Serbing the community

Small worlds: THE SERBS; A group of refugees has a home from home in London
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"When we arrived in Britain in 1947 thegovernment gave us £1 to put in our pockets. That is all we had," says Alex Petrovic, the President of the Church Committee and therefore Mr Big around the Serbian Orthodox Church and Community Centre in Ladbroke Grove, west London. Opposite him sits his friend of 50 years, Dmitar Gasic, a 70-year-old Teddy boy with an immaculate white quiff. It's Sunday afternoon, so everyone has piled into this Serb restaurant after the church service next door. Dmitar orders a round of "gibanica," a kind of cheese pie, and some tiny cups of black coffee.

"It was hard to integrate at first," says Alex. "I remember being stationed in Tiverton in Devon, and going to a dancehall with 20 other huge, tall Serbs, allunsmiling. The girls were terrified. They ran away."

In 1953 the Church of England loaned them the church, which they made into a Serbian Orthodoxplace of worship. In theSeventies the hall was converted into a restaurant, library and Sunday school. Since then the community has grown around thissite: in a 1980 census over 7,000 marked Serbo-Croat as their first language in Hammersmith and Fulham alone.

Marko, Dmitar's son, turns up, having made his way through the gang of kids playing footballoutside. "Our class was the first to win the right to have those breaks betweenSunday school lessons," he says beaming. His pride in his history is typical: all around the hall are the coats of arms of the old medieval dynasties in the former Yugoslavia. In between nestles a portrait of the Queen. There is also a Serbian cemetery near Brookwood. "When you go down there," says Marko, "you can see all these monuments people have already bought with, let's say, 1923- on them. It makes them feel secure." His father pipes up: "I bought two plots - one for my wife. I didn't tell her. She saw it in the church paper and went mad." Markomumbles an aside: "She thought, `If you haven't looked after me in life why look after me in death?' They're divorced now."

There have been three waves of Serbian immigrants into Britain: anti- Communists escaping Tito after the Second World War;Yugoslavs leaving for economic reasons in the Sixties (which suited Tito rather well) and, finally, the refugees of the Nineties war.

"You notice the new ones," says Dmitar. "They haven't learnt to be quiet on the buses yet." An unofficial estimate suggests that more than 8,000 former Yugoslavians have applied forasylum since 1991. "They've hugely swelled the numbers. In the Eighties I used to look aroundand think that when the old people died there would only be about five people left here," says Marko. "Now at Christmasyou can't get into the grounds."

Dejan Djokic arrived two years ago from Serbia where he was working as a freelance, and increasingly censored, journalist. "I was afraid of what the Serbs would be like here. Tito had always spread so much bad propaganda."

Paranoia stretches through the ages: during Tito's rule thecentre was viewed as a monarchist camp and there was much distrust between it and the Communist embassy. Many Serbsfeared attacks from the Yugoslav secret police. "Every day as I walked out of my house, I had the thought I could be shot," says Dmitar Gasic.

Today the community centre's relations with the embassyare better, but the centre does not see Croatians as they once did. "Before this war we had lectures here about Yugoslavian things. Everyone came," says Mr Petrovic. "Now they have stopped."

But there aren't such divisions among the most recent third wave. Dejan goes regularly to the Monday "Yugoslav" night at the Le Scandale disco off Oxford Street in London. "All types turn up - everyone here from the former Yugoslavia really - Croats, Bosnians, Serbs. They play all types of music, native rock, and Muslim stuff."

"The media hype is all about Serbian hegemony," says Marko. "And it really is upsetting to have the media in this country so against us. Butat the disco, nobody gives a toss."

As the coffee cups pile up, an accordionist starts to play a traditional Serbian song, "Tamo Daleko", which means "far away". Marko translates:

"Over there, far away; Over there is my village; Over there is my Serbia; Without ahomeland I wander this world;Wherever I go, I proudly cry `Long LiveSerbia!' "

"We all know this song," murmurs Dejan. "Butunder Communism, they changed it. They cut out `Serbia' and put `my love'."