Va. Residents Rally Around Kosovo Refugees
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, June 8, 1999; Page B1
The sticker clung to the multicolored stripes of Sejdi Krasniqi's traditional wool vest, blue letters on white marking him and the rest of his family as refugees.
Aid worker Carmen Smith spotted the gummed insignia as Krasniqi waited beside a baggage carousel yesterday at Dulles International Airport, the last stop on the way to a new life in the rolling foothills of Fauquier County.
"You're in America," Smith said, peeling off the sticker and placing it crumpled in the refugee's hand. "You don't need this anymore."
Krasniqi could only smile. It was the end of a long and brutal journey for the 36-year-old laborer, his wife, 28, their three sons, ages 4, 3 and 5 months, and a 20-year-old nephew. They had spent six weeks with long waits and little else in a Macedonia refugee camp.
The family is among only a handful of ethnic Albanian refugees from Kosovo to have settled in the Washington area since the latest war in the Balkans began, with a smattering of arrivals over the last month in Fairfax, Manassas, Springfield and Baltimore.
But a month after refugees first landed at a resettlement center in Fort Dix, N.J., local relief agencies are bracing for a wave of families seeking shelter, food and other aid, both from New Jersey and, like the Krasniqis, directly from the camps outside Kosovo.
Relatives, churches and other sponsors expect scores of refugees to arrive in Northern Virginia, suburban Maryland and the District within the next month, officials said, and more could be added at any time. Talk of impending peace in the Balkans has had no apparent impact on Kosovo resettlement efforts, which are proceeding more quickly than usual compared with other exile groups.
"We have everything ready for them," said Khanh Do, senior case manager for refugee services with the Arlington Diocese, which is preparing for the arrival of 40 people in nine families. "We just don't know when they'll get here."
Yesterday's arrivals – the first of at least four families coming through the Washington area's Church World Service chapter – came 10 days earlier than expected. And their sponsors did not learn the arrival date until Friday. The arrival of a second family was slated but was canceled yesterday with little explanation.
The rapid turnaround prompted a weekend scramble in Fauquier. The Krasniqi family is officially sponsored by Warrenton United Methodist Church and People Helping People, a local philanthropic group, but the effort attracted an exuberant cross section of volunteers from all over the county.
In the community of Casanova yesterday, Laurae Lyster-Mensh was collecting the donated diapers, goat's milk, baby formula and freshly baked cookies. At the Methodist church, the Rev. John Chadsey marveled at the furniture donated anonymously the evening before. Nearby, at the Warrenton Comfort Inn, fruit baskets and clothing were readied for the family's temporary stay.
And at the former Vint Hill Farms Station military base, representatives from local social service organizations inspected a town house to see what cleanup work needed to be done. It and other dwellings on the base soon may serve as homes for families that have had none for months.
"Oh, they're going to be in heaven," said Vangjel Prifti, a native of Albania who has lived in Warrenton for 15 years. "Heaven in the sky in the U.S.A. We're taking them from the guns of Serbs and bringing them to Warrenton."
Prifti, 80, estimates he is the only Albanian speaker in the Warrenton area and has volunteered to be the Kosovo family's escort, translator and cultural liaison. He did the same when immigrant members of his family settled in the Dale City area six years ago, though they were not coming out of wartime conditions.
A coalition of Fauquier volunteers, "Operation Shining Hope," has organized itself into 10 committees dealing with everything from housing to Muslim dietary needs, meaning there are more committees at this point than refugees. One committee, for example, has considered the reaction refugees might have to a group of Fauquier sheriff's deputies who stay at Vint Hill for reduced rates and whose uniforms and sidearms could spook a shellshocked family.
What surprised the Krasniqis yesterday was the ebullient and emotional greeting at Dulles from a dozen or so Fauquier volunteers, some of whom started crying before the family even stepped off the plane. They were showered with roses, "I Love Fauquier County" baseball caps and teddy bears, although 4-year-old Arber Krasniqi, cranky and tired from his flight, didn't want his.
Expelled from their home outside Pristina nearly two months ago, the Krasniqis were clearly weary from the chaos and uncertainty of their recent lives. They were the last passengers to leave the jet. As they shuffled along the passageway from the plane into the terminal, Prifti said in Albanian, "Come out! Come out!" But, laden with plastic and canvas grocery bags filled with personal belongings and documents, and carrying an infant son, the family only walked more slowly.
After talking with them briefly, Prifti said the family "had a bad time all the way down the line" until they got to the refugee camp, and their reaction to arriving in Virginia was bittersweet.
"I'm very happy," Sejdi Krasniqi said, "but I'm too far from home."
© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company