Refugees coming to U.S. find hope, but pain of Kosovo isn't far behind

Many worry about fate of family, friends who remain in danger

May 24, 1999|By LOS ANGELES TIMES

FORT DIX, N.J. -- Maybe it's the soft bed, spring air, compassionate care and friendly faces. Maybe it's the food and the music and the soccer and the smiles of a world designed to make her feel wanted, comfortable, even pampered.

She can't speak the language, doesn't know the geography, hasn't grasped the culture, but she knows she can become an American citizen some day. She hasn't seen her parents in months, but she has seen the first lady, the governor, a brace of bureaucrats and a big-screen TV.

Teuta Hyseni -- a 19-year-old who, with other ethnic Albanians has been whisked from the crisis in Kosovo and placed gently into the arms of a people showing overwhelming, perhaps unsettling willingness to help them, house them, adopt them, even marry them -- is beginning to like this life in America.

Except for one thing. Like virtually all of the 3,000-plus ethnic Albanians being housed in the spruced-up barracks of this army base, she knows somebody who is still hiding, missing or murdered somewhere in Kosovo, or living in the crude camps that surround it.

Authorities have begun resettling refugees in cities across the country, the next phase of their almost surreal transition from being "ethnically cleansed" to smothered with affection. There is a very real sense of survivor guilt amid the separation anxiety here, inside the two heavily guarded containment areas that authorities have quaintly dubbed "the Village" and "the Hamlet."

Teuta, like many others, finds herself fantasizing about a future in the United States even as she worries over the fate of her parents and her brother.

Caught in Pristina when word came that the purges of ethnic Albanians had reached her nearby town of Hajvaliu, she sought refuge with an uncle. Two weeks later Serb soldiers ordered everyone in her uncle's block to leave the country, taking them to the train station and herding them into box cars.

Teuta and the others were dumped at the border and ordered to hike to Macedonia. A Serb soldier snatched her leather satchel, which contained the diary she'd kept since she was a girl.

After being in a camp outside Blace for 36 days, she found out that her uncle's family would be among the 20,000 refugees that the United States agreed to harbor. She walked off the plane and into her new world May 5. Though the goal is to eventually return the refugees, they have been granted permanent residency.

"The welcome we have received is very unbelievable," Teuta said as she sat on a picnic table in the Village park one recent afternoon. "If my family was here, I would like to stay here."

Most refugees at Fort Dix, who are without relatives in the United States, will eventually be housed in apartments and looked after by churches and local social service agencies. Only 47 have been resettled as of Friday, and the sometimes squabbling stew of federal and private agencies running this program have had to expand capacity to keep up with the inflow.

The atmosphere here is a blend of festive chatter, squealing children and budding friendships mixed with the quiet exchange of terrible tales of rape, robbery and murder. Though there is clearly a growing fondness for the United States, many of the uprooted remain numb to their surroundings.

Venera Shala is depressed, withdrawn, unable to enjoy the concerts and volleyball games. Her family fled Kosovo after her father peeked into a neighbor's window after a night of shouting and shooting. He counted 14 bodies.

"This place is very beautiful, but I don't like it at all," said Shala, 22. "No matter what you guys do for us, we are not happy. It's like being a parasite."

"She'll change," interjected Xhafer Meta, a New Jersey resident and ethnic Albanian activist who fled Kosovo in 1986 and is a volunteer interpreter at the camp. "I know, I felt the same when I came here. But these people will get used to life here."

As they mingle among and befriend the newcomers, many interpreters see earlier images of themselves. As a political activist in then-Communist Kosovo, Bashkim Tolaj was jailed 17 times and beaten even more. He won political asylum in 1988.

Tolaj, legal assistant for the Lawyers Committee for Human Rights, and his family have taken an interest in Teuta because of her plaintive yearning for a mentor. "She said `I need a father, a brother, a friend,' " he said.

Last week, he found his role lightened a bit. Equipped with $50 cash given to each refugee, Teuta walked into the Village's newly opened convenience store and browsed through the junk food, disposable cameras and stuffed Snoopys wearing fighter pilot regalia. Something caught her eye: an $8 prepaid phone card.

She began calling numbers in Pristina. One time she heard shooting when somebody picked up the phone. She called another number, and a man answered. Teuta asked if he knew where her father was.

"He's right here," the man said.

Her father came on. Both he and Teuta screamed deliriously, then began crying. Her mother was fine, her father said, though her brother was missing. The family was holed up in a place with other ethnic Albanians, hoping to get a large enough group to flee the country. Only small groups are systematically killed, he told her.

"Where are you?" he asked his daughter.

"The USA!" she said.

Seven minutes later, the card ran out and the line went dead. She ran to tell Tolaj that her parents were alive -- alive! -- and the two ran off to buy another card.

Teuta has started a new diary. A tiny bit of fog has begun to lift on her future, and a plan is taking shape. Learn English, get an apartment, get a job, get a green card, go to medical school. Get her parents to New Jersey.

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