Home in the Heartland

The Gashi family, all 17 of them, finds peace on the Iowa prairie. It isn't Kosovo, but it is a welcome relief.

June 24, 1999|By Heather Dewar | Heather Dewar,SUN STAFF

JEFFERSON, Iowa -- Ten fluted crystal tea glasses and a battered, onion-shaped tin teapot sit amid the American-style pots and pans on a kitchen shelf in a modest frame house on Adams Street. These small things rescued from the ruins of Kosovo are a sign that the Gashi family, all 17 of them, ages 2 to 78, have found a new home.

The Muslim Albanian refugees -- matriarch Miradije Gashi, 78 and crippled by hip injuries suffered in an encounter with Serbian paramilitary troops; her strong-willed son Gafur Gashi, 52; and 15 of her grandchildren, great-grandchildren, nieces, nephews and cousins -- arrived here Friday night from Fort Dix, N.J.

Workers at the Iowa Bureau of Refugee Services say the Gashis are the largest intact family of refugees ever to be resettled as a group in their state, perhaps in the nation.

That they are here at all is a not-so-small testament to determination, love and generosity, Albanian- and American-style.

Somehow Gafur Gashi, whose thriving market and home in the small city of Lipljan were burned by the Serbs in April, managed to keep his extended family together and safe on the long trek across Kosovo to a Macedonian refugee camp and on to a barracks in the United States -- and on further still to a strange prairie town where no one speaks Albanian or prays to Allah.

And somehow their Iowa benefactors, led by the Rev. Richard Glasgow of Jefferson's First Presbyterian Church, managed to create not one home, but three, for the Gashi family on barely two weeks' notice.

The members of Glasgow's church council volunteered in late April to take in a family from Kosovo. Church members had fond memories of the Vietnamese refugees who passed through their town in the 1970s, and their hearts were touched by the suffering of the Kosovars. Surely Jefferson, population 4,500, had room for a Kosovo couple and their children, they thought.

They called Refugee Services to volunteer, but heard nothing for weeks. Then came the call from a state social worker.

"He said, `The good news is, we have a family for you. The bad news is, there are 17 of them,' " Glasgow recalled.

The first thing the folks of Jefferson did was buy the Gashis a house.

The town, an hour west of Ames, is prosperous enough to be generous, but not overflowing with big-city resources.

Home-grown businesses like Don's Hardware and Pete's Consignment Boutique line the leafy town square, with its gray stone courthouse and starkly modern bell tower. It's the kind of place where teen-agers have little to do on a Friday night except cruise on streets named after the presidents.

Buying a house

Seven local businessmen -- five lawyers, a farmer and the editor of the weekly paper -- signed personal pledges to back the mortgage on a two-bedroom frame house on Adams Street, next door to Glasgow's home, for less than $15,000. The paperwork closing the sale hasn't been signed, but about $4,000 worth of renovations to the olive-green house have already been finished.

Volunteers from three churches built a second bathroom, painted the interior, installed new carpets, reglazed leaky windows, even tilled a patch of black Iowa soil to make a late-summer garden. They rented two apartments a few blocks away, talking reluctant landlords into signing six-month leases in case the Gashis decide to return to Kosovo.

"We hope once they get to know Iowa, they'll love Iowa and want to stay," Glasgow said. "But home is home."

Gafur Gashi, his wife and child and the rest of his family have no home to return to, according to Kemal Delilovic of the Iowa Bureau of Refugee Services, who came to Iowa as a refugee from Bosnia's war five years ago and can communicate a little with the family.

In his battered wallet, along with his gray-and-blue Yugoslav government identity card, Gafur Gashi keeps a few snapshots of the market he once owned in Lipljan. There's a picture of him in a winter coat and fur hat, weighing oranges in an old-fashioned bucket-shaped scale. There's another of him in summer shirtsleeves, behind a counter piled high with French baguettes. A third shows him with a brother who died of a heart attack before the war, and whose widow, Maliqe Gashi, and two teen-age children are now Gafur's responsibility in America.

"Mini-mart," Gafur said in English, then made a sharp sweeping gesture with his hands to indicate that it is gone. His cousin Naim Gashi, 26, reached into his pocket for a lighter and held the flame aloft.

"Ah, burned," said Glasgow, and Gafur nodded.

"Home," said Gafur in English, and made the same swept-away gesture. Again, the flame of the lighter flared.

It was a calamity for the entire clan; most of the Gashi men worked in the mini-mart, so practically everyone was homeless, jobless or both. So great was the loss that only three members of the extended family chose to remain in Kosovo -- a young cousin whose fiancee refused to leave, and the young man's parents.

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