In the months since war engulfed their native Kosovo, the Behluli family has faced a series of wrenching choices.
Torn between attachment to their homeland and the imperatives of survival, they hunkered in their houses for more than a month before making their way to neighboring Macedonia at the end of April. Then they had to choose between waiting out the war in a refugee camp and flying off to more distant exiles abroad.
Ultimately, they accepted an offer of resettlement in the United States, flying into New York's Kennedy Airport last month and surprising a U.S. relief agency that had expected to resettle five Behlulis but found 14 on the flight. The ethnic Albanian refugees then flew to the suburbs of Chicago, where they have relatives and an American family had agreed to sponsor them.
Now, the Behlulis may be headed home. Informed of a new U.S. government repatriation program that was announced yesterday, the family of Naser Behluli, a 40-year-old businessman, screamed and wept for joy in the crowded, one-bedroom dormitory apartment they share. They cannot wait to get back to Kosovo, he said.
But the U.S. offer to pay the refugees' way home--after weeks of insisting it was not yet safe for them to return--also presents the family with a new dilemma. Enver Behluli, Naser's younger brother and business partner, and his wife are not so sure they want to go back. They do not want to divide the family, but at the same time they are attracted to the prospect of a better life in the United States.
It is a dilemma shared by many of the 9,700 other Kosovo refugees in the United States, who must now decide whether to accept permanent resettlement here or return to Kosovo to reconstruct their homes and businesses. If they choose the former, they face the deracinating, humbling experience of starting over in a strange land near the bottom of the economic ladder and further splitting extended families that already have been scattered across the globe. If they opt to go home, they must accept the risk of further violence and the challenge of rebuilding in a place with an uncertain future.
Many desperately want to go home, but for several weeks the U.S. government and private relief agencies that specialize in resettlement had discouraged them from doing so. Washington said it would pay their way home only when it received assurances that Kosovo was secure--even though 640,000 refugees in neighboring countries had already gone back in the past month.
Faced with the flood of returnees to Kosovo and the insistence of many in the United States on joining them, the State Department yesterday changed course, announcing it would send the refugees home at U.S. expense through the International Organization for Migration, an agency that facilitates refugee movements worldwide. The first charter flight from the United States is tentatively scheduled for July 26, the IOM said.
For the Behluli family, the policy shift means an opportunity to return home. But as they begin their second month in the United States, the 14 Behlulis--brothers Naser and Enver; their wives and seven children; their mother, Hava; and their sister Mendulrije and her infant son--are being pulled in different directions by relatives and well-intentioned relief officials.
Enver's wife, Feride, has a brother in a nearby suburb who wants the two of them and their three children to start a new life here. Enver and Feride are wavering. The bother-in-law has offered Enver a permanent job with him in the apartment complex he maintains. But the hardware business Enver operated with his brother, Naser, in Kosovo also beckons him.
For Naser and the family matriarch, 84-year-old Hava, there is no such ambivalence.
"When can we go?" Hava asked after hearing news of the repatriation program. She said a relative had just informed them that their house was damaged and looted, but was not burned and is still habitable. "I don't care," the wizened grandmother said. "As long as people are going back, I'm going to go back, too."
She and Naser now wish they had never left the muddy, crowded Stenkovic II refugee camp in Macedonia that they had been so frantic to flee last month just days before Slobodan Milosevic agreed to pull his forces out of Kosovo.
"I can't stay here," Hava Behluli said recently, sitting on a sofa in the dormitory apartment at Judson College, where the family found temporary housing. She wiped tears from her face. "I just want to go home," she said. "I just want to go and die over there."
The Behlulis had a comfortable middle-class lifestyle in Kosovo--their own two-story homes, two cars and a truck in the town of Ferizaj, which the Serbs call Urosevac. The brothers' hardware business included a warehouse, two shops and eight employees. Naser still has the cell phone he used to conduct business, a reminder of the relative prosperity his family enjoyed.
All that came to an end when NATO warplanes began attacking in late March and Serb forces started driving ethnic Albanians out of Kosovo en masse. Serb soldiers threatened to kill the Behlulis in retaliation for NATO attacks on nearby Yugoslav army barracks, but took out their wrath on other neighbors instead.
"We were afraid to leave and we were afraid to stay," said Naser's wife, Alije. "We kept hearing stories that instead of taking people to the border, the Serbs would take them to a ditch and shoot everyone. But eventually we couldn't take it anymore. We had to leave."
So the brothers gathered their families, along with their mother and sister, and left for Macedonia by bus. Mendulrije's husband, a soldier in the Kosovo Liberation Army, was left behind in the hills somewhere in the province. Just days ago, the family heard that he survived, increasing Mendulrije's desire to return home.
After six weeks in the Macedonian camp, the Behlulis were evacuated to the United States, finally landing in Elgin on June 8.
For five weeks, they have adjusted to American life with help from their sponsors, Vincent and MaryAnn Barlow and their four children. The family runs the Jeremiah Restoration Ministry, a Christian group that performs musical shows at church gatherings around the country. Vincent Barlow has arranged odd jobs, such as house-painting and window-washing, for the two Behluli brothers. He has taken Enver to a chiropractor for a back ailment and is writing songs to help the children learn English. MaryAnn Barlow is teaching the Behlulis to shop in American supermarkets with the food stamps they receive. The Barlow children, including three teenage girls, come over daily to play with the Behluli children, who range in age from 11 months to 13 years.
But the Behlulis have known that the longer they stay in America, the more difficult it will be for them to return home. The family has resisted the steps that World Relief, and by extension the U.S. government, have wanted them to take--steps that signify more of a commitment to remaining in the United States. Among these are moving into apartments and signing leases, taking regular jobs, enrolling the children in school and taking formal English classes themselves.
"There seems to be some pressure to get these guys settled, for them to get jobs and take up permanent residence," Vincent Barlow said. But having heard the family repeatedly express a longing for Kosovo, he wonders whether settling here is in the family's best interests. To survive in the U.S. economy, he notes, both parents would probably have to work and put the children in day care.
"For years they've been so close," Barlow said. "Is that really the best thing for the family? Sometimes we assume that what we have is better than everyone else."
Already, though, there have been signs that the Behluli children were adapting to life in the United States.
On a typical day, the daughters of Naser and Alije--Valerina, 13, and Alberina, 12--spend the morning studying English at a table in their third-floor dormitory. A balcony overlooks a pond with a fountain, and a stream runs through the campus. Ducks gather on the lawn below, and children blow soap bubbles to a cocker spaniel, which playfully tries to catch them.
"I think the longer we stay, the chances are they won't want to go back," Hava Behluli said of the children, a tone of worry in her voice. "So far they haven't been bored. It's possible they might even like it here."
CAPTION: Above, Naser Behluli rests with his son Valdrin after a morning of washing windows to earn money. Below, 84-year-old Hava Behluli, left, the family's matriarch, tells a funny story to some members of her extended family who are visiting from the Chicago area.
CAPTION: Above, Flamur, Diar and Valdrin Behluli rinse off in the shower after some messy playing. Below, 9-year-old Flamur nervously waits for a dentist to pull three decayed teeth as his mother, Alije Behluli, tries to comfort him.