In 1999, at the height of the war in Kosovo, Jane Bostock spent several months assisting Kosovar Albanian refugees at a centre in Leeds. Here, to mark Refugee Week, she reflects on her experiences and asks why so many of us lack empathy for those “on the knife-edge of life”.
It was 1999 and war had just broken out in Kosovo. It unravelled in the news like a horror film. Endless footage of human despair and misery. Blair in full-on messiah mode, pontificating among the suffering masses.
The memory has faded, of course, as decades pass and new horrors and disasters unfurl across the globe. I, like many, sit comfortably detached from them all. Shaking my head, bemoaning the state of the world. Then making myself a cup of tea.
Kosovo and Serbia were formally part of Yugoslavia. Historically there were deep divisions. Serbia is an Orthodox Christian country. Kosovo had an ethnic Albanian Muslim majority with a Serbian minority.
Ethnic tensions rose between the two countries. In Kosovo, there was a desire among nationalists to be a separate ruling nation apart from Serbia. In Serbia there was a desire to keep control of Kosovo and protect the Serbian minority within that country. There were documented atrocities on both sides.
Kosovar Albanians were driven from their homes, massacred and dumped in mass graves. Systematic rapes as a tool of war were widespread. The Kosovar Albanians were being ethnically cleansed.
The UK government had agreed to evacuate the refugees. Displaced by war, they’d walked for days to reach bulging, mud-laden camps in Macedonia. There was much fanfare about this and a supportive British public was behind the evacuation. We were inundated with generous donations.
The reception centre I worked in was a disused and hastily unboarded old peoples’ home in Leeds. It became home to these evacuees and half a dozen social workers, myself and several more support workers and bilingual colleagues. I was not worldly; I did not know of a ‘Kosovo’ prior to this. Nor indeed had I met many people from such different backgrounds. I was barely out of my teens.
“I often felt on the edge of tears and overwhelmed, such was the power of what I was witnessing. A feeling of helplessness pervaded.”
The refugees were men, women, children, babies, the pregnant, the elderly and disabled. Bewildered, the war raging still, people arrived day by day. Some of them not knowing if their families were dead or alive, or where they were. Most had had their homes and possessions destroyed.
I often felt on the edge of tears and overwhelmed, such was the power of what I was witnessing. A feeling of helplessness pervaded.
Over the weeks and months to come I learned we had doctors, a TV presenter, journalists, farmers and shop workers. Some were from the city and some from more rural parts. Rich and poor, modern metro types and those steeped in Kosovar tradition: all with their lives on hold. Obviously this eclectic mix did not always get on. It was a microcosm of society in a space too small for it. Over time the trauma gave way to disagreements and annoyance as well as hilarity. But the trauma was never far away.
My memories, though faded, are many. The traditional folk music that permeated every corner of the home. The dancing ‘til the early hours. Old ladies knitting incessantly. Chain smoking and tea drinking and a high demand for feta cheese. People so wrapped up in their distress they could barely speak. People so wanting to show gratitude that they would speak the little English they worked hard to learn any moment they saw you. “How are you?” “Enjoy your meal.” “You have good leather.”
In the latter instance, the translation for skin had not quite worked. We had a lot of children, from a few days old and upward. They were a joy. They went to school, immersed themselves in WWF TV marathons and picked up English in a nanosecond. So strong and full of courage, every single one.
All arrived out of fear and a need to survive. Most never having experienced this country or its language before. Most with barely any belongings. I spent a long time imagining how utterly devastating this would be.
We did what we could to make the unbearable bearable. Over the nine months that the centre was open, we arranged medical help and education for the children and English language courses for the adults. Things to take away the endless monotony of being stuck somewhere you did not know.
Shaken by the memories of flight from their beloved country, most willingly returned home once it was safe to do so. Less than a year after arriving in the UK, over half of the evacuees had done so. To this day I hold deep gratitude and respect for the people I met all that time ago.
But once the refugees were not big news anymore, I noticed the public goodwill harden. The stories of refugees from media outlets and politicians became accusatory. Refugees were the perfect scapegoat – “why, they weren’t even meant to be here.” One day, while walking round the centre’s playground, I found a bag of drawing pins. They’d been liberally strewn across an area where the children played.
I continued to work for quite a few years as a support and advice worker for refugees and asylum seekers from all corners of the globe. To my dismay, the worsening of public perception has exceeded anything I could have imagined. The reality is we take such a small fraction of those in need of refuge, with the poorest countries disproportionately taking the strain. They are the voiceless vulnerable needing sanctuary. Are they really the main players in the economy struggling, or whatever trumped up charge it is that’s being used as this week’s political football? Of course they are not.
“One day, while walking round the centre’s playground, I found a bag of drawing pins. They’d been liberally strewn across an area where the children played.”
So here I am, my eyes a little more open thanks to this amazing, enriching, distressing experience. Aware of the horror man can put onto man, and of the fragility of life. And aware of the absolute need for humanity and compassion.
There is always a part of me that says, as I sup my tea, “It could be me next time.” The randomness of life meant I won the jackpot and was born in the UK and not, say, Libya, Syria or Eritrea, or anywhere else where war rages and people have little in the way of choice and rights.
Watching footage of desperate human beings, some with children and babies, trying to escape the hell that is their homeland, risking death for a glimmer of hope, I am pretty sure they are not on a benefits jolly. What would it take for any of us to leave our homes and families?
What breaks my heart more than anything is the sheer ambivalence or even downright hostility towards these human beings on the knife-edge of life. The ‘I’m alright’ attitude that permeates through every echelon of society and the myth of the migrant shamefully exploited by pretty much every political party. It’s so low. No life should be worth more than another. It’s not someone’s fault that they were born in some arsehole of a dictatorship any more than it is our right to be here. Who knows what’s around the corner for our fragile “democratic” isle? I really hope though, that if I needed to escape, for whatever reason, I would be helped.
You can get more facts on the truth about asylum here: http://www.refugeecouncil.org.uk/policy_research/the_truth_about_asylum1913 Views
A human, like you.