'It's like a moral duty': The local Albanian Heritage Club teaching children cultural identity

By Emily Dalton

7th Jan 2024 | Local Features

Albanian Heritage Club. (Photo: Gjurmë Iliriane)
Albanian Heritage Club. (Photo: Gjurmë Iliriane)

For two hours every Sunday morning, children between four and 12 freely attend White House Community Centre in Hampton and learn about their Albanian heritage. 

Project 'Gjurmë Iliriane', meaning 'footprint of ancestors of Albania, aims to provide a weekly sessions for children to learn the Albanian language and culture delivered by skilled language teachers and trained volunteers. 

 "I chose the name because it goes back to history, there are very strong links to the UK," explains local mum and club founder Sanda Eglite. 

"The footprint essentially symbolises the [different] paths our families, friends and neighbours have taken...to reach settlement in the UK," she adds. 

Albanian Heritage Club. (Photo: Project Gjurmë Iliriane)

Sanda moved from Latvia to the Central London in 2005 and then later married an Albanian man. When she and her partner first moved to Hampton with their three daughters, she explains she "didn't know anyone" but felt a "special connection" with the Albanian community. 

There are approximately 300 Albanian families in the borough. 

"I got to know local neighbours and community, and there are so many Albanian families, and they were welcoming to myself as a young mum and our family altogether," Sanda said. 

Describing the Albanian tradition of hospitality and culture, she said it "warmed up her heart". 

Although Sanda is not native to the country herself, she believes strenuously in the importance of Albanian cultural identity.

"These are the traditions that need to be passed to children who are born in Albanian families here in UK but are British citizens," she says. "They need to know where they come from, so I thought it would be a great opportunity that living in Hampton, living in Richmond, living in London, to create that safe environment who are the future of Albanians or any other ethnic community growing up." 

Hospitality means a great deal to every single Albanian family and has been embedded in the country's tradition for centuries. 

The concept of Besa, the Albanian code of honour, translates as "to keep the promise". In practise, Besa means taking care of those in need, protecting them, and being hospitable to everyone you have given your promise to. 

Bilingual books. (Photo: Gjurmë Iliriane)

Participating in sensory language learning activities, children learn the Albanian alphabet, read a bilingual story and develop communication skills in circle games.   

Using blended learning techniques, children learn Albanian history and heritage through recreating significant events, making flags and dancing. 

Part of a mixed-heritage household herself, Sanda hoped Gjurmë Iliriane would provide the opportunity to educate children of Albanian descent about their traditions.  

While researching the cultural needs for children and ethnic minorities in the borough, Sanda was conscious of the media's negative emphasis put on immigrants. "Children as young as primary school age [were] being called out for being Albanian or [told] their parents were criminals," Sanda says. "Just because of what was circulating in the media." 

Experiencing media negativity and witnessing other parents lack of confidence in the community, she says it "[drove] me to see what the resources opportunities to provide a safe environment for these children". 

Sanda remembers feeling anxious watching the Home Secretary on TV, wondering whether her nationality was welcome and "still in the UK". Now, with Project Gjurmë Iliriane, Sanda says "No, we are part of the UK. We are showing our work, we are taking action." 

"We are looking after children in the community who are ancestors of Albanian people," Sanda explains. "They are very overlooked." 

"It is like a moral duty for us, that is why we do what we do." 

Admitting there is "still some uncertainty in dealing with [negativity]", Sanda explains the project focuses on the positives. "I think that gives us the current success we are known for," she says. 

Albanian Heritage Club. (Photo: Gjurmë Iliriane)

Launching a pilot in May 2023 from a fundraiser, the Gjurmë Iliriane achieved remarkable success in providing cultural education for 84 children and an investment of £5K from the Civic Pride Fund. 

The group have developed one year's worth of cultural education plans that Sanda says can be adapted to any ethnic community. 

Each term will deliver a focus theme and each session will include set elements to support the theme.  

Using blended learning techniques, the club adapts teaching to the different child's requirements: whether it be based on language or special needs. "We have evolved in supporting the different needs of children, ensuring it is very sensory in all aspects of learning," Sanda explains. "Children learn language and vocabulary and literacy through music and literacy through different sensory activities." 

Every child will have a personal scrapbook to save their learning milestones and work, allowing them to reflect on their learning and achievements as they progress. 

Albanian Heritage Club. (Photo: Project Gjurmë Iliriane)

Sanda says the support from the local community, including Richmond Council, has been "mind-blowing". But, she emphasizes the money will run out and then they will "need to show [their] work". 

Local Albanian businesses have been supporting financial aspects in meeting the rent costs. "We do have some amazing local Albanian businesses if you look at Teddington, Hampton high street," Sanda says. "Every single coffee shop and restaurant, building and construction business has contributed. 

"Not only have they said 'Can I sign up my child' but 'What help do you need?' I say 'We need books, printers and we need to pay our rent'?" 

Parents can follow the group online and register their child of they express interest in the scheme. In mid-December, there was up to 114 children already registered.  

Speaking of her hopes for 2024, Sanda says there is a "good prospect" for expansion, especially to secondary school children. She adds: "We are reaching out to partners [like the Albanian Embassy and other schools] to see how the project could be supported. We are not just depending on the funds." 

The class is now full for the January term, but parents can once again register interest for September 2024. Follow the group on Facebook, Instagram, or on the website

What's the biggest difference between British and Albanian culture? "Togetherness," Sanda says with some hesitation. She explains that in the UK there is an immediate need to provide, "culture and identity is secondary". 


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