Portraits of Exile

Refugees' stories of terror, loss and hope.

Cover Story

June 20, 1999|By Story by Patricia Meisol

They come from Kosovo, from Somalia, Cameroon, South Vietnam and Peru. Their languages, their stories, their circumstances vary widely, but they share a common experience.

Young or old, man or woman, a refugee by nature arrives in a new country breathless from running, if not from gunshots, from psychological terror. All at once there is hope and sorrow. There is gratitude for life, but shock that life's direction has been so dramatically and permanently altered.

There is help, of course. Those who make it to America have been officially granted refugee status based on the danger they faced at home. Churches and nonprofit groups that sponsor them help with resettlement. Currently, Maryland is home to 30,000 refugees. Some 700 now arrive annually; later this summer, 300 more will come through a newly established resettlement center in East Baltimore.

For each, the journey begins with the moment of realization that they must flee. Once begun, it is a journey that never really ends, even for those who have made it into mainstream American life.

What follows are portraits of five refugees, all but one of them students at the Northwood Refugee Center in Silver Spring. Each of their stories is compelling: a mother's narrow escape from death, a teacher's success in translating his skills into new opportunities, a young girl's first feelings of optimism for her future. Taken together, they span the spectrum of the refugee experience, a physical and emotional odyssey of loss, dislocation and rebuilding.

Indrit Bregasi, 27

Pastry chef, Gaithersburg

He is fiery-eyed, dark-haired, intense, a young man descended from a 400-year-old European family. Words cannot explain his metamorphosis from intellectual in the cafe society of Albania to pastry chef at Marvelous Markets in Bethesda, so usually he doesn't try.

"It comes from the first day you understand your position in your country," he says. "From the environment, from the atmosphere, you understand you must leave."

The Bregasi family is replete with heroes fighting for human rights and independence in the part of the world now called Albania. A great-grandfather, an early supporter of freeing women from the veil, was given a national hero's burial in 1911. A grand- father finished law school in 1920, and was killed after the invasion by Italy in 1940. One uncle was killed in 1949 when Communists took over; another was imprisoned for 12 years, then later for 21 more. Indrit's father was jailed for seven years when he was a child.

Bregasi's own contribution was to help topple the Communist regime. In a 1990 protest in Korqa, he and two friends felled a giant statue of the long-time communist dictator Enver Hoxha.

Almost immediately, he realized he would pay a price. The names of families like his were on a list. The police knocked on doors and showed his picture. Everybody knew him. He would be beaten, spend a month in jail.

Like the statue, the Communist government eventually fell, but disillusionment with the elected government set in. People had lost their way, Bregasi saw. By 1996, the Communists regained power, and one day at a cafe he was threatened by five men. "We will do to you what we did in Hungary," they told him, referring to the slaughter of protesters in that country. Then one night in December 1997, men with Russian assault rifles shot up his house.

It was time to leave.

"There was no space for families like ours," he says, "families with tradition, families who want to be left to think for themselves and to live in a rule of law."

He said goodbye to his elderly father and walked five hours over the mountains into Greece. A few weeks later he was granted refugee status by the United States and flew there in January 1998. These days he works, studies English and considers his direction. Every few days he visits an uncle who arrived a few months ago, and listens to an oral history of the Bregasi family. He lives suspended, mourning and thinking about how to preserve and carry on the family name, about how different a route he must take if Bregasis are to emerge as leaders in America.

In Albania, his life was about speaking out for the good, the moral. Two or three nights a week, at dinner with a university professor, a bank president, perhaps one of the country's top actors, he would tackle philosophical questions well into the evening. Their discussions set an agenda.

But here, he says, what matters is not whether you speak out for good or just causes but how how much money you have. "In America, you have to have money to be heard."

How to carry on his family's work here is unclear. But he has been amazed to discover how much of the fight has already been won. Back home, he says, the government didn't care about individuals; people with children saw their lives ruined, their families destroyed. He never could have imagined that in America, some animals get better treatment, a shock he experienced when he first encountered a store for grooming pets.

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