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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Hey jam GÃ«zimi nga Kosova kam ndegju shum fjal te mira per ty vetem perpara se ma e mira je bravooooo
Hey, You may not remember me and you many not get this message, but anyway. Im Elvis Krasniqi, son of Rasim Krasniqi and Fexhrije Krasniqi and I live in Colchester. My parents were very close friends to your uncle Qamil. Well all I wanted to say is well done for everything you have accomplished. You have been such an inspiration to me, and Albanians in general. p.s My family still has the poetry book you gave us, the one with the picture of you on it.
hey brikena. i would just like to now what school you went to in southend? thank you. i hope you have a very successful future.
Brikena has been a big inspiration to me. I have just graduated with a first in law for which I am very proud of. I am going to persue my Legal Practice Course and hopefully be a successful solicitor too. Just want to say a big thank you to Rebbecca and I wish all the Albanians the very best for the future.
Brikena has been a big inspiration for me. I have just graduated with a first in law for which I am very proud of. I am going to persue my Legal Practice Course and hopfully be a successful city solicitor too. Just want to say a big thank you to Rebbecca for the article. I wish all the Albanians the very best for the future.
Please, does anyone have the addresss for the Anglo-Albanian Association? I would like to join Thanks again J
well speachless I wish and I hoppe my doughter will follow your steps well done proud to be albanian
With high respect to Brikena Muharremi This is absolutely amazing what she has achieved in her life. She has planed sa early as possible what her mission in her life will be. Well done, the community is thrilled by youâ€™re honour.
Best wishes to Brikena in her career and many thanks to Rebecca for detailed article about Albanian community! As Rebecca says, lots of Albanian students and post-graduates are gathering around a handful Albanian cafes and bars in London. We are a group of students and socialites that gater in weekends at well-known Zigzag Bar Cafe @366, Forest Road, Walthamstow, London,E17 5JF. Should you be interested to join our club, please do not hesitate to contact us on 07970278805.
Achieving something of the level which Brikena has achieved in such a short space of time is something that should inspire all of us. As one may be aware English Bar is an elite and is regarded as one of the most prestigious institutions not only in the UK but also in the world, and being accepted to be part of this elite is the greatest achievement that one could accomplish. So well done to Brikena, she is an ambassador of Kosova in England and I am sure that she will be inclined to promote not only the rights of the citizensâ€™ but also the image of Albanians over in the UK. Us Albanians should all strive to follow Brikenaâ€™s footsteps and achieve similar culmination of success and contribute not only to our country but also to the UK, the country in which we are living. This is the only way in which we as Albanians can demonstrate to the world who we really are. Rebecca, this article made interesting reading and it is well deserved. Keep up the good work Rebecca, and every success to Brikena. Te lumte.
Dear Rebecca, I want to thank you for the article and i am very greatful for Brikena's achievements. As an Albanian i am very delighted to hear good things about Albanians because I am sure that there are lots of good Albanian people out there, aiming to do well and give a good name to the Albanian Community.
Dear Rebecca Taylor, Thank you for this article,its an uplift to our community, this was very nice to hear what thought one strangers about the albanian intelektuals thanks again from heart Rebeca...!! huge kiss to you ,,Ertrit
Dear Rebecca Thank you very much for the lovely article, you have not only displayed the great values of Brikena, but also the values of all the Albanians, which is very nice to hear! I would leave modesty in one side when I say that us Albainans, are very smart and determined in our lives, i know alot of highly educated Albanians here in UK, which are a great benefit to our comunity and also a great benefit to the UK, but sadly most of the times (exluding your article), the media tends to pass only negative information about us Albanians! Please let me thank you once again for your beautiful work! Luan Zyka
Dear Rebecca, Thankyou for this article, this is a great article to show the intellectual level of our community as we have been looked down by other communities. What Miss. B. Muharremi has achieved in such short time is a mirror/example for Albanian Community. But i would like to read more publication as there are many other intelectuals with academic achievements.
Dear Rebbecca, First let me thank you for this article. I congratulate Brikena in her achievements as well. This is the one of the good Albanians you have met, I am sure that there is more Albanian intellectuals placed the Diaspora. Beti
dear rebecca, thank you for this article, this brings me a step nearly to my community , and it was perfectly elaborated.I would like to see more often these kind of publications.
Dear Rebecca, I am very grateful to you for pointing towards the goodness of the Albanians in London, instead of the usual criminal chronicle. Brikenaâ€™s achievements are inspiring for all what most of us aspire, regardless of the professional field, to achieve academically and professionally. Now days, there are Albanians who work as fund managers at global city companies such as INVESCO, there are architects, teachers researchers, aeronautics and other professionals in many other different disciplines. Once again, thank you very much indeed. Alban Bytyqi