Ethnic Albanian Kids Want School in Refugee Camp

They've been displaced from their homes. Gunfire explodes nearby. But ethnic Albanian children in this refugee camp have an even more immediate concern: They want to go to school.

Round a bend in Kosovo's central mountains they play soccer on the lush hillside, framed by trees under the midday sun. When their teacher calls, they tumble into class, a gangly mass of arms, legs, clothes, and hair.

But any normalcy ends there.

The school is rectangular hut, 40 feet long, made from tree branches over a frame covered by clear plastic sheeting. Children sit on a wooden plank or the bare earth that serves as a floor.

There are no books, writing pads, pencils, or lunch boxes. The teacher stands in the middle, talking or asking questions as the air inside becomes humid and musty from the sun beating down on the plastic covering.

"They learn very well, but when they hear shooting, their minds leave the classroom," sighs Heset Qelaj, who started the school this month in the ethnic Albanian refugee camp.

Over the past few months, about 3,000 refugees fleeing the Serbian military and police offensive across Kosovo have settled in a mountain gully above Kisna Reka village.

Ninety percent of Kosovo's 2 million inhabitants are ethnic Albanians, and most want independence from Serbia, Yugoslavia's dominant republic.

Hundreds of people have been killed this year in the crackdown on separatists, and hundreds of thousands more have fled their homes to escape the violence.

As word of the refugees' arrival in Kisna Reka spread, relief supplies arrived, including food, clothes, and materials for shelters.

But the children got bored with playing in mud puddles left by tire tracks and soon a group of 10-year-olds asked Mr. Qelaj, who has been a teacher in Kisna Reka for 30 years, if he would hold classes.

"The children know I am a teacher and they wanted to learn," he said after dismissing a class. "They asked me to teach them."

Within days, more than 100 of the refugee children were coming for three hours in the early afternoon for classes in Albanian language, math, and other subjects.

Two other teachers help Qelaj supervise and teach, with separate classes held in each half of the school hut. A blue sign over the door says "Survival School," or better, "School of Hard Knocks."

Kushtrin Rexhiqi, a boy with bright green eyes, says he likes going to class because it gives him something to do other than simply play.

"It's OK here," he says as his friends gathered around to watch him talking with a reporter, "But my old school back in the village was better."

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