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That time the United States happily airlifted thousands of Muslim refugees out of Europe

A U.S. Air Force serviceman aides a Kosovo refugee as she deplanes at McGuire Air Force Base after a flight from Macedonia. (REUTERS)
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As hundreds of refugees stepped off the plane in McGuire Airbase in New Jersey, some could be heard chanting "U.S.A., U.S.A."

They hadn't been well prepared for the trip — many carried little more luggage than a plastic shopping bag and others were stifled by their big winter jackets in the warm spring — but they seemed jubilant. One of the new arrivals told The Washington Post that he was excited, as he loved American culture, especially cinema.

"Thrillers, action films, anything," 19-year-old Albert Kasumaj explained.

It was May 6, 1999, and the United States had just received its first airlifted refugees from Kosovo, fleeing the violence of troops loyal to Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic. In total, the United States had agreed to take in 20,000 or so refugees. The vast majority of these people, if not all, were Muslims.

In the aftermath of the Paris attacks 16 years later, a number of prominent Republicans, including presidential candidates, have signaled their intent to stop all Syrian refugee arrivals, or at least accept only non-Muslim Syrians. As my colleague Ishaan Tharoor has pointed out, it looks a lot like the cruel refusal to accept Jewish refugees from Europe during the Holocaust.

However, the case of the Kosovo airlifts shows American attitudes to refugees haven't always been so harsh.

In 1999, many Americans were happy to accept these Muslim refugees, airlifting them directly from Kosovo to New Jersey with a fraction of the stringent background checks that Syrians and others are expected to go through these days. One CBS News/New York Times from April showed that 59 percent of Americans felt the airlifts were the right thing to do — a further 22 percent hoped more would be done.

"There are always a small number of radically nativist and anti-immigrant voices that oppose all resettlement, of course, but there was no significant backlash," recalled Amy Slaughter, the chief operating officer at the nonprofit RefugePoint who worked on the receiving end of the Kosovo airlifts. "Nothing like what we're seeing today with Syrian refugees."

Republican leaders call for ‘pause’ on Syrian refugee program

Even so, the airlift was a big risk. Around 600,000 Kosovars became refugees in 1999, with a further 400,000 internally displaced. The international community rushed to face what was seen as an unprecedented refugee crisis at the time, even larger that the Bosnian refugee crisis that had occurred only a few years before. It was agreed that 100,000 Kosovars should be airlifted to safety in other nations.

"The numbers we are dealing with are enormous," Spencer Abraham, then a Republican United States senator from Michigan, acknowledged when talking about the crisis before the Senate Judiciary Committee that April. "Yet, with large numbers it is often possible to lose the full picture of human tragedy, the human face, for behind every number, every statistic, there is a story to be heard."

Even if the 20,000 that the United States eventually agreed to take was only a small fraction of the total, the speed of the operation was remarkable.

"The Kosovo program was unlike any other that I have witnessed since the adoption of the Refugee Act of 1980 in that the orderly process for registering and vetting refugees was sped up to bring a finite number of refugees very quickly from Macedonia to the U.S.," Susan Donovan, who was executive director of the nonprofit International Rescue Committee in Charlottesville in 1999, says. "In all other cases, refugees typically wait for years before UNHCR registration and then go through a lengthy process of interviewing and fact-checking."

In New Jersey, the reception given to the Kosovars by the U.S. government betrayed a real thoughtfulness. There was a big sign saying "Miresevini ne Amerike," or "Welcome to America" in Albanian. The refugees were offered psychological counseling and English classes, as well as meals involving no pork or alcohol as a reflection of their Islamic diets.

"I told them to welcome these people to America the way we would have wanted our grandparents and great-grandparents to be welcomed to Ellis Island," Brig. Gen. Mitchell Zais, head of the military task force helping with their arrival, told The Post.

Times have changed. The Syrian civil war is even more complex and bloody than the wars that followed the collapse of Yugoslavia and there are considerably more people displaced from their homes in Syria than there ever were in Kosovo. After 9/11, the United States also dramatically changed its immigration system, putting in some of the most rigorous security checks in the world. Its worth considering that by March of this year, the United States had only relocated 546 refugees from Syria since the conflict began in 2011, though President Obama has since said that he hopes to resettle at least 10,000 Syrian refugees in the United States.

(For a remarkable sign of just how much times have changed, consider that it was initially mooted that the refugees from Kosovo could be housed at a certain U.S. military base in Cuba: Guantanamo Bay. That idea was quickly shelved for humanitarian reasons.)

Back in 1999, Muslims from Kosovo had no perceived link to terrorism for most Americans. In the aftermath of 9/11, al-Qaeda, and now the rise of the Islamic State, Muslims in general and Syrian Muslims in particular are now tainted by association with terrorists. It's a scenario that ignores the fact that many Syrians are fleeing the Islamic State's terror and plays directly into the extremist organization's hands.

Even those deeply sympathetic to Syrian refugees admit that airlifting them straight to America without any security checks wouldn't be wise. Yet the Kosovo airlifts should still be remembered as a positive example of compassionate U.S. action on refugees. These Muslim civilians in peril were greeted warmly and with compassion. After fighting ended in Kosovo, most returned home but others stayed on and still created a positive effect on the rebuilding of their home country.

"[The airlift] was life-saving for those refugees who came to the U.S., made positive contributions to the U.S. society and economy, and benefited the rebuilding of Kosovo with remittances and return of talent and assets," Slaughter says.

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