The iconic Peabody Estate in Barbican was one of the first high-rise tower blocks in London. Opened by George Peabody in 1883, these flats must have stood as a beacon of hope for the thousands of families living in poverty during Victorian Britain. The work of Peabody, a social visionary and reformer, has influenced London’s social housing ever since. During the second world war, these flats were partly destroyed and it was decided to completely demolish them and start again when the war was over. The new blocks were opened in 1957, and it is within one of these newly built homes that I meet up with Ellie.
Ellie’s home is warm and cosy, and in the kitchen, something delicious is cooking for dinner. She greets me with a kiss and then calls her children to come and say hello to their guest. They are tall and smart, with beautiful white teeth and perfect smiles. Her son extends his hand and introduces himself, and his sister does the same. They both have the handshakes of confident young adults. Speaking in Albanian, Ellie asks her daughter to prepare some tea for us, which she does obligingly, and brings it to us as we settle down on the sofa in the living room. I am touched, and very impressed; I was definitely not this charming as a teenager.
Whilst sipping tea and eating chocolate-dipped Viennese biscuits, Ellie tells me her story.
Born in Pristina, Kosovo, in 1979, Ellie grew up in a large family, as one of seven children. She attended a local primary school, taught by Kosovar (Kosovo Albanian) teachers, where she studied in Albanian. With a long history of territorial dispute between the Kosovars and Serbs, growing political tensions began to surge in the 1990s, which is when life as Ellie knew it began to change. The Serbs gradually took over local TV and radio stations, and closed libraries, museums and theatres. Schools were forced to adopt a Serbian curriculum, and because of this, Ellie did not begin secondary school.
“We weren’t allowed to go out,” she says. “It wasn’t safe for girls.” Adults had warned her and her friends that if they were caught by Serbian police or soldiers, they couldn’t be protected against what they might do. It wasn’t much better for the boys. “They would be recruited,” she says. “They literally had to hide in their houses.”
When she was 13, Ellie and her family moved to Germany, where her father was able to find work. They stayed there for six years, but had to return to Kosovo when his contract ended. “We hoped it would be better this time,” she tells me. “But it wasn’t.”
They returned in 1997, when the political situation was approaching its climax, and a violent, armed conflict soon erupted. One of her elder sisters had already travelled to the UK, but Ellie went back to Kosovo with her family. She was 19 at the time, and her youngest sibling was only three.
One evening, just as Ellie and her family had finished their meal, soldiers burst into their home and held her father at gunpoint. They had heard that the family had been living and working in Germany, and demanded money. The reality was that they had hardly saved a penny; after all, life in Germany was enormously expensive for a family with seven children. Terrified, and defeated by fear, he handed over the equivalent of a few hundred pounds. It wasn’t enough, but it was all they had. After that, they grew to realise that they could not stay in Kosovo for much longer. “It became a matter of waiting. We knew we were going to have to leave again, but we just didn’t know when.”
One night, that moment arrived. Soldiers came and drove Kosovar people out of their houses and told them to leave the country. They had minutes to pack up their belongings and go. Trains were departing from the capital and heading for Albania, Croatia and Macedonia. Her grandfather, who was disabled, admitted defeat. He couldn’t walk, and as an old man who had lived his life, was prepared to suffer the consequences. His son refused to let him, and carried him on his back all the way to the train station. Ellie describes the chaotic scene at the station, how there were too many people and not enough room for them on the trains.
“The trains were…packed,” she says, and the horror of recalling this memory flashes across her face. “There were people everywhere, and we all got separated. You didn’t even know where the train you were on was heading.”
It was at this point that she lost her parents and siblings. She ended up boarding a train to Macedonia with her now husband and his brother. She didn’t know where the rest of her family had gone or if she’d see them again. She was one of approximately 800,000 Kosovo Albanians to flee their homes, according to The New York Times. Between 7000 and 9000 of the ones who stayed, were later killed.
For a moment, I think about what I was doing in 1998. I was going to the cinema every Saturday for weeks on end to watch Titanic and Armageddon, and crying about Geri Halliwell leaving The Spice Girls. As a nation, we were still mourning the death of Princess Diana and the world was busy gossiping about the private lives of Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky. To my shame, I knew nothing about what was happening in Kosovo.
Ellie stayed in a refugee camp in Macedonia for 10 days, in a tent. She doesn’t elaborate on this detail, but the look on her face says it all. After this 10 day stay, it was the British who came to her rescue. People from the Red Cross came and flew them to the UK. I ask her if she had wanted to come here, or what their plan was after that. She looks at me with a slight absurdity. “It was a matter of saving your life. We didn’t know what was going to happen next.”
Her next sentence is probably the most poignant of everything she tells me, and it’s something that everyone here in the west needs to hear. “We never thought we’d stay here. We wanted to go back. When it was all over, we really thought we’d be going back.”
When Ellie, her husband and his brother arrived in the UK, they spent a few days in a hostel while they filled out the paper work to be officially logged as refugees, and through the Red Cross, they tracked down her sister who was living in London. They stayed with her for a few days, but she lived in a bedsit and there wasn’t room for them all. Eventually, the housing office found accommodation for them in Bournemouth, so they relocated to the south coast.
“It was very hard,” she explains. “I didn’t know the language, I hadn’t been to school, I didn’t know anybody here. It was very lonely.”
Through the Red Cross, she attended an English language course at college and eventually found work as a housekeeper in a hotel. She learnt English quickly; there were no Albanian translators in that part of the country, so she was forced to communicate in any way she could.
After three months of living in the UK, she eventually had contact from her parents to say they were living in Sweden. Her grandfather and uncle had ended up in Finland. They had all made it. They had survived. However, it would be another five years before she would see them again.
At 21, she became pregnant and was allowed to move back to London to be near her sister. The conflict continued in Kosovo for another few years, but meanwhile, she was building a new life for herself here. She couldn’t put it on hold forever. She and her husband applied for a permanent residency and were granted permission to stay.
After the birth of her second child, Ellie decided that she needed to do something for herself. She wanted a career and to make her own money. She went back to college to study hair and beauty, with the intention of working at home around her family. One day in 2011, her college tutor, who also owned his own salon, had a staffing crisis and Ellie stepped in to help him out. At the salon, they loved her and offered her a permanent job. It was in this salon, around the corner from my house, that I first met her.
The conflict in Kosovo ended on 11th June 1999, but it was several years after this that Ellie went back for the first time, at the age of 26, with her children. She wanted to teach them about their roots and share the story of her tremendous journey.
“Going home was incredibly emotional, but amazing; to hear my language being spoken, to listen to Albanian music and see local shops reopened. It was completely different to how I remembered it. The people were so friendly, and made us all feel welcome.”
As nostalgic as it was, there was very little there for them anymore. Her family now lived around the world, and back in London, they had friends and jobs, and their children were going to school. Time had moved on, and she had made a new life for herself and her family.
I ask her, today, what makes her happy. Her first reaction is to tell me that it’s her children. Her children make her happy and proud every day. Her son, aged 16, is doing his GCSEs this year and is on track to get A grades. He wants to go into medicine or to be an engineer. He sometimes asks his mother what she wants him to do, but all she wants is for him to be happy. Her daughter, now 13, plays piano and loves drama and performing arts. She’s considering this as a career, but she has some other options in the pipeline too.
“She talks a lot,” her mum says with a smile. “I think she’d make a good lawyer. She’d win every time.”
After further consideration, Ellie thinks of something else that makes her happy. “We survived,” she says in disbelief. “All of my family survived. I can’t ask for anything more than that.”