Aid for Kosovars sends mixed message

Flood of concern missing for other refugee groups


FORT DIX, N.J. -- Many resettlement agencies say the grass-roots interest in the ethnic Albanian refugees from Kosovo is unmatched since the fall of South Vietnam spawned oceans of boat people two decades ago. There has been such an outpouring of offers for food, clothing and logo-laden products that Fort Dix officials asked people last week to stop donating things.

Though most offers are altruistic, some are self-serving. Some people want Kosovar Albanians to work as baby sitters or housekeepers. Infertile couples are casting nets for orphans to adopt.

Theories abound as to why this country is captivated. Heavy television coverage of white people with Western clothing fleeing a European war zone being pummeled by U.S. war planes raises issues of race, evokes images of World War II, stirs patriotism and comes at a time when American pocketbooks are bulging.

"I haven't seen anything like this," said Scott Wasmuth, an official for a New Jersey resettlement agency. "These refugees are coming at the right time, I guess. There is a potential danger of overindulging these people."

Refugees from Haiti, Liberia, Indonesia, Angola and the Sudan have suffered as much or far worse, yet "Liberians are not on TV," said Barbara Lonegro of Catholic Community Services of Newark.

"In a way it is disconcerting to see so much attention to one group," said William Sage, interim director for immigration and refugees at Church World Service. "When we had Sierra Leoneans come here, it would have been nice to have some high-profile public official here to greet the first ones."

Sage sees an upside, however. "We will have churches who say they want to sponsor a Kosovar family. We will say there are other refugees, consider a Bosnian or Sierra Leonean. Some will, some won't."

Refugee groups plan to use the Kosovo crisis to pressure the Clinton administration to raise the annual ceiling on refugees from the current 78,000 to the 132,000 it was before he took office, said Berta Romero, refugee director for Interaction, an umbrella group.

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