Trying again in uncertain exile;Community education

15th October 1999 at 01:00
Julie Morrice talks to Kosovan refugees and the education workers helping them adapt to life in Glasgow

T wenty-three floors up in the Red Road flats in Glasgow, the view out the window is green fields dotted with little houses. For a moment the distance and the dislocation make it look like one of those scenes so familiar on the television news. But there are no straggling lines of tractors here, no soldiers and no burnt-out buildings.

Inside the satellite television is broadcasting Albania's answer to Crossroads. Four children giggle and shove through the door. In the next room several tall, dark young men are bunched round a computer screen. "These are our interpreters," says Morag Scott of Glasgow's community education department. They smile, shift mobile phones to the other hand, and offer firm handshakes.

Since the middle of May this has been the hub of activity for around 100 Kosovan refugees. Social workers, community education staff, interpreters and the Kosovans themselves come and go. A bowl of milk pudding sits incongruously among the files and screens. Posters on the wall advertise Mesimi Familijar Per Kompiutera at Cardonald College. A toddler appears, and a huge man with ringlets picks her up and asks her to point out her nose, her ears, her eyes.

Normality and extremity rub along. In May, Morag Scott was watching the news about refugees coming to Glasgow. Two days later she was told she would be working with them.

Before the refugees arrived Scott's big worry was how she would deal with "the trauma issues". It has not been a problem. "I don't want to sound corny," she says, "but I've been so struck by the strength of the human spirit. After all they've been through, what comes across is their humour, their resilience. They just wanted to establish normality - for their children especially."

School-age children were quickly enrolled in the education system and went to summer school throughout the holidays. For the over-16s and their parents the community education department has been the provider. "Our remit has been language provision, English classes," Scott says. "But we've adapted that to incorporate family learning, which reinforces both the adults' and the children's learning. And drama gives them a chance to practice the intonation and explore the meaning behind the language they've been learning."

The education and community education departments have to deal with a huge range of abilities and backgrounds. Schooling has been something of a lottery for Kosovans in recent years. Many of the refugee children have pieced together an education at "underground schools" crammed into rooms in private homes. But one refugee was about to enter his sixth year at medical school when he was forced to leave.

The Scottish provision has to take account of this instability. Some of the teenagers have been attending English classes at Langside College, enjoying the freedom of travelling to classes on their own. Since the beginning of term they have also been attending courses in other colleges, ranging from hairdressing to ICT and computer aided design.

The adult English classes are held in Red Road itself. On Morag Scott's register occupations are listed next to names: fireman, journalist, factory worker, lawyer, policeman and farmer. Here is a society in miniature, jumbled up and then flung together by misfortune.

The English classes have been immersion teaching, by necessity. The tutors are gleaned from further education colleges around Glasgow and have a few words of Albanian at best. "It started off with basic life skills, giving them the vocabulary for shopping and getting about. But after a couple of weeks the students wanted a more structured approach. The tutors have been fantastic. They've really made it work," says Scott.

Albanian literacy classes for adults have begun in the evenings, with volunteer tutors from among the refugees temselves. "We realised that some refugees were having difficulty with basic English because of literacy problems in Albanian," says Scott. "We've been encouraging the refugees to form self-help groups. They are all very individual and motivated. The last thing we want is a dependency culture."

The Kosovans have leave to stay in the UK for one year. But Scott says: "We can't maintain this level of service for ever. The English classes will be integrated with existing local services in community centres."

Everyone comments on the Kosovans' thirst for learning. Courses on IT are oversubscribed within hours of the notice going up. The English class students demanded textbooks and tapes so they could study at home. Maybe they realise that they can only put their side of the story through education and communication.

But it is also a way to keep the recent past at bay. In the cramped lift at Red Road, in her newly acquired English, one woman said to me, "We do all these things, and so we have less time to sit and think."

The Glasgow Kosovan refugees have a website at It includes basic information about Kosovo, a page about individual families and their thoughts, and a synopsis of their activities in Glasgow over the summer. E-mail from Scottish schools would be welcome.

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