Luljeta arrived in Britain in 1999. She came via Italy and France, and it cost her and her husband £8,000. But she didn’t fly in first-class. She arrived in Portsmouth in the back of a truck with 50 other people from all over the world. Her home in Albania had been burnt to the ground.
She and her husband paid the money to an “agent” they’d never met before. “You are in their control,” she says. “You are their property”. Five months pregnant, and with a daughter aged two-and-half in tow, she and her husband fled the Serbs. They were aiming for America.
When they got to Portsmouth, the police were great, she says. With no fuss, they took everyone out of the truck and gave them sandwiches and coffee. She liked the police. Then social services arrived. The police told her to go with them and they would help look after the child. Luljeta refused; she had never heard of social services, and no one in Albania offered anything for free. She didn’t trust them, so she went to London with three other Kosovan families from the back of the lorry. “OK,” said the social worker, “good luck.”
The relatives of the Kosovans did know about social services. Luljeta got in touch, but was ping-ponged between two east London boroughs for weeks, for reasons no one ever quite explained. Eventually, they got a one-bedroom flat and she gave birth four months later. They had been given £70 for furniture. She spent £8 of it on a dictionary. Social services had told her they could only pay for English lessons for her children.
So she found her own language course in Upton Park. She had managed to save £22, but the college told her it was free for refugees and asylum seekers. If we want people to feel able to integrate, engage and aim for citizenship, then helping them learn English would always be a good start.
But social services didn’t seem to have twigged on to that. They moved her and her family again – with the very best of intentions, but the worst of results. Because she now had two children, the flat wasn’t big enough, so social services moved her several miles away, but omitted to tell her that she could change colleges too.
So she made two-hour trips to the original college, until one day, through a conversation with a neighbour, she found her real stepping stone in a project called Ramp – the Renewal Refugee and Migrant project. “Voluntary work saved my life,” she says simply. She made friends, changed her solicitor so she didn’t have to travel miles, greatly improved her English, and started to work. Finally, her confidence grew.
Luljeta and her family were first refused the right to stay in 2001. She spent a year in limbo, frightened, unsettled, anxiously waiting for the post every day, hoping for a change on appeal. Then, in 2003, the government declared an amnesty for Kosovans. She was still working at Ramp, and one day saw an ad on the noticeboard at work for the School for Social Entrepreneurs. She applied, got in and decided to use her time there to set up an Albanian refugee centre. And that’s what she’s done.
Her survival in the UK is because she’s a very determined woman, but her dictionary seems to have been more use to her than social services. She is very gracious about them, but let me make the points for her: people who arrive as cargo probably won’t hand over themselves or their kids, even if you are a social worker.
Services may exist in theory, but if we don’t join the dots for the Luljetas of the world, a refugee in Britain might as well be Alice in Wonderland for all the help those services will be. Social services acted for Luljeta, but it wasn’t until she got to Ramp and found her confidence that she started to act for herself.
Fortunately, Luljeta burns very brightly. Six years ago, she arrived cold and poor and without English. Now she runs the Shpresa programme. You won’t be surprised to know that Shpresa, in Albanian, means hope.
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