Morose existence in alien landscape: Yorkshire offers shelter and culture shock to displaced families, Marianne Macdonald finds

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The Independent Online
THEY LEFT to escape a war and found themselves in the heart of the Yorkshire textiles belt, in an industrial town strewn with blackened stone houses and mills.

Few Southerners who venture on to Dewsbury's quiet streets easily understand the inhabitants' broad accents. But life in West Yorkshire is proving a deeper mystery to the Bosnian refugees sent there by fate.

There are about 20 at present, billeted in a Georgian house whose stately beauty has suffered from being out of private hands.

In this former old people's home, owned by Kirklees social services, the Bosnians sit: dispossessed, tricked out in slippers and borrowed clothing. They asked to come to England and they found themselves in Dewsbury. Some are recovering from the blows and starvation inflicted by Serbs in forced labour camps; others have been separated from brothers, husbands and mothers by distance, or by death.

They spend their days huddled smoking inside the front doors of the reception centre where they have been sent by the Refugee Council, waiting endlessly - for a miracle in Bosnia, for the house of their own they have long been promised in Huddersfield or Bradford, or merely the next meal. They talk in the desultory way of people with little to say, and endless time to say it.

Dewsbury is at the centre of the Yorkshire woollen district, its stone houses blackened by decades of manufacturing blankets, carpets and yarn. Here Paulinus preached Christianity to the heathen in 627, but now locals are more animated by the dual conviction that Yorkshire is the best place in Britain, and outsiders should remain that way.

It is in this brave new world that the Yorkshire Bosnians must carve new lives: struggling through bureaucracy to apply for the dole, income support and family credit, pay electricity bills, complete job application forms and negotiate the maze of the local education system.

Sifeta and Irfan have been existing in the Dewsbury centre for six weeks. They have a daughter of 17 and a son of eight, and have lost everything. In Bosnia their pounds 400,000 house, garage, car and shop were destroyed by bombs, their pounds 50,000 bank savings swallowed in the Serbian advance. Sifeta, who looks 15 years older than her age of 38, shrugs. She has no English and her gesture says it all: how can you put in words the scale of such tragedy?

In this town, entertainment comes in the form of beer, or food: fish and chips, mushy peas, sprawling Yorkshire puddings with onion gravy. But the refugees barely speak English, are intimidated by the culture, and have only pounds 12 a week to spend. So they stay in, talk politics, or watch the TV amid the dirty wallpaper, malodorous carpet and fake- leather chairs in the lounge.

At 12.30 lunch is served, and at 6pm dinner; but, says Elaine Johnson, the Batley girl who cooks, there is a great deal they do not fancy. English pastry, for example, or lettuce, pork or baked beans. Menus have been a case of trial and error.

John Hart is one of the centre's three housing support caseworkers. His job is to find housing association properties for the refugees - a business that can take months for his clients - and then smooth their way into the community.

'They'd all go home tomorrow if they could,' he says bluntly. 'Whatever housing we find for them, it's not as good as they had in their own country. They were often much better off.'

The men and women have particular difficulty trying to sign on, when information frequently gets lost or mislaid. The children rapidly acquire English, but their parents do not; because their hearts remain in Bosnia, and hindered by the Yorkshire dialect, the Bosnians struggle with simple sentences. Mirza Blazevic, 28, has spent two months at the centre with her husband and two boys, aged three and seven. The family lost everything when they fled Bosnia.

How will she cope with life in Dewsbury? She lets out a stream of words. The interpreter listens, then says: 'She is not even thinking about living here. All she is thinking about is going back to Bosnia. If she has to stay here, she will, but she can't bear to consider the possibility.'

Mrs Blazevic, her lips frosted pink, her brown hair teased in a perm, looks unblinking. Outside, in the muggy August air, the children race on borrowed bicycles. The adults smoke cigarettes. They look at each other, and say nothing.

(Photograph omitted)