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CRISIS IN YUGOSLAVIA

School Helps Ground Uprooted Children

Relief: Classrooms in tents, and recess in the mud, give young refugees in Albania a respite from pain.

April 20, 1999|MARC LACEY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

KUKES, Albania — It easily could have been another frightful image from a conflict that already has produced so much despair: 32 ethnic Albanian children marching through a muddy field with their hands up, as if they were surrendering.

But then the man leading the children Monday started walking duck-footed. A few steps later, he was pigeon-toed. He flapped his arms. He spun around madly. And everything he did, the children--roaring with laughter--did behind him.

The scene was actually a rare glimmer of hope: recess time in a makeshift school for refugees. The School of Peace--a series of tents set up next to one of Albania's most densely populated refugee camps--is a break from war, an effort by international relief workers to replace burning and bombing with mathematics and milk.

Conditions, of course, are not ideal. Fifty-two second-graders crowd into one tent for math class. Textbooks do not exist. Classroom chatter includes talk of bodies, burned houses and lost relatives.

But the very fact that 800 children now get up in the morning--albeit in tents--and head off to school--in another tent--signals that their uprooted lives are finding some solid ground.

"Before school started, I didn't do anything," said Vlora Ademi, 14, a seventh-grader from central Kosovo, the war-torn Serbian province in neighboring Yugoslavia that the refugees fled. "I used to always think about my house and how they burned it down."

With no signs that the ongoing NATO airstrikes will allow Kosovo's ethnic Albanian families home soon, authorities are scrambling to find ways to get refugee children out of the camps and into class.

"It's not that complicated at first," said Sybille Gumucio, an education specialist with the British-based Children's Aid Direct who is working to get more students into school. "You need a teacher and a tent."

But the numbers are staggering. Authorities estimate that roughly half of the 340,000 refugees who have crossed the border into Albania over the past month are younger than 15--and losing out on their education every day the Kosovo conflict continues.

Albanian government officials have committed to finding classroom space in regular schools for those refugee children now staying in private homes. For camp dwellers, UNICEF helped create a school for 300 refugee children in the Albanian capital, Tirana, and is working with other groups to get more classrooms up and running.

"How do you measure distance?" Fadil Misini asked his third-graders Monday morning at the school here, which was created by an Italian relief group.

"We use a meter!" a young boy shouted back.

"What is the smallest measure?" Misini asked.

"Centimeters!" someone yelled.

"No, millimeters!" said another.

Eager and engaged, the children shot their hands in the air when Misini asked for a volunteer. At break time, they scrambled out the tent flap, slipped on the sneakers and boots lined up neatly at the entrance and created the same din heard in every schoolyard.

"It is so important for them to be there that I can't express it in words," said Misini, 31. "They've suffered. They've traveled so far. The most important thing right now is for them to have fun."

Misini knows what they've been through.

The school's teachers come from nearby refugee camps. Misini and the other instructors live in tents just as the children do, and he's seen what they've seen.

Those awful images come out in class. The older children have written essays about their journeys and their lives in the tent cities--depressing accounts of things children usually do not see.

"By bad luck I am here in Kukes," wrote one girl, Shqipe Halili. "Coming here was very dangerous. We saw many police officers and soldiers along the side of the road. During my journey, I also saw a dead body by the road."

In another essay, Vlora Kamberi said: "We have lost everything. We have lost our relatives. Many people in our village are killed. The life here is a very sad life."

Getting those experiences out--whether through the pictures that young children draw with crayons or the detailed written accounts offered by the older children--is an important part of the healing process, experts say.

Just as important as the activities inside the classroom, however, are the schoolyard antics that go on in the mud outside.

"Play has a therapeutic value," said Pilar Aguilar, who has helped UNICEF set up schools in Rwanda and other crisis spots around the world. "It eliminates trauma and stress. When they're running and yelling and having fun, they're enjoying life for a change."

*

Many charities are accepting contributions to help refugees from Kosovo. The list may be found at http://www.latimes.com/kosovoaid.

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