From Kosovo to King's Cross

19th December 1997 at 00:00
Young men fleeing ethnic repression in Serbia are finding safety in London. But without their families and faced with Britain's arcane asylum rules, life here is harsh and the future uncertain. Carolyn O'Grady reports

After he leaves Quintin Kynaston School in the London borough of Westminster, Kushtrim Isufi, aged 16, doesn't go home to his family. Instead he returns to a bed and breakfast hostel in one of the sleazier parts of London, King's Cross, an area best known for drugs and prostitution. The room is bare - just a bed and wardrobe, with no table or chair. It is a lifestyle he shares with two of his compatriots, Artan Lamaj (17) and Arben Durmaku (17). All are refugees from Kosovo, a region in southern Serbia where the ethnically Albanian majority - of which these young men were once part - are systematically harassed and repressed by the authorities. They are among one of the largest groups of adolescent refugees in the UK, most of whom are here alone, and many of whom were smuggled into the country in the backs of lorries.

The stories the Kosovan boys tell are very similar. Kushtrim Isufi and his parents decided he had to leave Kosovo when he was 14 and the Serbian authorities began searching houses. "They were firing weapons in the air to make people frightened," he says. People were being arrested and tortured in prison, and children, especially boys, taken hostage to intimidate their parents. Many were killed.

The ethnically Albanian population had been denied access to medical care, jobs and education in Albanian since l990, but schooling had continued secretly in private houses, garages and other locations with teachers paid by the government-in-exile. Then, a couple of years ago, the police started beating up teachers and closing down the illegal schools.

Artan Lamaj fled after being constantly picked up by police demanding to know where he was being educated. He was beaten as a matter of routine, and remembers one particular "session" as "the worst night of my life". He was followed every day, and in May he was told he was being conscripted into the Serb army - the same army that was terrorising his homeland. "I left suddenly, in fear. I didn't know where I was going. I just wanted to get as far away from Kosovo as possible," he says. After a long, circuitous journey he arrived in London.

Alone and virtually unsupported, Artan, Kushtrim and Arben have one thing going for them. They all attend workshops that are part of a project run by the UK branch of the International Social Service, a registered charity which receives some money from the Department of Health. Initially attended by around five Albanian-speaking unaccompanied teenagers, the project is now in touch with more than 50.

The workshops are run by social worker Caroline Blake and teacher Xhevat Ademi, who came from Kosovo in 1992. "This is a very high-risk group, because of what they've been through and because they are alone," says Caroline Blake. "The project gives them support and a structure. They can calm down. If they are left to float they could go downhill and get into crime."

The workshops give the youngsters a place to meet and do their homework, receive some English teaching and advice on independent living and health, and practise art and drama. Trips and football matches are organised at weekends.

Caroline and Xhevat also try to guide the teenagers through the maze that is the social services. Because most don't ask for asylum at the port of entry - which would entitle them to state benefits - unaccompanied adolescents are dependent on individual local authorities, whose polices on what should be given in the way of money and travel and clothing allowances are often inconsistent and complex. They might receive food parcels or up to Pounds 35 per week, depending on which borough they are staying in.

"Too often the attitude they meet is that they're undeserving and are here for economic gain," says Terry Smith, co-ordinator of the children's division of the Refugee Council. "Policies don't focus on the fact that they are adolescents and particularly vulnerable."

Sheila Melzak, of the Medical Foundation for the Care of the Victims of Torture, says: "Such a group of children arrive in the community and highlight the problems and differences with and between the departments of health, social services and housing, and then they (the refugees) get blamed."

Alone in a foreign country and often speaking little English, unaccompanied young people have to deal with all the practical problems of living independently and find their way through the asylum-seeking labyrinth. Though they are given an adviser by the Refugee Council, the time given to them is limited. Arben Durmaku came here four months ago and is still waiting for his first Home Office interview, despite having made numerous telephone calls to a lawyer. Not surprisingly, he is perplexed by the indecision and lack of progress.

For many unaccompanied young refugees, however, the biggest anxiety is accommodation. Arben was initially placed in a bed and breakfast in King's Cross, an area he describes good-humouredly as a "danger zone", though he has subsequently been moved. At one time he had no cooking facilities and he was spending his total allowance of around Pounds 20 a week on food.

At least Arben has a roof over his head; but when he reaches 18 even this comfort is threatened. After this age, if refugees haven't got refugee status, they are usually housed in crowded hostels on the outskirts of London, and given food, but no money. Some end up homeless. Those who do gain refugee status have to find their own accommodation and apply for housing benefit, a virtually impossible task, especially in London where landlords are reluctant to take refugees.

Caroline Blake would like to see local authority or housing association accommodation made available, preferably with up to four young people sharing a flat, supported by an "involved" adult. Later they would be given the tenancy of the flat.

In spite of these difficulties, it is perhaps the project's greatest achievement that many of the Kosovan youths have been placed in schools and are still there - a few in spite of being homeless. Previously, Kosovan youths tended to drop out early on. "It was too strange and too alien for them, " says Caroline Blake. "But we have proved that they can retain their places if they have additional support."

Moreover, several schools have gained enough experience to provide the necessary sort of flexible structure and curriculum, including access courses and units on independent living. Advisers recruited by the Refugee Council are provided in some areas to help with the asylum-seeking process (financed by Section 11 funds).

But, as is so often the case, schools are having to deal with inadequacies in social policy: "The situation is worse now than I've ever known it before, " says Athy Demetriades, a teacher at Hampstead School and chair and founder of the charity Children of the Storm, which helps young refugees of all nationalities. "If my children had to leave me to go to another country I would want them looked after better than this."

The Unaccompanied Albanian-speaking Refugees project is located at International Social Service of the United Kingdom, Cranmer House, 39 Brixton Road, London SW9 6DD. Tel: 0171 735 8941. Square Fish, a video for schools which looks at the problems which young refugees face in this country, is available from Children of the Storm, 61 Oak Grove, London NW2 3LS. Tel: 0181 450 0223. Both projects are seeking funds and volunteers

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