Dozens of Kuwaiti families arriving at Baltimore-Washingto International Airport the past six days abandoned luxurious homes and lucrative careers, hundreds of thousands of dollars and even had to leave behind their closest relatives in a besieged homeland.
They arrived -- homeless and penniless -- to a strange sort of freedom. They are safe, but have an uncertain future holding six-month visas and living on handouts largely provided by the U.S. government.
"But I'm still very happy to be out of Kuwait," said a 35-year-old Kuwaiti economist who arrived at BWI a week ago with his wife and two young daughters. They and three other Kuwaiti families are living temporarily at a homeless shelter on the grounds of Fort Meade.
"There was shooting around my house every night, and everybody was afraid for their lives because the Iraqis arbitrarily shoot people for no reason," he said.
"I'd give up anything to save the life of my children," said a Lebanese secretary who has lived at the shelter since Thursday with her daughter and two sons. "For the first time, I've been able to sleep -- a deep sleep. I'm moneyless, but I feel much safer here."
The woman, whose husband remains in Kuwait, added, "I don't plan to go back because I don't think it will ever be safe again in Kuwait. I want to find work and live here with my children."
However, the future for the four families living at Sarah's House -- the homeless shelter at Fort Meade operated by Associated Catholic Charities -- has yet to be determined. The same is true for some 35 families from Kuwait who arrived here on Saturday and were housed temporarily at the airport Sheraton Hotel, and still more who arrived yesterday evening.
State officials said that a month ago, when the U.S. State Department asked Gov. William Donald Schaefer to develop a plan to accommodate returning hostages at BWI airport, they only planned to repatriate U.S. citizens who had been working in Kuwait.
"But I don't think we anticipated having people who are not American citizens and have no relatives or friends who live in this country," said Casandra E. Fallin, who is coordinating services for the families. "Some of these people -- who may have worked here or been students here -- have children who were born in this country. But some of them have no connection to this country at all."
In a letter to President Bush Friday, Governor Schaefer said these people are "more refugees than repatriates" who "need a wide range of services including long-term housing, employment and counseling assistance."
The governor wrote, "I urge the federal government to deal flexibly and compassionately with these families and others in similar situations." He added that it may be necessary for Congress to to consider legislation "to address the special needs of this class of citizen returning to our shores."
Ms. Fallin said she was working with immigration and State Department officials to develop a plan for the refugee families. First, she said, the government must decide what status to grant them and then she will seek out community groups that provide housing, jobs and counseling.
The plan can't come too soon for the seven adults and 11 children in the families sheltered at Sarah's House. They said they are tired of "living on American charity" and want to work and get started with their new lives.
"We want to contribute to this country. We don't want to live only as consumers," said the economist, who asked not to be identified out of fear for the lives of relatives in Kuwait. "We thought we would have answers by now about what is going to happen to us."
The man said he had worked as a teacher in this country and in Great Britain. One of his daughters was born in London and the other in Virginia.
Three other refugee families -- without money or relatives in the United States -- arrived in Maryland last Monday. State workers gave the parents six-month visitors' visas and each family was given between $500 and $600. The money was used for a three-night stay at the Sheraton and food.
"I fed my kids pizza morning, noon and night," said the 34-year-old Lebanese secretary, who also asked not to be identified. "It was much cheaper than the food at the hotel and I wanted to save some of my money for medicine because my son has asthma."
When the three nights at the hotel ended and the money was mostly gone, the families were moved to a building at Fort Meade that was recently renovated for use as transitional housing at Sarah's House -- where several other buildings house homeless American families.
"The staff here has been wonderful," said the Lebanese woman. "They give us plenty of food, milk and juice."
"But," added the economist, "we have no work permits and we don't know what our immigration status is. So, we can't help wondering everyday, what's going to happen next."
At the Sheraton, Anne Arundel County social workers roaming through the lobby were barraged with such questions from the refugees who arrived at BWI Saturday. Most times, the county workers had no definite answer.