The Musliu family's introduction to America begins in a cramped office cubicle in the Washington suburbs, where a resettlement worker is explaining food stamps and Metrobuses to the Kosovo refugees and why they must get Social Security cards before they can find work.
They are listening, but their thoughts are elsewhere.
Bafti Musliu is thinking of his baby daughter, who is in a hospital because life in the refugee camp left her pale and malnourished. His little son, Agon, is eyeing a toy plane tacked to a bulletin board, murmuring under his breath, "NATO, NATO." And his sister-in-law, Lutfie, is worrying about how she and her husband, Feti, Bafti's brother, will feed their three children -- and a fourth child who will be born in the fall.
A month ago, they were living in a tent in a refugee camp known as Stenkovic II, waiting for a plane to the United States. Many of their countrymen were making their way back to Kosovo, but the Musliu family had already been back, looking for Feti and Lutfie's 11-year-old boy, Lulzim, who disappeared during the war. The search was the subject of a Washington Post article last month.
Now they are in the United States, embarking on a more promising journey, far away from the camps where they lived for three months, the mountains where they hid for three weeks and the village where they found their homes pillaged and burned. They are starting over in a place called Fairfax County.
The refugee worker makes her way down a list of questions and asks Feti Musliu if he speaks any languages besides Albanian.
Serbo-Croatian, he replies. A pained expression darkens his face. His brother looks away. His wife looks away.
Feti is remembering what happened to his little boy, how they found Lulzim lying beneath a bush, shot twice in the head, nothing left but bones and a blue sweat shirt, corduroy pants and a red rubber boot.
Then Feti tells the refugee worker to cross out what she just wrote about his knowing Serbo-Croatian. He wants to start his new life without the language of those who killed his son.
The Muslius are among some 9,700 Kosovo refugees, including 250 in the Washington area, who have been resettled in the United States. A month after landing at Baltimore-Washington International Airport, these former farmers are well on their way to building a new life for themselves. The refugees -- who after a year in this country will be eligible for green cards and permanent residency status -- have moved into apartments in Lincolnia, furnished their homes with donated couches and tables and registered their children for public school.
But every day, they worry about how they will earn a living and learn English, and whether they will ever see their families and friends again. Every day, too, they struggle to come to grips with what happened to them in Kosovo.
"Everything, everything was destroyed. The Serbs pounded us back 50 years. Fifty years of work was destroyed in such a short period," Feti Musliu, 36, says through an interpreter. "It will be very, very difficult to get back to where we were."
With the help of their resettlement agency, Lutheran Social Services, Feti and Bafti Musliu, 28, quickly found jobs at an industrial laundry plant in Front Royal, Va., a facility so desperate for workers that it provides them daily transportation.
At first, both brothers woke up every day before 5 a.m. to join refugees from Kosovo, Somalia and Iran on a company van for the 1 1/2-hour commute to the plant. They stood folding hospital linens for hours, toiling alongside prisoners in a work-release program and other employees. It was mind-numbing work, paying $6.35 per hour.
During their second week, supervisors assigned Feti and Bafti to help unload the 60,000 pounds of dirty hospital linens the plant processes every day and sort the piles by item -- sheets, blankets, pillowcases, clothes. Many of the sheets were stained with blood, and the stench was overwhelming.
Feti, remembering his dead son, felt nauseous. He tried to tell his boss he wanted to go back to folding the clean linens, but he didn't know enough English. So he quit to look for another job.
"I couldn't deal with it," he said. "But I already regret it. Now that I'm at home, all I can think about is work."
The two brothers grew up in the village of Vlastica, where they farmed the same land as their father and grandfather. Their father had spent 30 years as a migrant laborer in Germany, and his savings helped build homes for his three sons. They had three tractors, several cows, nice furniture, even a satellite dish.
Now it's all gone. The father decided to stay in Vlastica but urged his eldest and youngest sons, Feti and Bafti, to try their luck in America. When they moved into their new apartments, which were provided by the refugee agency, it was the first time they had lived under a proper roof in months.
The neighbors, many of them immigrant families from Africa and South Asia, have been friendly enough. On cool evenings, the courtyards at the complex are full of children who organize little games of cricket or play on the swings and chase each other. One Somali family in particular has gone out of its way to help the Muslius, giving them a set of dishes and a baby stroller and offering to drive them to the mosque.
Still, the experience of starting over in a strange land has been a lonely one.
"What I miss most is my family," Bafti Musliu said during a recent interview at his apartment. "We were so close, growing up together and living together, and now we're separated, and who knows what will happen."
As he spoke, water dripped on the carpet from a leak in his ceiling. "If I were at home, everybody would help me with this. Here, I can't do anything."
When his wife, Minivere, and his baby girl, Ermira, were in the hospital, he was forced to wait in his empty apartment with his 3-year-old son until a refugee worker or the friendly Somali neighbors could drive him to the hospital for a visit.
Now the entire family is home, and the baby looks healthier than ever. Bafti works a later shift at the laundry, leaving the apartment at 10:30 a.m. and returning more than 12 hours later. He hopes to find a better job, so he studies a list of English words in the mornings before work.
On his days off, he listens to Albanian music on a shortwave radio or thumbs through a stack of photos. There are wedding pictures: Minivere in a traditional gown, him in a brown suit, both of them surrounded by family. There are photos of his house and his father's house and those of his two brothers, all of which they built themselves on the same piece of land.
There are photos of what's left: the charred frames, the collapsed roofs, the broken windows, the little grave they dug for Lulzim by the schoolyard. And there is a photo of his father and mother hugging him goodbye.
He doesn't know when he'll see them again. He can't call because he doesn't have a telephone and they probably don't have one, either.
With the war over and the government offering to fly them home, many Kosovo refugees will return to their homeland. But the Muslius say they will stay, in part because of their caseworker, Indrit Bregasi.
An intense young man who fled persecution in Albania only two years ago, Bregasi often tells the Muslius not to dwell on the past. He knows they are thinking of home, but gently reminds them, "What you remember isn't what's there."
Feti Musliu agrees. "We can't make it back there," he says. "There's nothing left."
But his wife, Lutfie, is worried. One afternoon, as Feti and Bregasi are talking in the kitchen, she interrupts with a simple question: How will we survive?
They have no job experience and little education, she says. They are alone in a country of strangers. Who will hire them for good jobs when they speak no English?
She takes out an old snapshot of Lulzim, remembering how her son was studying English, and starts sobbing.
The room is silent. Bregasi says nothing. The children stop running around. Finally, Feti looks up and asks his wife where she found the photo. He has been trying to hide the pictures of Lulzim from her because they make her cry.
He, too, continues to mourn. Often, he takes long walks in his new neighborhood, always alone. "It's like he's wandering around after an earthquake," his brother says. "There is so much sadness."
Feti breaks the silence, telling his wife to have faith, that things will be better. "One day at a time," he says.
That's what Bregasi tells them, too. Soon, he says, we will find you jobs, and you will earn money faster than you could in Kosovo. Your children will go to school and have opportunities unimaginable at home. And soon, Bregasi says, Lutfie will have another child, an American citizen. Maybe it will be a baby boy.
This makes Lutfie smile. And Feti laughs and says he doesn't care whether it's a boy or girl, as long as the child is healthy.