He popped up while I was trying to interview somebody else, this lanky kid from Kosovo with his baseball cap turned backward, asking whether I needed a translator. He had an engaging grin. His name was Gent Prokshi; he had learned English on the Internet, he said, and by watching old John Wayne movies and Jay Leno via satellite.
He was clearly bored, looking for a way to pass a meltingly hot June day in Fort Dix, N.J., an Army Reserve post that had suddenly found itself sheltering planeloads of Kosovo refugees. And here came a flotilla of reporters toting notebooks and cameras, wondering how the newcomers felt about the possibility, after 11 weeks of NATO bombing, that peace might be at hand. Were they ready to go home? Or did they want to stay here, as they were legally permitted to do, and build new lives in America?
Hanging out with the press corps might prove more diverting than visiting the snack truck for the umpteenth time, so Gent volunteered his services. He was probably halfway to American teenhood even before he left Kosovo, this kid. Somehow he already knew that baseball caps should be turned around, that shorts should be worn three sizes too large. His English, Jay Leno should feel proud to know, was heavily accented but serviceable. Since my command of Albanian had been acquired moments before at the base's media center and consisted of "good day" and "thanks," a Kosovar interpreter seemed a handy thing to have.
So we roamed the lawn outside the brick barracks, asking people about their experiences, which were quietly horrifying, and their feelings about Slobodan Milosevic's possible withdrawal from their homeland, which were profoundly suspicious. And about their plans for the future, which were mixed.
Fort Dix had already begun to empty out, as families left for new homes provided by sponsoring organizations in Syracuse, Houston, St. Louis. For some this would mean only temporary resettlement; they vowed to return to Kosovo as soon as the fighting stopped. But other refugees confided that they'd always harbored fantasies of immigrating to the United States and now--thanks to a chance assignment in an overcrowded refugee camp in Macedonia--here they were, feeling shaken and anxious but also fortunate.
Certainly Gent, who was 14, felt that way. Over the weeks of our acquaintance, his reasons would become clearer. He and his two younger sisters, Rina and Brikena, had experienced things that children should be spared: armed soldiers ordering their family from their home in the capital, Pristina; a refugee camp crammed with the cold and hungry and frightened; another that was safer but still traumatic, where newborns and old people died around them. "I have one luck," Gent announced. "To come here."
With the war easing, "people in the camp say they will go back. But when they leave camp and see, they will never go back," he confidently predicted. Gent, it emerged, sounded confident about almost everything. "USA conditions are famous. You can have a building"--a home, he meant--"have a job, have money, be a rich man."
Life in Pristina had already semi-prepared him for this. He'd listened to Nirvana and "the Bittles," had seen "The Wizard of Oz" and read Hemingway; he was at the moment carrying a copy of "For Whom the Bell Tolls" borrowed from the base library.
Mostly, ever since he was 8, Gent had trawled the Net, first at Pristina's only cyber-cafe, then on his own prized computer, now on the candy-colored Apple iMacs in the Internet trailer at Fort Dix. He'd never heard the phrase "computer geek," but accepted it with a grin when I explained that geeks had a passion for technology and skills to match and were, therefore, about to rule the world.
Even before the war, he'd been lobbying for permission to come to the United States (he said he had cousins in New York) to study computer science. His parents had been halfway considering it despite their fears that he would lose his identity and his language. "But in my heart, I have my country," Gent insisted. "One day I would go back to Kosovo with my profession, a computer programmer."
For now, though, the thing he most wanted to see in all America was Silicon Valley.
His family's actual destination was Mechanicsburg, Pa., but even the obscure sound of that place couldn't quell his optimism. "I think it's better to go somewhere friendly," Gent had decided. "To learn this life, to see how people are." Then he intended to take off like a rocket for New York, and he didn't see why everyone at Fort Dix wouldn't follow suit.
But hadn't he said that his own family wanted to return? Well, yes. "I talk for younger people," he said. "Old people, they will go back. My father tells me, he doesn't feel himself here, as he does in Kosovo." But kids who'd grown up watching music videos and playing Quake felt otherwise.
