Newspaper article The Florida Times Union

Albanians Open Hearts, Homes to Refugees `Til Kosovo Is Free'

Newspaper article The Florida Times Union

Albanians Open Hearts, Homes to Refugees `Til Kosovo Is Free'

Article excerpt

VLORE, Albania -- Arhmi Isufi, a businessman in this port city in southern Albania, was waiting outside the municipal soccer stadium at dawn Thursday when a bus arrived carrying refugees still wearing the mud of Kosovo on their clothing. He didn't know any of them, but that hardly mattered.

By 7 a.m., 15 members of the Hazhius family -- exhausted by five days on the run from the Kosovo city of Pec -- were eating breakfast in Isufi's home, and he was busily turning every room in his single-story house into a bedroom. The Hazhius family will stay, Isufi says, until Kosovo is free.

Without pausing to consider the cost or the commitment, Albanians have opened their homes and hearts to nearly a quarter-million refugees who have arrived from Yugoslavia in the past 13 days. In doing so, Europe's poorest nation -- an otherwise beautiful country blighted by poverty, lawlessness and the legacy of an austere Communist past -- has addressed a major humanitarian crisis more quickly and effectively than some of the wealthiest nations in the world.

According to the Albanian Information Ministry, more than 130,000 Kosovo refugees have found shelter in the homes of ordinary Albanians. The government estimates that there are 122,000 refugees in the northern Albanian border town of Kukes, 32,000 sleeping in tents or fields. An astonishing 90,000 have been welcomed into local homes -- nearly five refugees for every resident of Kukes, a town with a normal population of 20,000.

Elsewhere in the country, 40,000 refugees are in Albanian homes and 70,000 are in tent cities or sports stadiums. And -- unlike in neighboring Macedonia, where refugees have been shunned by both the government and the population -- every day more Albanians show up at shelters to volunteer a place in their modest homes.

"It is part of our tradition," said Ardjan Musliu, spokesman for the Albanian Socialist Party and a member of parliament. "And, also, we have blood relations with the Kosovars."

Albanians share language, religion and culture with the refugees from Kosovo. Yet, along with that deep identification there is an innate generosity here, a willingness to cut a loaf of bread into 20 slices if there are 20 who are hungry. …

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