Kosovo Refugees Make U.S. Landfall
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, May 6, 1999; Page A26
FORT DIX, N.J., May 5 – Looking haggard but relieved, the first wave of ethnic Albanians who had been driven from their homes in Kosovo and then herded into camps in Macedonia arrived today at a makeshift refugee village in New Jersey.
The 453 refugees began stepping onto the tarmac at McGuire Air Force Base at 4:20 p.m. after a 12-hour flight. Many of the adults and children wore heavy parkas and wool sweaters in the fierce afternoon sun and carried small shopping bags or nothing at all. Later they were greeted by first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton and Gov. Christine Todd Whitman (R) at their new temporary home at the Army reserves training center at Fort Dix. Some jubilantly shouted: "Clinton, Clinton" and "U.S.A., U.S.A."
"The American people are very sad and very angry at what has happened to you," Clinton told the refugees. "We will not let Mr. Milosevic succeed in keeping you out of your homes."
The refugees who fled their homes to escape the forces of Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic received quick medical checkups, turkey sandwiches and new clothing upon their arrival.
This is the first phase of Task Force Open Arms, an effort to transport a total of 20,000 such refugees to the United States until they can return to their homes. These refugees show the differing faces of Kosovo. They range from well-educated college students who used to own cell phones to stooped grandmothers in head scarves, peasant skirts and sandals.
Officials stressed that the purpose of the airlift is not to bring the refugees to this country on a permanent basis.
They can apply for permanent residence in a year if they want, but most hope to return to Kosovo once NATO can ensure their safety.
One of the new arrivals, Albert Kasumaj, 19, arguably is one of the best-suited to exercise his new right to stay permanently in the United States – but he doesn't want to.
He speaks fluent English, he wears blue jeans, he likes watching Jay Leno on Kosovo television and loves nearly every American movie: "thrillers, action films, anything."
Kasumaj wants to take classes in computers or electrical engineering, the subject he was studying in Pristina before his family was expelled by Yugoslav forces and their home burned to the ground. He is pleased that he is among the first group of Kosovo refugees to depart the dirty, overcrowded camps in Macedonia.
But shortly before departing from Macedonia, Kasumaj said: "All I think about is coming back to my homeland. It will be hard to stay in the U.S.A." Still, he said, "It will be better to go there than anywhere else. We have to thank the American people."
"The good part is, we are leaving the camps. The bad part is we are even farther away from Kosovo," said Arlinda Gashi, 19, another of the refugees.
The refugees will not be allowed to stray off Fort Dix until they are ready to leave for good, but as the name of the task force suggests, officials are determined to make them feel at home.
To prepare for the refugees, military and civilian officials spent the last few days converting Fort Dix into a kind of modern-day Ellis Island, with "reception centers," prayer rooms and banners reading "Miresevini ne Amerike," Albanian for "Welcome to America." Brig. Gen. Mitchell Zais, the task force head, told his soldiers to remember the way refugees have been treated in camps in Guam and Panama, and to drive those images out of their mind.
"I told them to welcome these people to America the way we would have wanted our grandparents and great-grandparents to be welcomed to Ellis Island," Zais said.
Now the uneasy transition begins. There were 249 adults, 195 children and nine infants on the Tower Air 747 from Macedonia, most of whom had never flown before. The in-flight movies were "Mighty Joe Young" and "The X-Files." Tonight, the refugees received identification cards and were allowed to go right to sleep.
On Thursday, they will start dealing with immigration officials and settling in. At Fort Dix, the refugees will be offered English classes, free medical assistance, psychological counseling, even cultural orientation classes about driving, shopping, working and attending school in this country.
There will be no pork or alcohol in the mess halls, out of sensitivity to Muslim traditions. Red Cross officials will be on hand to help the families begin to trace their missing relatives.
One problem for officials is trying to accommodate the 50 families who are among the new arrivals. Many of the families are quite large – the largest includes 28 members. Over the next two to four weeks, officials will attempt to link up the refugees with host families.
Another group of about 400 refugees is expected to arrive Friday, followed by two more waves next week.
Correspondent Anne Swardson contributed to this report from Skopje, Macedonia.
© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company