He was oversimplifying; a number of young people at Fort Dix spoke of yearning for home. But he was hardly alone. Here came a 19-year-old in platform shoes, carrying a small boombox and one of the few belongings she'd managed to salvage from home--a Mariah Carey cassette. "That is true, young people will stay here," she agreed as Gent translated. "We have our lives. If we want to stay here, we are free."
A few days later, the rumors turned to fact: The Yugoslavian president accepted a peace agreement and people were celebrating in Pristina and Belgrade. At Fort Dix, Gent translated for his family and friends as they gathered soberly to watch CNN. The screen juxtaposed NATO officials proclaiming victory with footage of destroyed buildings and broken bodies. One old woman sobbed.
Next morning, Gent somehow located me among the milling refugees and the reporters arriving at the post and yelled a greeting. He was ready to work. The wages would be paltry: I'd pressed a $20 bill into his reluctant palm earlier in the week, compensation for several hours of interpreting, but also a lame gesture by a privileged middle-class reporter who knows that writing a story is an easy response to people's suffering. But Gent was driven less by the paycheck than by his eagerness to do anything besides stroll aimlessly. Fort Dix was in a state of suspended animation, a temporary haven; he was ready to move on.
When I left to file my story, passing Gent along to a Reuters reporter, we agreed to stay in touch by e-mail. I wanted to know what would happen to him.
By fall, after a few more months of English classes and late-night TV, I could picture him dazzling high school teachers with his dual knowledge of Kurt Cobain and Ernest Hemingway. Surely, in a few years, some decent university could find a scholarship for a kid with such initiative. Gent's goals, ambitious as they were and formed in considerable ignorance of the real America, weren't unreachable. Based in New York myself, I might one day be in a position to help him through the mysteries of SATs and college essays.
His messages over the next few weeks careered from delight that peace had come, to despair that his family's apartment had apparently been destroyed, to impatience as their departure from Fort Dix had been delayed. Finally, in late June:
Tomorrow I'll leave to Pennsylvania. After one month I'll go to the New York. Because there I have my sponsorship. He is multimillioner. He is my cousin. He promise me that he will help me to go to school. I'm so happy . . .
I hope that we shall see again. I'll keep contact with you. I promise you . . .
Mechanicsburg Among the more than 4,000 Kosovars at Fort Dix, there were probably hundreds of villagers who would have loved this old white farmhouse set among the rolling cornfields of rural Pennsylvania. Perhaps the villagers had been resettled in the Bronx.
Meanwhile, the cosmopolitan Prokshi family, accustomed to strolling to cinemas and cafes in central Pristina, was stranded outside Harrisburg in July, unable to talk to their neighbors (the language barrier) or visit a supermarket unescorted (no car). The Prokshis were at once enormously grateful--their sponsor, Tressler Refugee Services, and volunteers from a nearby church had been very attentive--and miserably isolated. Except, of course, for Gent.
Now he didn't even need a satellite to watch Jay Leno. "Big Daddy"--Adam Sandler, he meant--"was on last night," he reported. "Very funny."
My plan was to follow and report on his adventures over the next few months, which promised to be full of change. The family would shortly move to State College, Pa., joining uncles and cousins already resettled there, as soon as the sponsor found quarters. Their apartment in Pristina, a relative had called to report, was largely intact after all, though the electronics--including Gent's computer--had been looted. When NATO said it was safe, they would fly home. That's when Gent figured he'd head for New York.
The trouble with this scenario, it turned out, was the senior Prokshis. They'd once been ambivalent about Gent's pleas for a U.S. education. But somehow being here themselves, encountering America's size and foreignness, had made them more resistant. "They realize now it's not so easy to find yourself in the USA," said their social worker, Croatian-born Kathy Dubravec, who was sitting in the spotless kitchen with them, translating.
"It would be easy for Gent," mused Iljaz (pronounced ILL-yaz), 50, a journalist and prize-winning author with bifocals and flowing gray hair. "I don't say this just because he's my son, but he would be the best student in the U.S. He loves the English language."
