REFUGEES LIVE AND LAUGH AGAIN
Deborah Culhane says our Kosovan guests are set to face whatever their future brings.
Ireland's Kosovan Refugees are slowly recovering from their nightmare. For most of those still here, hearts are yearning to return to the homeland where so many of their friends and relatives are dead at the hands of Slobodan Milosevic's Serbian forces.
The refugees have full Irish citizenship and, so far, 43 of them have availed of the "Look And See Programme" which allows one member from each family to assess their home situation. Over twice this number have repatriated to Kosovo and a second flight is expected to depart later this month.
The programme provides "an opportunity for families to make an informed choice about their future," says manager of the Cork region, Pat Neligan. "Most of the Kosovans will return to their homes as they have a great attatchment to their homelands. When, depends on what areas they come from; some were completely destroyed whereas others still have running water, electricity and schools in operation.
An accountant for an agricultural co-operative in Kosovo, Sali Stublla is one of the 50 Kosovans staying at the refugee centre in Crosshaven. Because he kept UN officials in his home in Lipjan, 20km from Pristina, for two months, his house and 23 others nearby, were completely destroyed when he left Kosovo. He and his wife, Halime, have four children aged 12-16. They are one of nine families based in Crosshaven.
"When I heard that we were going to Ireland," says Sali "I thought we were going from one bad political situation to another. I had followed the news on the Northern Ireland conflict because of its similarity with our situation in Kosovo," he says.
"I didn't expect that the Irish people would be so friendly," said Ekrem Stubbla, a nephew of Sali's, also staying at the centre with his wife, Bajhramshae, and two children.
"Irish people have reacted very positively to the plight of the Kosovans," says Mr. Neligan. "When one considers the traumas they have been through they have really adjusted well over here. The progress they are making in English is phenomenal," says Mr. Neligan. Children attend summer school, which incorporated activities such as horseriding, water-sports, swimming, as well as morning English lessons, and the adults currently attend English classes organised by the North Monastery Language School in Cork. "Many who arrived with no English can now conduct an English conversation."
Discussions on integration into primary and secondary schools are on-going and will probably depend on each individual's level of English. FAS also provide training to those who have sufficient English and attended the required amount of English classes. Though a "healthy, hard-working" race, "a lot of the time is spent dealing with health problems unattended over the last 8-9 years due to the lack of health services being made available to the Kosovans," says Mr. Neligan. The situation is that "schools, jobs and health care were really only made available to the Serbs and the Kosovans who could afford private fees," says Ekrem Stublla. "One Kosovan who arrived with only 5% eyesight now has 95% eyesight after a cornea transplant. Those who needed psychological help were sent to Cork's senior psychologist at Cork University Hospital," Mr. Neligan adds.
Though based in 10 different centres all over the country over 50% of the refugees are in the Southern Health Board area. "It is basically the very same as if you uplifted a village here in Irealnd and dropped it in the middle of Kosovo," says Mr. Neligan.
"At North Quay apartments, for example we have seven university students in law, electrical engineering, economics and arts, some of whom hope to continue their studies at UCC. At Crosshaven it is all families. This has been one of the main reasons why there has been no request for repatriation in repatriation as parents are relieved that they and their children are safe and they do not want to return to a situation that is unstable at the moment."
While there has been no request to return from Dungarvan, Baltinglass or Crosshaven, a considerable number of people have returned from Waterford and Kildare, Killarney and Tralee. "It depends on their own circumstances and what the situation is back home rather than what part of the country they arrive in," Mr. Neligan axplains. "For example, one man was offered a job as a commercial accountant with the biggest bakery in Kosovo. Another who had gone into town in Kosovo to visit his brother and go to the bank ended up in a camp in Macedonia has since returned. He found out that his wife and five other children are safe in Kosovo.
"They are very cautious about returning to Kosovo because the situation is precarious," says Paul Le Desme, recently appointed settlement officer for the Cork and Kerry region. Those who want to stay beyond a period of 12 months must make an application to the Department of Justice.
"All of the Kosovans are anxious to work and provide for themselves," says Noelle Sheehy, one of the three assistant managers at Crosshaven. "Many of them are professionals and not accustomed to welfare hand-outs. Their main need is employment, this will help them integrate into the community and allow them to save money to repair or build a new house when they get back home." While some Kosovans have already got jobs in the service industry and factories the ideal would be that they would all get jobs in areas in which they are qualified.
"We are aware of the potential of exploitation because of the language barrier and we help the Kosovans assess situations if needed," says Ms. Sheehy. Mr. Neligan says that , in general, there has been no problem with exploitation. "Staff are on the look out for this," he adds.
A very generous people, staff at different cetres around the country have sampled some of the different breads made by Kosovan women. Invitations to staff to lunch and Albanian tea are a regualr occurrence, and to refuse is to insult. "They are very like Irish people in many ways; their interest in crafts and bread-making and they are always courteous, smiling and good for the craic" says Noelle. "They live in the now," or as Ekrem Stublla puts it "enjoy today because you don't know what is going to happen tomorrow".
"Their soceity is built on extended families; up to three brothers, thir wives and children, could live in houses near each other," says Mr. Neligan. "The men seem to be the decision makers and do the weekly shopping whereas the women look after the children and cook the meals," adds Noelle.
"My job is very rewarding and challenging. "We are constantly addressing their financial, health and social needs." Be it a kid's smile or a simple thank you, they give what they can give. A good spirited people, there is always a celebration - a birthday, the trip into town to play bingo or the local ceili.