London lives: the Albanian barrister
Brikena Muharemi tells Time Out how she fled persecution and war in Kosovo to take A levels in Southend and become a successful London lawyer.
Albanians have not had the best press in recent years. Tales of people-trafficking and drug-smuggling do little to dispel the idea that every Albanian is a gun-toting gangster. Thankfully, softly spoken Brikena Muharemi, 27, dissolves these stereotypes the moment you meet her. A barrister, she is one of the estimated 10,000 Albanians who have made London their home following the tensions and bloody war in her native country of Kosovo.
Muharemi’s home town, Mitrovica in northern Kosovo, was a flashpoint for the inter-ethnic tensions between Serbs and ethnic Albanians that have riven the region for centuries, and life growing up under Serb leader Slobodan Milosevic was one of persecution for the Kosovan Albanians. ‘The situation was very difficult in Kosovo,’ says Muharemi. ‘Albanian secondary schools and the university were closed. We had to study in people’s homes, with one person standing outside to watch for the police. Albanian teachers were beaten up if they were found to be teaching. Life in Kosovo was lived constantly under fear. At one point it just became part of everyday life.’
It was to escape this situation that Muharemi left Kosovo in 1995, after gaining a place to do A-levels at a school in Southend, where her uncle was already living. ‘The first challenge was the language. I thought everyone was talking too fast because in Kosovo we were used to US films with American accents.’
Muharemi had just passed her A-levels and was preparing to return home when war broke out there in 1998. ‘My family told me it was dangerous and not to come back. I had already booked the tickets, and was terribly upset about the thought of not returning.’ She was eventually granted asylum, and her family joined her in 1998. ‘We were lucky because a lot of families were ripped apart during the war.’
Muharemi went on to study law at Westminster University, becoming the only student in her year to gain a First. She took up a law scholarship at Lincoln’s Inn, undertook a pupillage in Leeds and was finally called to the bar in 2003. She now lives in Clapham and has her own practice, specialising in criminal and civil work. ‘It’s an old profession, with admirable principles and it’s a privilege to be part of it.’ Even the archaic gown and wig have their charm. ‘We don’t have that in Kosovo. I wore a wig last year in the Crown Court. I liked wearing it – although it’s hard when you are hot.’
Although her work means she has little time to socialise, she is involved in the Albanian community here through her work as secretary of the Anglo-Albanian Association. The association lays on food, music and speeches every November 28 to celebrate one of the most important festivals in the Albanian year, Albanian Independence Day, which marks independence from the Ottoman Empire in 1912. She is also a member of acclaimed group Exiled Writers Ink, which comprises refugee writers and journalists and is based at the Poetry Café in Covent Garden.
Other pockets of Albanian culture can be found at the music shop Illyria, which sells traditional and pop CDs, including those by bands such as Votra and Jeton – Albania’s answers to the Arctic Monkeys. And authors such as Ismail Kadare, winner of the 2005 Man Booker Prize, are increasingly popular here and several Albanian painters are making waves.There is no ‘little Albania’ as yet (though Haringey has the largest concentration of Albanians) and most of Muharemi’s compatriots tend to meet at one of the handful of Albanian restaurants around the capital.
She says Alba in Kilburn does a mean qebapa (beef roll made with cheese). ‘Albanian food is similar to British food in some ways – it revolves around bread and pies.’ West London restaurant Era serves up fli, like Cornish pasties but with no filling, as well as sarma, made with cabbage and rice.Other big celebrations are Christmas and Eid. Like most Albanians, Muharemi is Muslim. ‘Originally Albanians were Catholics, but had Islam imposed on them under the Ottoman Empire. Consequently our religious identity is a bit undefined. We have no problem celebrating both Christian and Muslim festivals.’ Muharemi visits Kosovo regularly. ‘Every time I go back things have changed for the good. A lot of lawyers from all over the world have gone to help rebuild the legal system there. That would be interesting if I had an opportunity to do the same.’
But she will always have a strong bond with London. ‘Now I am a British citizen, that’s how I see myself. I’m aware of where I grew up. I won’t forget it, but at the same time I’m part of where I live and contribute to that.’ And she is positive about her experiences here. ‘I’ve developed a lot and learned a lot and I’ve been accepted here. For me, London is a place of opportunities that gives a chance to people who want to realise their ambitions.’
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