Magazine article Insight on the News

Refugees Arrive from Kosovo

Magazine article Insight on the News

Refugees Arrive from Kosovo

Article excerpt

The White House ordered the quick evacuation of 20,000 Kosovar refugees that the United States pledged to take, shortcutting normal procedures and background checks.

On April 1, a Muslim holiday, Serbian police appeared at the Kosovo home of Selin Berisha and began shooting out the windows. Following a night huddled inside, listening to screams and the sound of gunfire, his family emerged to find a hungry dog eating a murdered neighbor. After burying the man in their garden, the large family began its walk to Macedonia, recounts Berisha, 67, dressed for his first U.S. interview in a secondhand suit and flip-flops.

In the burgeoning refugee "village" at Fort Dix, N.J.--where as many as 3,000 of the 20,000 ethnic Albanians the United States will take in are being housed pending settlement--there are many such tales, heartrending but unverifiable, to be sure.

Haxhi Shala says his family also was visited on April 1, this time by masked members of a Serbian paramilitary group who told the family that if they left their home it would be torched--which Shala decided was a trick to trap them inside the house and burn it down. Schoolteacher Mehmed Pllana says he saw a math student slain by a sniper. Ilir Hoxha relates how he was held at gunpoint by Yugoslav soldiers, who demanded German marks and, with 30 seconds' notice, marched his family off to the train station through a gauntlet of masked police. "We stared straight ahead," he tells Insight, "not daring to turn our heads right or left." They boarded a train after a day waiting in the rain, not knowing where it was bound.

The train, it turned out, took them to Purgatory--a crowded camp in Macedonia, from where, upon volunteering to be evacuated to the United States, they eventually were flown to Fort Dix.

Looking dazed and disheveled by the ordeal--including, for most, their first air flight--the first planeload of ethnic Albanians arrived May 5 to an official welcome from Hillary Rodham Clinton and the circus-sideshow treatment from a gawking crush of media. Adults generally appeared pensive, some in culture shock, while children and teens were smiling and animated and touched hands with American soldiers standing on the tarmac. Old country women wore babushkas; young urban women, bell bottoms and mud-stained platform shoes. Most carried all their worldly possessions in a plastic sack. Yet many held their right hands to their heart as they filed toward waiting buses, in a gesture of thanks.

Inside the snow-fence perimeter at Fort Dix, their first weeks in the United States will be spent in spare but clean cinderblock buildings, the otherwise drab surroundings enlivened with toy-filled playrooms and plastic recreation equipment. Insight's visit inside the village a day after their arrival found the adults huddled in clusters, conferring, while the children and teens played. A soldier showed a kid how to hit a baseball into the trees. Frisbees were being flung into the sky, awkwardly at first. Having found a badminton net, some teens had launched into a makeshift game of volleyball, using a basketball.

Meanwhile, officials from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, U.S. Public Health Service and U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service were busy conducting the medical screenings and criminal-background checks normally completed before a refugee can set foot on U.S. soil--but which were deferred in this case because of what some government officials saw as emergency circumstances. The change in procedures was called "completely atypical" by a government official and "highly unusual" by the head of a major relief organization.

The decision by the White House to shortcut the normal process, putting Kosovars in the fast lane to Fort Dix while millions of other refugees from other world trouble spots remain idling at the entrance ramp, was driven by several factors, according to administration and Capitol Hill sources. …

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