Kosovars in search of American dream, too

May 10, 1999|By Richard Reeves

NEWARK, N.J. -- The newest American citizen from Kosovo, a 7 1/2-pound boy, was born on Thursday in Mount Holly, N.J., to two of the first Kosovar refugees brought here because of war in Yugoslavia. His father named him America.

The couple wants to return to Kosovo when their homeland and their village is safe. But the mother, Lebibe Karaliju, also told refugee officials in Macedonia that she was only seven months pregnant. That wasn't true, but she knew she would not be allowed on the plane if they knew her due date was May 6. She went into labor before the plane landed, and the baby was exactly on time.

American promise

The doctor who delivered the boy -- a citizen by right of being born here -- said just the right thing: "This child could be the president of the United States one day."

Yep. That's how we got to be a great country. The land of the free and the home of the brave. The land of refugees for almost four centuries now. The new world. Whatever one thinks of our involvement in Yugoslavia -- I don't like it one little bit -- once again the United States will be blessed and strengthened by the wretched refuse of the old world. The mayor of Utica, N.Y., Edward Hannah, agrees with me. He hopes the Karalijus end up coming his way -- to his hard-working little city that once upon a time grew rich on the Erie Canal. Utica, halfway between New York City and Buffalo, fell on hard times as the world changed. In 1960, 125,000 people lived there; now only 64,000 do.

Hard times

"I'm damn happy they're coming in," said Mayor Hannah in an interview with the New York Times, which coincidentally was doing a feature on Utica when baby boy Karaliju was born. "I don't care where they come from. We've been complaining about people moving to the suburbs. Now we're getting some help."

Utica residents

The help, so far, has come from Vietnam, Belarus in the old Soviet Union, and Bosnia. The residents of Utica are men like Fikret Keserovic, a 47-year-old refugee from Velika Kladusa, Bosnia, who is making $10 an hour as a warehouse clerk. "Who is hard worker, like America," said Mr. Keserovic of himself. "Everybody here friendly. I have new house, new truck. Why not like?"

What's not to like? Utica, the western gateway to the Adirondack Mountains, home of the Boilermaker Road Race, is surrounded by rugged beauty, and the cost of living is less than half of that in New York City. You can get a three-bedroom house in good shape for less than $80,000. (Old Victorians were selling for less than $30,000 when the refugees started settling there.) The crime rate is less than half the national average. Money magazine ranks it 219th on its list of the 300 best places to live in the United States.

Cause for celebration

Right now, there are at least 6,500 refugees -- really former refugees -- living in Utica, one in 10 people there. Last week, the first three Bosnians became U.S. citizens, an event celebrated in Hair Salon Goga, Disco Club Una and Restaurant Sani. There are new churches, new schools, new businesses in buildings boarded up for years.

So, however the savagery in Kosovo ends, the odds are pretty good that it will be good for old towns like Utica in the Mohawk Valley and across the country, just as it has been for hundreds of years. Mayor Hannah has this message for America: "I would encourage other towns in America to open your gates, open your arms. We need them as much as they need us."

Richard Reeves is a syndicated columnist.

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