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Teenage voices of Kosovo;Cover feature;National Grid for Learning

Young refugees are now producing their own website and newsletter, as Carolyn O'Grady reports.

A group of boys, aged between 16 and 18, are gathered around Fisnik Ismaili, a website designer, looking at the screen on which he has called up the first page of their website. The planning has been done, and now is the time to see their work on screen. In previous meetings they have worked out the structure and discussed the content. There are still a few late ideas. What about a chatline? asks one. Fisnik explains the technical difficulties. "I suppose that means no," suggests the young man. It does, at least in the short-term. However, in the meantime, they do have individual sites in which they can describe themselves and their lives. And interesting, if often extremely difficult and painful, lives they are.

The group are all unaccompanied young refugees from Kosovo. They include Faruk Ramadani, who was studying at a private clinic and was suspected by the Serb authorities of treating KLA fighters, and left when his home was burnt down. He is now looking to resume his medical training here. Kushtrim Isufi arrived here alone three years ago, aged 14, and is doing a GNVQ business course. During the recent crisis, he saw his Kosovan neighbourhood in flames. Fatos Bejta, aged 18, has been here a year and is already doing three A-levels. His overriding interest is graphic design and he spends many of the computer sessions deep in a book on Photoshop or designing a CD cover.

They are working on a website linking them to young Kosovans in Kosovo itself and Albania, and in other Kosovan communities throughout the world, which, with a related newsletter called Kosova Contact, is due to be launched this month.

The workshop is organised by Albanian Youth Action (AYA), a project which was set up to support the many unaccompanied Albanian-speaking young people who are now in the UK.

Over the last three years it has been in touch with about 600 young people from Kosovo and Albania, the vast majority being boys aged between 15 and 20. According to Refugee Council figures there are now at least 1,325 unaccompanied children and young people in the UK from the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, and most are presumed to be from Kosovo.

Established under the auspices of the UK branch of the International Social Service, a registered charity, AYA is funded by the Diana Princess of Wales Memorial Fund and Save the Children, and has recently received a major national lottery grant to expand its activities. The ISS has also been given a lottery grant to provide supported housing for young Kosovan refugees who now live in London, a scheme which will be administered by AYA.

Great importance has been given to IT. The project now has six computers, some donated and some bought cheaply, and was recently given free Internet access by AOL. Future plans include placing computers in each room of the new housing scheme and upgrading desk-top publishing software to a professional level.

"There was hardly any access to computers in Kosovo. The best school in Pristina had three; it's very important that they catch up now," says Caroline ffrench Blake, who runs the project with Xhevat Ademi, a teacher who came from Kosovo in l992 when schools were closed down and he was conscripted to fight for the Serb army in Croatia and Bosnia.

The newsletter and website "will give them a link with other young people across the world," she adds. "The Albanian diaspora is now all over the world. If they can communicate with them and with others it would be very interesting and motivating." With text in English and Albanian, the website would also provide a means to improve the young people's English and teach them useful computer skills. Now that it is set up, it is hoped to involve more of the young people.

Living proof that they can make up for their lack of previous experience with computers and contribute to that huge industry in the UK, is Fisnik Ismaili, who has volunteered to help the group set up the website. Coming from Kosovo in 1991 in the first wave of refugees from there to the UK, Fisnik, with no experience of computers in Kosovo, took a course in London, and now works for a successful multimedia company designing web pages for major companies.

Though the hours are often long and deadlines tight - a 25-hour session is not unusual - he loves his work and his enthusiasm is infectious. He begins the first session, which introduces the young people to the rudiments of web design, by saying: "Right, let's first learn how to set it up and then we can start having some fun."

That the Internet has an important role to play has already been proved during the recent NATO bombing. On the wall is a list of websites which provide information on Kosovo. They include the UN High Commissioner's daily updates on the situation and a searchable database for tracing refugees in Macedonia, along with the BBC's news update web address and that of the Refugee Council. For tracing a scattered people, such databases may not always come up with answers, but they are much more effective than pre-web alternatives.

Their own website will use the Internet's unrivalled powers of communication to reach out to, and advise, young people like themselves and those concerned with supporting Albanian speaking asylum seekers and refugees, including schools. It will include information on the project and the activities it organises, including English language, cookery classes and sports sessions and classes on Albanian language and culture; on benefits and asylum useful tips; and a page with examples of the art done by the young people attending AYA's art workshop.

There will also be a list of Albanian books available on loan to schools and others through the project. On recent visits to Kosovo and Albania, Caroline and Xhevat returned with around 3,000 books for the project and others supporting Albanian speaking refugees. Schools in particular are often anxious to get hold of such books, as they realise that it is in valuing and developing people's home language that you encourage self-esteem and the acquisition of another language.

Also in the newsletter and on the website are pieces by the group themselves on Kosovo's history and their experiences in this country. These are often painful.

"The (bed and breakfast) hotelI was a catastrophe," says Kushtrim Isufi who came to London, aged 14, three years ago. "I was alone without my family. My mind was always in Kosovo with my family whom I left in danger of the Serb police. Also I was afraid of the drunken residents, because I didn't know how to cope with people." Now aged 17, he is altogether much happier and likes London. He is attending school and doing well.

While many of the young people, claims ffrench Blake, seem to eventually see their future in Kosovo, most appear to want to complete their education andor training here. "They're torn: they know that engineers, plumbers and doctors will be most useful, but they also feel pulled to go back to offer a pair of hands." The web and newsletter provide a chance to keep in touch with Kosovans and the Albanian diaspora, to discuss their experiences and to help others like them. It will also give them extremely useful experience in working with the tools of the massively burgeoning computer industry.

Further information

Information and copies of the newsletter are available from Albanian Youth Action, 3rd Floor, Cranmer House, 39 Brixton Road, London SW9 6DD .

Tel: 0171 582 6082email:

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