering adventures and the challenges she faces.

Uta Ibrahimi. Photo used with her permission.

Global Voices (GV): How did your career in alpinism start? When was your love for mountaineering and climbing born?  

Uta Ibrahimi (UI): I started my hiking activity with professional mountaineers on 22 of May, 2011. Before that I had only practiced short hikes with my family.

Thanks to the guides, who are husband and wife, that was the day I realized that women and girls can be great mountaineers. Later on, I  met many strong and tough women who shared a common passion for the mountains and blew my mind with their power.

Later, in 2015, after climbing Mont Blanc, the love of mountains became my biggest passion. I decided to leave my 12-year career in marketing and a job at one of the most famous agencies in Kosovo, only to get closer to land and sky, and my inner self.

Uta Ibrahimi. Photo used with her permission.

GV: How did you prepare to climb Mount Everest? How did it feel to be the first person from your country on top of the world?

UI:  My biggest experience in mountaineering was definitely in 2016 in the Himalayas, where I had gone for training in high altitudes.

I met a lot of people, learned a lot about climbing high mountains, and most importantly I realized I was physically and mentally prepared to test myself and realize my dream.

As soon as I came back in Kosovo, I started my project to make it work. Everything was harder from what I expected it to be, be it the physical challenges, psychological preparation and the financial aspect.

In order to climb high dangerous mountains, what you need most is the love and moral support of your community. I didn’t receive that in the very beginning, mainly coming from a deep concern of these people about what could happen to me in these altitudes. I also encountered  lack of faith in the power of women, even though a lot of women had already proven themselves to be equal with men in this sport.

The more one climbs the peaks of the world, the more one needs the love of the people—the moral support.

Reaching the top of the world remains one of the biggest accomplishments in my life, and one of the best feelings in my entire life. To witness the sunrise in 8000+ meters, surrounded by absolute silence is like being born for the second time, but this time fully aware and at peace, filled with positivity and joy.

On the other hand, I am very happy that with all the hard work I achieved something for myself and my country. I made my nation proud by waving the Albanian and Kosovo flags for the first time at the top of the world, becoming the first Albanian woman to summit Mount Everest.

After the summit on Everest, I have started the project on climbing the 14 highest mountains in the world—there are only 4 women in the world that have summited till now. I have now climbed 6 of them, by becoming the only girl from the Balkan with 6 summits on 8000 meters peak, and waving Albanian and Kosovo flag for the first time on each. Now, I am on preparation to climb the 8 remaining peaks, all the time training and working for the funding my expedition.

Uta Ibrahimi. Photo used with her permission.

GV: One of your missions is to raise awareness of nature, mountains and environmental protection; what activities do you undertake in that field?

UI:  To participate in projects that embrace the values of my activism as an SDG champion, supported by both the public and private sector, I have founded an NGO called Utalaya Foundation. Through our foundation we target different audiences, mainly focusing on marginalized groups in Kosovo such as: women, minority communities, children and youth, children with special needs, youth from rural areas etc.

We try to engage this audience as much as possible in projects that raise awareness on environmental protection.

For instance, recently we had a great cooperation with the municipality of Prishtina, engaging children with autism and Down syndrome, their caretakers and their parents with recreational and environmentally educational activities in the Bear Sanctuary in Prishtina-Germia Hill. We combined learning on importance of preserving nature and biodiversity with yoga, meditation, hiking and games that enhance their cognitive, behavioral and motor skills with different experts such as speech therapists, artists, instructors etc.

I very often participate voluntarily in calls from different organizations to be their voice of campaigns regarding women empowerment, environmental protection, human rights, children rights etc.

We are currently starting an awareness campaign with the World Wide Fund for Nature advocating the preservation of the Sharr Mountains National Park in Kosovo.

We are also going to take part in a project supported by the ministry of culture, youth and sports to engage the youth from rural areas to consciously use the natural resources and cherish the natural blessings our country offers us.

Uta Ibrahimi. Photo used with her permission.

GV: As an advocate for gender equality, can you describe what kind of strategy you use to implement this important commitment?

UI:  I have always been blessed to be surrounded by wonderful and inspiring women, starting from my mom, sisters, friends, co-workers and work partners, therefore I’ve always found joy in creating something together with women.

It’s not like I use a strategy; gender advocacy has become an unshakable part of my character since a very young age, and I try to do everything I can to empower women, such as hiring them in my hiking company, or foundation. In different projects I always engage women in activities that empower them and remove all stigma or prejudice created from our society.

Vulnerable groups are the main target and value of our foundation, and clearly women and girls do not exercise all their rights in Kosovo. Yet, hopefully with engagement, empowerment and advocacy this will change, and it has already started to change. So gender equality is not a strategy, it’s a moral value, it’s a lifestyle and obligation we must all apply.

Uta Ibrahimi. Photo used with her permission.

GV: Finally, do you have any recommendations for young climbers and mountaineers, things they should pay special attention to, so they can be safe on the mountain?

UI:  Youngsters, but also other age groups, should realize that it is never too late to start practicing outdoor sports and activities such as mountaineering or alpinism. The most important thing and message from me to my fellow alpinists is to stay safe in the mountains and not damage nature. A good mountaineer and alpinist is someone who protects and preserves nature at all cost. The fulfilment we take from mother earth has to be repaid with deep care and compassion.

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