Bahrije (ba-REE-ya) Prokshi, a handsome woman with sculpted cheekbones who is a decade younger, wouldn't hear of it. "He'll probably stay here forever if he stays the next two years," she argued. "He has to listen. He's not 15 years of age yet."
Besides, their lives would be so much better in Pristina now. Iljaz could write his articles and debate politics and culture with fellow writers in smoky cafes, without fearing arrest. The children's school would no longer maintain separate entrance for Serb and Albanian students or bar the latter from the science labs. "We'll have the freedom we never had before," Iljaz said.
Gent, wafting through the kitchen, had heard all this too often. "When I am 18 I will be a free man and do what I want to do," he groused good-naturedly. And it was true: At 18, his parents agreed, trying to be both supportive and protective, Gent could make his own decision.
For now, he seemed undaunted. There was still State College to look forward to; perhaps he might gain access to the computers at Penn State, which, he informed me, was the best college in Pennsylvania. He thought he'd stay there past New Year's at least; in the summer heat, that felt very far off.
Meanwhile, he could access the Net at Messiah College, a small Christian school a short walk away. Several present and former faculty members, recognizing in Iljaz a fellow intellectual, had taken to visiting the family, bringing newspapers, the Economist, textbooks.
They were impressed with Gent, with his education and his curiosity. "I haven't had a student in 35 years who knows as much about the world, history and science and archaeology," said Howard Landis, a retired psychology professor. "He is gifted. . . . If he were an American, he'd be operating a $200,000 business on the side while he was in high school."
Gent had similar ideas himself. His latest plan, abetted by his "cousin" Tome Paloka in New York (actually a close family friend, it turned out), was to aim for Columbia University.
Over dinner at a folksy restaurant down the road, I tried to understand why he seemed so excited about leaving everything familiar behind. It was not an easy conversation. He could prattle on happily about hackers and software (though things got less intelligible then: What was a "weeris"? It took a while to decipher the word virus.) But he struggled with abstract or personal subjects. Maybe that came with being a 14-year-old boy of any nationality.
What was it, exactly, that he cherished about computers? He just laughed at the absurd question. Didn't everyone love computers? "Some people use computer just not to tire their brain; I don't use for that," he said, shrugging. "I love computers as a language. Without computer in future, you will not do nothing." If there wasn't one available in State College, "I will buy me. If my parents can't, I will find job to buy one."
His yearning for an idealized version of the United States was even harder to explain. Though he cherished his homeland, Gent was the only member of his family not suffering homesickness. He'd actually seen very little of this country--"Army base, farms and watching TV," was his sardonic summary--yet he still wanted to be here. It wasn't earning power or politics that seemed to draw him as much as a sense of possibility. The best he could do, finally, was to form a small box with his hands. "Kosovo is all closed," he said.
For the next week or two he stayed reasonably upbeat, checking in by e-mail or phone. Then suddenly everything changed.
Though the United Nations was warning that Kosovo remained unstable and asking refugees to delay their return, the U.S. government was yielding to their insistence on going back. It announced that it would arrange to help the people who'd arrived here weeks earlier to fly home. The Prokshis told Tressler Refugee Services that they'd like to be on the first plane; instead of moving to State College, they'd join their relatives at Kennedy Airport. A general scramble began to complete the paperwork.
"Kosovo is old and things destroyed are," Gent fretted on the phone. "I don't know how it will be there. A lot of my friends went to other countries. They have no homes. It will be so difficult." Still talking about his hoped-for sponsor in New York but sounding resigned at the same time, he was, he acknowledged, "very confused. I really am just 15 and I can't do nothing but what say my parents."
It was hard to hear him so dejected. My assurances, from the vantage point of middle age, that the years until he turned 18 would fly past, were of course useless.
