Kujtim Latifi, a refugee from the war in Kosovo, spent a month in Macedonia in an overcrowded tent swimming in mud, with no way to contact anyone and no access to news of home. He came to America carrying little but anxiety about the fate of his relatives and his town.
But during the past month, on an iMac personal computer inside a vanilla-colored trailer here, the 17-year-old has been receiving e-mail from family--comforting messages sent by his uncle, Selami Latifi, 43, also in exile, thousands of miles away.
"We have had very good hospitality in Finland . . . and it's filled with lakes and greenery--nice fields for walking," Kujtim said, smiling as he translated his uncle's e-mail.
Officially known as the Kosovar Refugee Internet and Technology Assistance Initiative, this public-private partnership led by the State Department's U.S. Information Agency (USIA) is providing free Internet and e-mail access to refugees of the Kosovo conflict.
This mundane trailer, furnished only with folding tables, chairs and 12 donated purple and orange computers, has quietly ushered in a new age. Wars have always created refugees, who almost by definition have remained poorly connected to their homeland. Now, refugees are staying in touch with news of home as never before.
And because repatriating the refugees will take several months, similar facilities remain open or are scheduled to open soon to serve thousands of Kosovo Albanians at camps and temporary resettlement areas in France, Germany, Poland, Albania and Macedonia. The operation at Fort Dix is expected to wind down soon, with the computer equipment being moved to these cyber centers, and to seven new ones slated to open in Kosovo beginning in August.
The cyber-center project was dreamed up by Jonathan Spalter, the 36-year-old head of the USIA's Information Bureau, the 400-strong team that disseminates the U.S. government's policy on issues, including the war in Kosovo. But, as Spalter points out, the trailer brings news from any site on the Web, everything from Albanian television and Serbian outlets to USIA's own Voice of America and Radio Free Europe.
By law, USIA is responsible for providing news to "captive populations," so when the war began in March, Spalter began searching for ways to see to the refugees' "informational needs."
"I learned from one of our diplomats in Macedonia that whenever he would walk into a camp with his cell phone, refugees would just run over to him and ask him to use it," Spalter said. "Driving to work one day, I realized, My God! What if we were to put in 'Internet centers' at the camps."
Spalter, along with Nancy Ozeas, Information Bureau chief of staff, and Tom Becherer, an advisor, worked up the plan, and Spalter flew to Geneva to talk with the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees to see if Internet communication for the refugees might complement relief efforts.
"He liked the idea," Spalter said, "and then we were up and running."
USIA expects to spend less than $100,000 on the project. So far, equipment and services valued at more than $1.5 million have been donated. At Fort Dix, Apple Computer Inc. provided the dozen iMacs and one top-of-the-line G3 server. Bell Atlantic Corp. provides free Internet service.
"What this does is show that we can get public-private partnerships to work--to do things together, and not always get the taxpayer to bear all the costs," Spalter said.
Most refugees have never surfed the Web, or in some cases even seen a computer. But, coached by David Zweigel, the USIA computer specialist who has managed the facility since it opened in May, and by a few assistants and a handful of computer-savvy refugees, many are spending hours hunched over the machines watching Albanian newscasts, checking Web sites on Serbian war crimes and searching the International Red Cross's Kosovo Crisis Web site to find loved ones.
The barracks where the refugees live are no longer filled to their capacity of about 4,000 people; fewer than 400 refugees remain, with most of the others who came to the United States spread out across the country, their stays sponsored by charities or relatives.
At the trailer, the e-mail continues across the ocean: "Don't let yourself . . . waste time doing nothing but waiting--Work hard to learn languages and how to use the computer and high technology," Selami urged Kujtim.
CAPTION: Besart Morina, right, a volunteer computer teacher, helps fellow Kosovo refugees use computers to watch an Albanian television broadcast.