Real Lives: Young lives torn in two

These boys are like any other London teenagers - except they're from Kosovo. talks to them about A-levels, films - and the prospect of going home
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Indy Lifestyle Online
On Milah's bedroom wall, there's a poster of Titanic, a picture of a cat and a mini gallery of family photos. And next to the airbrushed love clinch of Leonardo and Kate he has Blu-tacked his national flag, the red background and black raven of Kosovo. Milah being 16, and 16-year- olds' rooms being worlds unto themselves, this conflagration of the ubiquitous and the personal, he will say, has its own particular significance. The flag to remind him of home, the family snapshots to remind him of his parents who are currently seeking asylum in Australia, and the Titanic poster because he's a big Leonardo fan.

If you bumped into Milah - and best friend Fatos - in the street you wouldn't think immediately of the refugees who've been pouring out of Kosovo. They look and sound like average teenage lads. They talk about revision, football and films. Now, though, they talk of the fact that it looks as if the war in the Balkans is over. What is going to happen to them next?

Both are part of a charity called Albanian Youth Action. As the Nato bombing ends, the charity, supported by Save the Children, is helping refugees to cope with the strange limbo they're in. For months they've been trying to survive in Britain: now they're facing the prospect of going home. But what will they be returning to? Relatives have died, houses burned down, unexploded mines left in the ground. The future seems as uncertain as when the war was still going on.

The inspiration behind AYA is Xhevat Ademi, a teacher who arrived from Pristina six years ago. His latest project is a newsletter in Albanian and English to be distributed across the UK and refugee camps on the Kosovo borders. The idea: to tell the stories of displacement, dispersion and assimilation - the experience of hundreds of teenagers from ordinary families in Kosovo. "We are trying to present refugees in the UK as real people," explains Xhevat. "And it's great for them to have a format to express themselves."

The charity's headquarters are nicknamed "Xhevat's Place" by Milah and friends. "I come to Xhevat's place," blurts Fatos between catching his breath from playing basketball, "to meet others in the same situation as me and pick up the skills I need to survive in London. When I first arrived, I was lonely and scared but I was taken to Xhevat's Place. He interviewed me and found me a proper school so I could take my A-levels. He even took me to school on the first day and explained all the rules to me."

Fatos speaks with a bright confidence which seems to belong to someone other than the frightened teenager who arrived at Heathrow six months ago. And though he whispers from beneath his floppy fringe in a language he is just beginning to learn, Milah too, manages shy grins which belie his Dover arrival, alone and bewildered. "When the ferry docked, I knew I had to ask for asylum. The first people I saw, the men who clear the rubbish, helped me make phone calls."

Fatos has been involved in the magazine since its inception. His big scoop is a piece on the Government's Asylum and Immigration Bill which plans to disperse refugees arriving in London across the country in what it calls "burden sharing" among local authorities. Fatos is not sure this is such a good idea.

"London is full of opportunities; it's multi-racial. I'm afraid that if I was outside the capital I wouldn't get to do as many things or meet as many different people."

Fatos is working at one of AYA's computers on a CD sleeve for his graphic design A-level. He likes the menacing insects which swarm out of his imagination on to the computer screen. His teacher wishes he'd think of something nicer. Wearing combats picked up in Camden market ("It's good for cool clothes on a budget"), and a nascent goatee, he's somewhere between the street cool of his favourite band, House of Pain, and the geek-speak of Bill Gates.

Fatos wants to do something to do with biochemical engineering in the future because there are lots of interesting jobs in food and cosmetic technology. He wants to finish his A-levels and go clubbing, then go back to Kosovo, where he used to swim in the river by his house every summer. And he wants to make sure he doesn't live in a place where the gunfire is so frequent it's normal.

"I'm from a small shopping centre town, near Pristina," he says. "When the shooting started I was very scared but it soon became normal. There was a 2pm curfew. If you were seen on the streets any later the police would beat you. They'd say, 'This is going to be our place. You'd better leave before we kill you.'" The young were the main target. "They wanted us to flee so no one would be left to fight or be educated because the young people are the future. My father didn't want me to stay. One morning, he said 'You must go' so I just left." The rest of his family have since fled to Germany.

Fatos's new home is a room in Clapham. It is the fifth place he has lived in a succession of hotels and bedsits. "I first stayed in Ladbroke Grove - it was strange sleeping with so many cars. For three nights I couldn't sleep. I was in different hotels until I was 18, when they kick you out, so I had to find my own flat."

The most important aspect of his room, Fatos explains, is a good table for his graphic design. Examples of his lino cuts lie around Xhevat's Place. Xhevat plans to exhibit them. Fatos pulls out his favourite: a boy's head surrounded by gun barrels in stark monochrome. "But you will notice," he says, "that in a lot of the images, there is light, candlelight, sunlight. That's because I'm optimistic. After my A-levels, I'd like to go to university but I'll be going back home. When I see pictures on the TV, I see the mountains. I just hold my breath, it's so beautiful.

"It doesn't matter that my house has been destroyed. We still have the land and just as my father built a house, so can I with hard work. But I'll do my studies here because I want to go to Kosovo and make a contribution. Many people have disappeared, so I want to go back prepared to rebuild. I'll probably volunteer as a teacher."

Milah, however, is torn. "I feel settled in London - I have good friends. I don't have a home in Kosovo - it's been burnt to the ground." He pauses. Six months ago his parents sent him to Dover in the back of a lorry. Now he might be making the return journey. "I don't think my family will go back straight away. Maybe Dad will go back first to build us a house," he says simply.

Additional reporting by Leigh Daynes. Albanian Youth Action (tel: 0171 528 6082). Save the Children website: www.savethechildren.org.uk

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