Refugees arrive in America

450 Kosovars in N.J. for processing

20,000 expected eventually

Mostly women, children

May 06, 1999|By Todd Richissin | Todd Richissin,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

McGUIRE AIR FORCE BASE, N.J. -- More than 450 Kosovar refugees, exhausted from weeks spent in mournful camps overflowing with sewage, misery and tears, arrived in the United States yesterday for a breath of freedom but with a future still exasperatingly uncertain.

At 4: 12 p.m., their chartered white, blue and orange Tower Air 747 touched down, and minutes later the refugees became the first of an expected 20,000 uprooted ethnic Albanians to arrive en masse in the United States. They descended down 25 blue-carpeted stairs to a tarmac where a few dozen soldiers and airmen stood in uniform and applauded.

Mostly women and children, the refugees waved wearily and almost mechanically at the soldiers and at reporters. But later they stood, chanted and cheered as first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton greeted them with a welcome to the United States -- and a promise to fight Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic and return them to Kosovo.

Standing in front of a black-lettered banner with the Albanian words "Mirsevini Ne Amerike" -- Welcome To America -- Clinton was cheered after nearly every sentence she delivered, even before a translator could relay her words.

"We want you to know that the American people are very sad and very angry to see what has happened to you over the last weeks and months," she told them as the adults sat, children huddled in arms, on bleachers. "Our hearts and our prayers have been with you, and now we want to show you that our homes are open to you too."

But, she added, "We will not allow Mr. Milosevic to succeed in keeping you out of your homes."

At that, the refugees stood and cheered, and as Clinton moved to shake their hands, they chanted "Clinton! Clinton!" and "U-S-A! U-S-A!"

Donna E. Shalala, secretary of health and human services -- the lead agency in the resettlement effort -- said a preliminary scan of the refugees turned up only a "handful" of serious health problems. Officials said earlier in the day that a couple of the refugees may have tuberculosis, but they said later they could not confirm that.

"I can tell you this particular group, they seem to have arrived more healthy than we anticipated," Shalala told reporters. She said one woman appeared ready to give birth.

Human services officials could not immediately provide a breakdown of the refugees by gender, but a vast majority of those who left the plane were women and young girls, perhaps a testament to reports from Yugoslavia that ethnic Albanian men were being targeted by Milosevic forces.

But while men may be primary targets, the stream of refugees arriving here were flesh-and-blood proof that few ethnic Albanian in Kosovo has been immune to the atrocities in the region. One by one, remnants of the war stepped onto American soil -- the tiny feet of toddlers, the swollen feet of adults who walked or ran from their homes to refugee camps.

Elderly women with scarves on their heads gingerly stepped off the plane while elderly men leaned on canes; a young mother held a little girl; a young father cradled an infant; two teen-agers draped their arms over each other's shoulders.

Another plane with about 400 refugees is due here Friday, officials said, and up to 2,000 additional arrivals were expected within a week.

The refugees were considered among the most desperate of the hundreds of thousands of ethnic Albanians run out of Kosovo. They were plucked from overcrowded camps in Macedonia because they were judged "particularly vulnerable," U.S. officials said, and they were flown to this central New Jersey base to stay in the United States at least until the war in their homeland is over.

After landing, the refugees -- 249 adults, 195 children and nine infants -- were ushered into buses and driven to a makeshift village at adjacent Fort Dix.

Brig. Gen Mitchell Zais, commander of the joint task force charged with preparing the Army base for the refugees, said he told those under his command that he expected the temporary camp to be welcoming.

"What we want here is modeled after Ellis Island," he said at a news conference. "We want to welcome them to America as we would have hoped so many of our parents and grandparents would have been welcomed at Ellis Island."

The refugees will be given an opportunity to become U.S. citizens, but officials said they expect most to return to Kosovo once the killing there ends.

Barracks at Fort Dix were converted to accommodate families, a dining hall will serve as a medical center, once-vacant areas are now designated play spaces for the children, and rooms throughout the base have been reserved for mental health workers.

Prayer rooms were created for the refugees, almost all of them Muslim, and special meals will be served in respect for their faith.

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