JFK On July 26, the first returnees began lining up at the counter of Terminal 4E hours early, a jubilant throng in T-shirts advertising various sports teams and rock stars. People told reporters how grateful they were to have been taken in, and how delighted they were to be going home. And they weren't going empty-handed: families toted huge overstuffed duffels, boxed stereos and TVs, kids' bikes. Airline workers who'd seen some of the same people arrive in May--dazed and exhausted, in some cases wounded--shook their heads at the contrast.
Gent, whose family had flown in the day before and was lodged in a nearby motel, couldn't join the celebration. His little sister had been skipping around the farmhouse, trilling about going home; his parents were elated. But he'd been in low spirits for days, his normally expressive voice a depressed monotone on the phone. He was finally confronting the fact that he was not going to enroll in an American high school, buy a computer, go to a rave party, see Silicon Valley or even Manhattan.
When Tressler Refugee director Alan Dudley and social worker Kathy Dubravec drove the family to the Harrisburg airport, "Gent looked really tired," Dudley reported. "He hadn't slept the night before. He told Kathy he had a splitting headache. In the car he didn't want to talk; he looked teary when it was time to say goodbye. He just didn't want to go." A discussion of a U.N. leaflet about avoiding unexploded land mines probably didn't bolster his spirits.
Where was he, anyway? At JFK, buses and vans began ferrying passengers from the motels, but there was no sign of the Prokshis even as the flight began boarding. Finally, they all scrambled off the very last minibus, leaving barely time to say hello and goodbye, check their few pieces of luggage, turn over their U.S. passports.
I'd brought hats from the Gap for the children; Gent's had an appropriate orange G. He clapped it on and, with a polite thank-you, turned the brim around. But he looked glum. He hadn't slept much last night, either; he'd sat up watching television.
Still, there were possibilities. "Messiah College next year or in two years will take some students from Kosovo," he reported. Maybe he could get a scholarship. Or maybe his "cousin" Tome, who knew an Albanian administrator at Columbia, could intervene. "I will come again here," he said.
They passed through the metal detector--passengers only. I watched through the glass as the family waved and then walked toward the doorway: Iljaz, in his tweed jacket, Bahrije, the girls in their bright backpacks. They were all leaving but only Gent kept turning around--twice, three times, four--and looking back.
Epilogue If there were a working computer with an Internet connection in greater Pristina, surely Gent would find it. But through the summer and into the fall, I sent e-mail but got no response, tried the phone number Iljaz had provided but couldn't get through. Meanwhile, the stories from Kosovo were grim: mass graves and destroyed housing, retribution against the remaining Serbs, people shot on the street for speaking the wrong language. I kept waiting to hear from Gent.
Finally a few weeks ago, at Tome Paloka's apartment in Queens, we placed a call to another number in Pristina and connected; it was 1:30 in the morning there, but Iljaz woke Gent up to talk. It was lovely to hear his sleepy voice.
Evidently life was a financial struggle: His father had just gotten a part-time editing job (at a wholly inadequate salary, Tome sighed later); the store his mother had managed was closed and she was unemployed.
But Gent's primary concerns, reassuringly, were a kid's concerns: He'd completed the eighth grade, interrupted by the war, and was entering "the best high school in Europe," he announced. He had some trouble studying because the power went off for hours at a time, but it was getting better. He had a radio and a small TV but couldn't pick up American programming. No Jay Leno.
And, sadly, no Internet access. "In Kosovo is open an Internet coffeehouse, a humanitarian organization opened it. But it is too expensive so nobody go there," he reported sorrowfully. There was not much to do but go to school and come home. He and his family marked his 15th birthday with a cake; not enough friends had returned to populate a party.
All in all, however, he didn't sound afraid or even terribly discouraged. Just in limbo once more. "Momentarily I'm okay," he assured me. "I will come back. I'm just waiting."
CAPTION: Kosovo refugee Gent Prokshi: "USA conditions are famous. You can have a building, have a job, have money, be a rich man."
CAPTION: Gent Prokshi with sisters Brikena and Rina in Pennsylvania. "I have one luck," he said at Fort Dix. "To come here."
CAPTION: Gent's parents, Bahrije and Iljaz Prokshi. If their son had his way, he might "stay here forever," she said.