Just before the war, my sister and I were sent to my uncle's because it was getting dangerous.
Elton, a young ethnic Albanian had just about had enough. Fear, humiliation and the total lack of any future prospects had left him, at the age of 16, at the lowest point in his life. As each day passed, the threat of a full-scale invasion increased. It felt as though a “great darkness” was just over the northern horizon, and was coming closer.
Elton says: “Just before the war, my sister and I were sent to my uncle’s because it was getting dangerous. After our house was burnt down and my parents were taken away and presumably killed, I came to the conclusion they were helping the Kosovan Liberation Army.
“I was scared and so was everybody else”, said Elton. “We all knew the Serb army and the militias would come eventually. My uncle said that he was going to leave Kosovo, too, and that he would bring my sister with him.”
I bought a passage to Italy on one of the scores of Mafia-operated speedboats.
Elton left Kosovo on 11 December 1998. He spent many days on the dangerous roads, avoiding the murderous bandit groups that preyed on the travellers, before reaching the Adriatic coast, where he bought a passage to Italy on one of the scores of Mafia-operated speedboats.
From Italy, he travelled by bus and train across France and Belgium. By now he was broke and starving, and had joined up with some other refugees waiting for their chance to cross by ferry to England.
We looked for a suitable truck with right-hand drive and we forced our way inside the heavy cover.
“We looked for a suitable truck with right-hand drive,” he said, “and we forced our way inside the heavy cover. We had no idea where we were going, and after a long sea-crossing, we were on the road for about 12 hours.”
“I’ll never forget the look on the face of the driver when he pulled back the cover, and saw a whole bunch of guys jumped out the back and running like hell. He just stood there with his mouth open, the poor guy.”
“The city we had arrived at was York. But I never found out its name for a long time. And I had no idea exactly where it was. But it would do. That day I just walked into the nearest police station and gave myself up. They put me in a nice warm cell for the night and gave me my first hot meal in days. They were very kind to me.”
The city we had arrived at was York. But I never found out its name for a long time.
When Elton arrived in England in January 1999, the war in Kosovo had not yet begun, so he was not regarded as a bona fide refugee. He should have been classified as an economic migrant and sent smartly home. But in Yorkshire they admire pluck above all other things. Many rules were bent by a friendly police force and a group of social workers who took him under their wing.
People were always wonderful to me, Policemen, Social Workers, Council Officials. Everybody.
“People were always wonderful to me,” he said. “Policemen, social workers, council officials. Everybody. I cannot tell you how grateful I feel to this country and its people. But when I told them of my plans to be a boxer, they just laughed. I guess they thought I was crazy. But one guy did take me seriously and brought me a book about the career of Prince Naseem Hamed. I was fascinated by his style of boxing and his great self-confidence.”
“Then I noticed the name of the place where he had been taught to fight as a child, a club in Sheffield. I took a bus to Sheffield and just knocked on the door of St Thomas’ Boys and Girls Club.”
“I expected them to tell me to clear off, but they just opened the door and told me to come in. I looked around and saw all those kids banging away at punchbags, skipping to the music and sparring in the ring. It felt like coming home.”
When I saw him move about the gym I knew right away he was the real thing.
At St Thomas’, Elton met Brendan Ingle, a Dublin-born former professional boxer who had been taking in the waifs and strays of Sheffield for more than 30 years. Ingle remembers: “The first time I saw Elton, I knew right away that he had absolutely everything it needed. He just rolled up here, barely able to speak English, with no home, no job, no money, no friends, no country – and asked me to give him a chance.”
“When I saw him move about the gym I knew right away he was the real thing. It takes only a few seconds to make that judgement. As the weeks went by I realised he was even better than that. I realised that this was a future world champion.”
I spent most of my time studying and visiting lawyers' offices to translate for other Kosovars facing deportation.
Elton trained with Ingle and progressed brilliantly. He was licensed as a lightweight fighter by the British Boxing Board of Control on his 18th birthday in November 2000. At around the same time he received a letter from the Home Office, informing him that he had been refused asylum and would be deported. He appealed.
He had led an exemplary life in Sheffield, reporting to the local police station each month, continuing to improve his life skills. He had been studying, visiting lawyers’ offices to translate for other Kosovars facing deportation and fighting for his future at the gym until late in the evening.
Elton’s asylum application was repeatedly refused until, after years of struggle, he was eventually granted asylum.
In Kosovo, I was Albanian, Kosovan and a Muslim. Here, no one cares what I am. I'm Tony, I'm a boxer.
In 2001, in an interview with The Telegraph, Elton said: “I came to this country because of the trouble − because I was scared. The police were going to every house, searching for guns, beating people up in the street. In Kosovo, I was Albanian, Kosovan and a Muslim. Here, no one cares what I am. I’m Tony, I’m a boxer.
“I’m trying to make a life for myself here, boxing and studying. I want to make war in the ring and have peace out of it. The difference from being killed there and a world champion boxer and a lawyer in this country is so great it’s hard to contemplate.”
Until 2006 Elton boxed professionally under the name Tony Montana, borrowed from a character in the movie Scarface. He said: “Like me, Tony Montana was a refugee who arrived in the US with only the clothes he was wearing,” said the fighter. “Unlike Scarface, I don’t sell drugs – but I do share his determination to get to the top.”
Elton now has his own family, is a qualified accountant and translator for the Sheffield asylum and refugee centre. However, he is still unsure what happened to his parents, or his sister and uncle, who paid for the taxi that took him to the Macedonian border before the onset of the bloody conflict.
References used: James Dalrymple – Independent, Gareth A Davies – The Telegraph,
Anna Chapman – The Guardian