Albanian refugees are struggling to keep their language alive while living in Britain. Carolyn O'Grady reports
Every Tuesday at 3pm, about 20 pupils learn Albanian at St James' and St Michael's Church of England primary school in the London borough of Westminster. At the same time, their mothers may attend English classes. All are ethnic Albanians from Kosovo, where their compatriots are experiencing escalating and horrific violence. They now make up one of the largest groups of refugees in Britain.
Inside, the school's many staircases and corridors are brightly decorated and the atmosphere is warm. The Office for Standards in Education has described it as "a haven of peace and a place of security where all the children feel valued and where extraordinary efforts are being made".
A third of the pupils here are from refugee families, many living in the small hotels or temporary leased flats that surround the school. Some 30 languages are spoken, but Albanian is the largest minority language. Half of all the pupils are Muslim, and the school has a Koran club.
Five years ago, 37 children from Kosovo arrived at the school. Albanian classes started soon after, says headteacher Miriam Rinsler, because "we found that the Kosovan parents were anxious to maintain their language and culture. Also, we were aware that young children whose home language was not developed tended to be slower at picking up English and made less academic progress."
To feel good about themselves, refugee children need to forge a positive relationship with their home language and culture and be able to communicate with their parents and other members of their community. Studies indicate that children who have positive links with their culture and community fare much better psychologically.
Azemihe Pllana, one of the Albanian teachers, hopes that her family will eventually return to their homeland. For this reason she insists that the children "must be reminded of where they're from and in which place their history is".
Most of the two-hour weekly sessions consist of conversation in Albanian, but the class also does some reading and learns about Albanian history and culture. Lessons are voluntary but the children attend regularly.
Sometimes, however, Aze-mihe feels she is fighting a losing battle. Ideally, she would like there to be more lessons, since many of the children "can't express themselves in Albanian and are shy of talking in that language".
The teachers are usually recruited through the community school for ethnic Albanians from Kosovo, an informal school run by Kosovan refugees in London, and are volunteers. "We have to depend on goodwill, and any system that depends on goodwill can occasionally break down," says Miriam Rinsler. The Kosovan teachers are subject to the same pressures as their pupils, and have to deal with frequent rehousing, over-crowding and struggles with bureaucracy.
"If teachers were trained and paid, it would give them more status in the school and community, and would enable the community school to monitor their activities," says Miriam. She would also like funds to buymore resources.
Since the classes - and the English classes for the parents - were set up, parents "began to take school far more seriously" and attendance went up, says Miriam Rinsler. "Children who were doing rather badly began to do better, probably because they were attending more regularly, and felt the school was on their side."
Lendita Berisha and Leuresa Berisha (not sisters), aged 11, speak near-perfect English and are not unhappy to be described as Anglo-Albanians. But both know people who have forgotten their mother tongue and they "don't want to be like that". They never miss the lessons and would like more of them. "Your heart sticks to your country," says Lendita.