All they have left is their futures;FE Focus

18th June 1999 at 01:00
Hundreds of miles from their Kosovan homes, young refugees turn to studying as a chance for a new life. Nadene Ghouri reports

"IT'S not a happy title to have - asylum seeker," says Agron Biba, formerly a theatre director from Pristina.

"We are like plants, you uproot them and replant them elsewhere. They may grow stronger or they may wither and die. Who knows what will happen to us?" he says, gesturing at the young men watching the latest news of the war now stumbling towards its end.

Home is Kosovo. The youths are mostly eldest sons, many of whose families paid thousands of pounds to smuggle them out of Kosovo before the NATO bombardment began. As young men they stood little chance of escaping either the murderous intentions of Serb paramilitaries or recruiters from the Kosovan Liberation Army.

"These men should be the pride of their nation," says Meena Wood, head of continuing and adult education at Southwark College, south London.

Instead, they are forced to spend their days smoking, trying desperately to scrabble together the money for phone cards to call home, or watching the latest news.

Mark Bela, 17, arrived in the UK last August. He's not sure how he got here, other than that he stowed away in a truck in Macedonia and "found myself in East Croydon a few days later".

He walked straight into the nearest police station, where they simply gave him the address of the Home Office.

Mark's family lived in a small village near the Albanian border. He left Kosovo because, as "the biggest boy in the house", his family believed he would be targeted by Serb authorities. His father, a teacher, had already been subject to regular beatings.

"I was his right-hand man," Mark says, tears flowing down his face.

Mark has had no contact with his family since the NATO bombing began, but clings to the fragile hope that they might be in Albania after a recent arrival at his hostel said he thought he had spotted Mark's mother.

Like most refugees, Mark would like to go home, but can't see when or how. "It's so difficult for me here, in this strange country, with a different religion and culture. Even the cars go on the wrong side of the road.

"And the people are different. In Kosovo everyone is friendly but here when you get on the train people read a newspaper or stick their eyes up to the roof."

Mark has begun studying business administration, English and IT at Southwark but explains politely that it "is very difficult to support myself in my studies". He currently gets a free Travelcard for the 45-minute journey to college, but as soon as he turns 18 he will lose that entitlement. And he has no money to buy books or equipment.

Meena Wood says the lack of money to travel is causing increasing numbers of her refugee students to drop out. "It's not so bad in the summer, but in winter they have to walk here and back in bitter cold when most of them haven't even got a coat to wear," she says.

Mark lives at the London Park Hotel - a once-grand but now scruffy short-term hostel in the Elephant and Castle. The staff do their best, providing the refugees with breakfast and dinner, and a packed lunch, but it's not the food they are used to, and they have no extra cash to buy snack or drinks. Most complain that they are often hungry. Last winter the college staff organised whip-rounds and brought in clothes parcels for the students.

For Meena, a former child-refugee from Uganda, their plight is all the more poignant. "I remember arriving here with a teddy bear and one flimsy dress in the middle of winter. It does traumatise you."

Mike Newlands, head of Southwark council's asylum team, which aims to co-ordinate social services, housing and education services, admits there are gaping holes in provision.

Take 18-year-old Eric. He had studied information technology for six months at the college, but was almost prevented from taking his end-of-term exam because he had no way of raising the pound;15 entrance fee.

Social services couldn't help, but luckily for Eric, one of the hotel staff stepped in and gave him the money.

This summer instead of taking a holiday, Meena and her staff are transporting their desks to the hotel lobby to run a basic skills school. She anticipates just about every one of the 480 residents will want a place.

"Education is about the only chance they have. The Home Office looks more favourably on people who have made a commitment to learning when deciding whether to grant them permanent leave to stay. All they want is the chance to learn."

Dafina Bojaj, 17, a travel and tourism student, agrees. "Without college I'd go mad. It's my only escape from what I've been through and what I think about every day. I don't know what I want to do. I just want to be happy."

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