‘Welcome to Doncaster!” 20 years on from when town greeted hundreds of foreign refugees fleeing Kosovo War 

Hundreds of refugees were welcomed to Doncaster in the summer of 1999.
Hundreds of refugees were welcomed to Doncaster in the summer of 1999.

It was twenty years ago this year that Doncaster welcomed hundreds of foreign refugees fleeing a war-torn corner of Europe with open arms.

The summer of 1999 saw a number of mercy flights from the war-torn Balkans flying hundreds of men, women and children to the UK – and Doncaster provided a warm welcome and safe haven for many of those fleeing the fighting in Kosovo.

Kosovo Albanian refugees threw themselves into settling into the local community.

Kosovo Albanian refugees threw themselves into settling into the local community.

The 17 month conflict, which had begun in February 1998, saw the forces of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia taking on a Kosovo Albanian rebel group known as the Kosovo Liberation Army. The war claimed the lives of nearly 14,000 people and was one of Europe’s bloodiest wars of recent times.

READ MORE: Your views on Syrian refugee crisis

Yugoslav and Serb forces caused the displacement of between 1.2 million to 1.45 million Kosovo Albanians.– and Britain quickly stepped in to help bring the refugees to British shores.

In June of that year, 167 men, women and children arrived at the former RAF Finningley air base, now Robin Hood Airport, but then awaiting its fate following the closure of the air base. 

The former RAF Finningley air base became home to the refugees.

The former RAF Finningley air base became home to the refugees.

“Welcome to Doncaster!” proclaimed a huge banner in Albanian at the base’s entrance and across town, fundraising campaigns were held to raise money, food, clothes and gifts for those arriving.

Schools, offices, businesses, pubs and members of the public were all involved in collections with thousands of pounds being raised and scores of gifts donated.

READ MORE: Number of asylum seekers in Doncaster doubles

Civic leaders including Don Valley MP Caroline Flint, the then Mayor of Doncaster Margaret Robinson and Doncaster Council leader Colin Wedd were there to welcome the refugees as they settled into their new surroundings.

Big-hearted Doncaster people organised fundraising drives for the refugees

Big-hearted Doncaster people organised fundraising drives for the refugees

The mood was the same in neighbouring Barnsley – and was repeated in towns and cities across northern England who welcomed the refugees with open arms.

A Barnsley social club organised events for refugees including parties and entertainment and one organiser said: "No one's expecting them to rush off after what we've seen on the TV.”

Britain took in thousands – with regular mercy flights landing at Leeds-Bradford airport.

Some 1,600 refugees were housed in Manchester and neighbouring Salford and Trafford, as well as Liverpool, Oldham and parts of Cumbria.

Many Kosovo refugees were house at Finningley after a series of mercy flights from the Balkans.

Many Kosovo refugees were house at Finningley after a series of mercy flights from the Balkans.

Nearly 800 were housed in Doncaster at one stage and mothballed elderly people's homes in Bradford, Harrogate and Ripon were also used.

Refugees settled in "impressively well", according to organisers, youngsters were enrolled at local schools and teachers taught Albanian to welcome their new pupils.

A year later, by the year 2000, it was revealed that the majority of the Kosovo refugees in Doncaster wanted to stay in their adopted home town.

Nadr Ramadani, then 30, who was living in Scawsby with his wife and two-year-old son, applied for asylum.

Living in Serb controlled Kosovo, he fled when he was called up for the Serb army: "If I go back then I will go to prison. I want to stay here permanently," he said at the time.

READ MORE: Where is the compassion in refugee crisis?

Selmau Namani, 27, of Intake was reluctant to return because he feared that his mother Fatime, who was diagnosed with cancer shortly after her arrival, would not receive adequate medical care.

Selmau, from Pristina, said in 2000: "We are very happy here. The people in Doncaster are brilliant. Everyone makes us very welcome and they are all very helpful."