Refugees rest at Fort Dix, N.J.

physicals and paperwork today

New baby, a U.S. citizen, and his mother reported to be in good health

May 07, 1999|By Todd Richissin | Todd Richissin,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

FORT DIX, N.J. -- With a haven embracing them but fear still in their hearts, the 453 Kosovar refugees flown here from the war-torn Balkans began the paperwork that will soon scatter them around the United States -- and added one more to their numbers, a newborn named America.

Many of the refugees, airlifted Wednesday from the squalor of Macedonian holding camps, continued to fear not only for relatives left behind in the killing zone of Kosovo but also for their own lives in the United States.

"They are asking us, `Is anybody going to attack us? Are we safe? Are we going to be sent back?' They are not very trusting, which you can understand," said Jafer Meta, a Kosovo-born interpreter working for the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service. "Some of them are still afraid that something is going to happen to the family left behind."

The refugees were making homes of nine dormitories on this 31,000-acre regional reserve base. Processing began slowly yesterday while the refugees rested from their 13-hour journey from Macedonia, but the paperwork will fly more quickly beginning today, officials said.

20,000 refugees expected

The refugees are the first of 20,000 ethnic Albanians the State Department expects will be brought to the United States to stay at least until the killing in the Balkans ends. Another plane with about 400 refugees is due to arrive here today, and officials said they were preparing for the arrival of up to 2,000 refugees each week.

Nine volunteer organizations are coordinating efforts to find sponsoring families for the refugees who arrived Wednesday. Officials said many of the future arrivals will have family in the United States.

American citizenship will be available to those who choose to stay, officials said, but they expect the majority to return to Kosovo.

"Our thought is that most of these people will want to go back," said Roger Winter, executive director of Immigration and Refugee Services of America. "That's what they've already indicated to us. On the other hand, from experience we know that people will often say they want to return to their country but change their minds once the shock of being here wears off a bit."

Processing takes 6 hours

Officials from the Department of Health and Human Services, which is coordinating the resettlement effort, said the process of assigning rooms and registering the refugees after they arrived took about six hours, more than twice the time anticipated.

Computer malfunctions were a problem, and accommodating extended families who wanted to remain intact was also difficult, said Lavinia Limon, director of the office of refugee resettlement.

"At one point we called a family name and 43 people stood up," she said. "There were also a series of operational glitches. Some parts of this worked really well and some parts need fixing. We intend to cut the time the process takes in half. It was unacceptable."

Reporters were not permitted to speak with the refugees. But one 14-year-old boy wandered over to a group of journalists, waving hello and beginning to tell of his plight until soldiers responsible for security led him out of talking distance.

The boy, Hassan Maliqi, told an interpreter traveling with the reporters that he and his family had wandered for two months before arriving at the Macedonia camps. Standing in a knee-length blue T-shirt, he said he was with his parents and 10 other relatives, but his sister did not make the trip and was missing.

"They came to our house and they threw us out," he said of the Serbian forces. "I'm very happy that we escaped from them."

Officials said reporters may get a chance to talk with the refugees at length today, but that they needed rest to speed processing.

New U.S. citizen

Amid the settling in yesterday came a need for accommodations for one more person. He holds the distinction of being both a refugee and an American citizen, and he provided welcome news to the Albanians, who had witnessed so much death in Kosovo.

The news: It's a boy.

Lebibe Karaliju, 21, suffering and pregnant in a Macedonia refugee camp, had told officials she was not due to give birth for two more months. She was, though, nine months pregnant, and yesterday she gave birth at 2: 11 p.m. to a 7-pound-7-ounce baby boy. The parents said they would name him America.

The baby is a U.S. citizen because he was born in the United States.

"I'm very happy my son was not born in the mountains somewhere," the boy's father, Naim Karaliju, told reporters through an interpreter. "I'm glad he was born here, and that's the main reason we're naming him America."

Doctors said the mother and baby were both healthy.

The refugees, among more than 800,000 pushed out of their homes by Serbian forces, were part of 46 extended families, according to Winter, the immigration director. He said in an interview that hundreds of other residents of the Macedonia camps who indicated they wanted to come to the United States never showed up to catch the plane.

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