THE CHOICE Kosovar Refugees Must Decide Whether to Stay in the U.S. or Return to Their War-Torn Homeland

By Halton, Beau | The Florida Times Union, January 12, 2000 | Go to article overview

THE CHOICE Kosovar Refugees Must Decide Whether to Stay in the U.S. or Return to Their War-Torn Homeland


Halton, Beau, The Florida Times Union


Like thousands of other Kosovar refugees in the United States, Abaz and Rahime Zeneli are faced with a difficult decision.

Should they and their children stay in the safety of Jacksonville, or venture back to the ruins of Kosovo like nearly half of the 201 Kosovars who relocated to Jacksonville?

For now, the Zenelis and five of their children have decided to stay, even though their 23-year-old daughter remains in Kosovo with her husband.

"One of the things my heart cries for is my daughter," Abaz Zeneli said through an interpreter. "We want to be with her."

Kosovo, the southern Yugoslavian province, has been fought over in recent years by its majority ethnic Albanian residents and the Serbian-led government. Others who went back told the Zenelis how so many relatives and friends have been killed, how many homes have been destroyed.

There are few jobs and few reminders of the life they knew as recently as two years ago.

Of the 201 Kosovar refugees who moved to Jacksonville, 95 have returned to Kosovo, said Venda Bukac, resettlement coordinator for Lutheran Social Services. Of the 14,000 Kosovars who resettled in the United States, about 3,000 have returned to Kosovo, according to the U.S. State Department.

The Zenelis arrived in Jacksonville in June, among the first Kosovar refugees to arrive in the United States.

Abaz Zeneli said circumstances will determine what the family does. As long as the Zenelis remain healthy and keep earning money, they'll probably stay, he said. But most Kosovars don't want to die anywhere but in Kosovo.

Unlike most refugees, the Kosovars have two enticements to return home:

First, the war ended quickly in their country. In contrast, the war in nearby Bosnia went on for nearly a decade.

Secondly, the Kosovars have been offered transportation back home. Because they were hurriedly removed from the refugee camps in Macedonia, they were relocated to the United States or other countries without being screened or processed first.

The United Nations and other organizations decided to provide them with transportation home, to be paid for by the International Organization for Migration.

Kosovars who were relocated by July 31 have until May 1 to return to Kosovo.

They have the option of returning to the United States as long as they have the proper documentation and pay their own transportation costs.

"Many of the people want to return to Kosovo to find their families, or they want to see their homes," said Sulejman Gallaj, an Albanian who works for Lutheran Social Services.

"They say they know their home has burned down, but they want to see it with their own eyes," Gallaj said. "Then, after they see it, they realize there is nothing left in Kosovo."

Most of those who go back to Kosovo subsequently want to return to the United States, Bukac said. But many neglected to obtain the travel documents and are left stranded in their decimated homeland.

Local and national resettlement officials said they don't know how many Kosovars, if any, have returned to the United States. Many, after going back to Kosovo, find they cannot afford the $800 to $1,000 airfare to get back to America, officials said.

In the United States, the cultural differences are huge for the Kosovars, Gallaj said. In addition to learning English, they try to earn enough money, often in entry-level jobs, to live on as well as send some to relatives or friends in Kosovo. …

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