Balkans to Barking;Kosovan refugees

21st May 1999 at 01:00
Dominic Lowndes was in despair when he first met his new class. They shouted and fought. They were frustrated,displaced and traumatised. Some didn't know if their families were alive or dead. Five months later many problems remain, but some of the Kosovan refugees are finally adjustingto their new life as 'Essex blokes'. This is Dominic's mid-term report...

When I handed Shefquet the newspaper his jaw dropped. Horrific headlines about Kosovo have become a vital ingredient of my English lessons, but my biggest fear is inadvertently presenting one of my pupils with the gruesome portrait of a dead relative. "It's my uncle," said Shefquet. Then burst out laughing.

It must be strange to see a relative on the front page of a foreign newspaper. Relief breeds laughter though, and for Shefquet the picture proved his uncle was alive. That he had escaped from Kosovo.

I started teaching Kosovan refugees in January. Because of the cheap housing, nearly 1,000 have been moved into the Barking area. I am one of three teachers employed by Barking College, which was asked to set up an English language course in the only available accommodation - a community centre. It's not ideal but funding is limited.

We were quickly left alone to look after everything. We use a small classroom and the main hall for lessons. The hall doubles as a reception, social area and entrance, often simultaneously. Were we teachers, secretaries, bouncers or social workers? The three musketeers or the three stooges? We weren't sure.

We registered the first 60 refugees and split them into three groups, giving each of them 16 hours of English a week. The daily trickle of new would-be students had to be rejected and advised to come back in a fortnight.

My first lesson erupted into a five-against-two brawl. Seeing the flying fists and feet, I tried to remember the golden rules of language teaching and keep my instructions as simple as possible. "Stop", "No" and "Woooah" all had little effect. There was certainly going to be a steep learning curve on this course. For me, if not the students.

The fight was not the result of political, religious or ethnic differences. It was caused by frustration and male bravado. When the refugees came to enrol we had been surprised and a little frightened to find they were all young men. A few are in their 30s and 40s but most are 16 to 25.

Usually I can tell my adult students that if they are not interested in learning they can leave. But there's little for the refugees to do and often nowhere for them to go. Most live in overcrowded hostels and aren't allowed to work until they have been here for six months. Such large groups of frustrated, displaced and sometimes traumatised young men are inevitably going to have volatile factions.

The hall acts as a drop-in centre for them in the afternoon, and if they don't take lessons, they'll be wandering the streets until school is over.

Many just want somewhere to go. The police visited one day to follow up complaints about groups of refugees hanging around the town centre. Chaos ensued in the class. One particularly disruptive student refused to stop shouting.

I was furious and my language was far from simple as I told the 20 students what I felt. Surely in such circumstances it was up to them to help me maintain the course? I told them they were adults. That this was a course for them.

Since then we have encouraged the students to take responsibility for their own discipline. We have forged stronger relationships with them, and things have calmed down a lot. We have been given a phone number which would provide security back-up "within minutes", but using it would rarely be practical and would undo much of the work we have done.

The students have explained that most of them are young males because this was the first group to be targeted by their Serb neighbours. Their other choice was to join the Kosovo Liberation Army. As 16-year-old Astrid pointed out: "I can't kill a tank with a rifle."

Astrid took his family's advice, and savings, and fled five months ago. He paid a lorry driver pound;1,500 to stash him in the back and was in London five days later. The journey was "so cold, so dirty, so frightening".

He's pleased he made it to England as he feared he might end up in Russia. "I can learn English here. It's important for the future," he says.

His family are now in Albania but no one knows where his brother is. I don't know what to say to help him maintain his strength.

Shefquet has been one of my most diligent, amusing and inspiring students. His conversational English is improving rapidly. And he has been lucky. As well as spotting his uncle, he was recently contacted by his missing brother.

He is 22 and was studying agricultural science before he and a friend hiked across the mountain range into Albania. From there he caught a notorious illegal ferry to Italy. With no passport and little money he had little choice. It gets so overcrowded that drownings are common - 92 died in one crossing last year.

Shefquet hitched through Italy then hid on trains to Calais. It may sound like a backpacking adventure but the stakes are a lot higher. Discovery could have meant repatriation. In Calais he paid a man his last pound;500 to sneak into the back of a lorry in the middle of the night. The driver got a shock when he went to unload his goods.

While Shefquet and Astrid could be typical students on any summer school language course, many of my pupils have more unusual career backgrounds. They range from factory workers to businessmen. Squelzim is a 30-year-old lorry driver. He paid pound;2,000 to be smuggled all the way here with his wife and two daughters in the back of a lorry. They used plastic bags as toilets and took plenty of food and water. It took four days.

Life for the refugees is full of obstacles. One morning a student came to me with a letter from the Home Office. He had misunderstood it and feared he was about to be sent back to Yugoslavia. He had also just read in the papers that 70 people had been killed in his home town, and he was unable to contact the rest of his family. I don't know how to deal with such trauma. Although there are dedicated refugee support agencies in Barking, there is only so much they can do.

I take solace from the fact that the lessons are a welcome distraction, and that learning the language is the first step towards regaining some control of their lives. For people from non-academic backgrounds this means first learning the methods of learning itself, in and out of the classroom. It's not easy in any circumstances.

Getting students to keep ordered notes and do homework is particularly hard with such limited facilities. While refugees under 18 receive cash in the form of benefits, over-18s without dependants are given only food vouchers. We have very few books, pens and paper - and initially supplies went missing. One morning I arrived to find my white board had disappeared. Almost everything was returned eventually though, and there is now no theft.

There have been vastly different rates of progress, and numbers did drop quite rapidly. As well as the conditions and the difficulty of learning any language, outside factors put pressure on everyone. Continual rehousing of students means the centre is now too far away for many. This was made even worse when free bus passes for regularly attending students over 18 were stopped because they represented a cash benefit. Half my class disappeared in a week.

Some students continue to walk for an hour each morning to get to the classes. Others have left because they found jobs.

When they first arrived many of the younger students clearly believed they were here for a short stay. Now they know they won't be returning to Kosovo for some time. One student told me he needs education here because "we must be able to help in the rebuilding of our country".

In the past month the most recent arrivals have brought in letters saying they are to be sent to permanent accommodation on the south coast at the end of this month. Council officials agreed to meet a distressed group, but said their "hands were tied".

Disheartening as it is, we have encouraged keener students to take up newly available places on college courses with better facilities. It's sad when students move on after we've built close relationships with them, but the course is continuing to run and a steady trickle of new refugees is arriving.

Their optimism, strength and adaptability is inspiring.

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