Refugees heighten education crisis;Briefing;International

28th May 1999 at 01:00

Ethem Ruka faces his biggest challenge yetI providing schooling for 150,000 refugees. Gillian Sandford talks to him.

Ethem Ruka, Albania's education secretary, is confronting an epic challenge: how to provide schooling for the 150,000 traumatised refugee children who have arrived in his country since the Kosovo crisis began two months ago.

Even before the massive influx, Dr Ruka was working against desperate odds in one of Europe's poorest countries.

Schools and universities suffered terrible damage two years ago during the riots that followed the collapse of pyramid investment schemes into which many of Albania's 3.2 million people had placed their savings.

Gangs looted guns from army barracks and set out on an orgy of destruction. Schools and universities were torched and books thrown on the flames.

"Approximately $35 million (pound;22m) worth of damage was inflicted on school buildings, textbooks, teaching materials and school records," said Ruka.

Ruka, 52, had been an academic for 22 years, teaching biology, physiology and endocrinology at the University of Tirana, before becoming Secretary of State.

He began by starting the autumn term in 1997 early to send a signal to parents "that they had to pay more attention to their children and to the new generation".

He enlisted the help of international organisations, such as the Soros Foundation, which has been funding training and educational projects since 1994, the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) and smaller charities, which have refurbished some schools. Ruka has also used cash from World Bank loans.

The challenge now is to co-ordinate the efforts of the aid groups that have poured into Albania to help the Kosovar refugees. Ruka wants all aid money placed in a central bank account, but the aid groups say that their donor organisations would not accept this given Albania's problems with corruption and instability.

The government and aid groups have decided to open schools for Kosovar children when Albanian youngsters finish for the summer holiday on June 8. Refresher and specialist training of Kosovar teachers is already under way.

Classes will run six days a week for 10 weeks, followed by two weeks of exams for secondary pupils in literature, maths and physics. Other subjects studied will be history, geography, chemistry, biology and the philosophy of economic knowledge.

No one yet knows how they will continue the refugees' education in the autumn.The Soros Foundation is promoting the construction of prefabricated classrooms for areas where schools cannot cope.

In the longer term, it is hoped that the "prefabs" can be packed up, the books boxed and everything shipped back to Kosovo with the refugees. But another problem for Ruka is that there are still tens of thousands of parents with tens of thousands of traumatised children still in Kosovo who are trying to reach Albania.

If you would like to contribute to UNICEF's education and relief work in the Kosovo crisis, please send donations (cheques payable to UNICEF) to The TES Kosovo Appeal, UNICEF, Room TES, Freepost, Chelmsford, CMT 8BR.

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