Move for independence

Survivors: Though relying on donations, refugees from Kosovo are taking small steps to self-reliance as the family gets accustomed to life in Baltimore.

July 03, 1999|By Erin Texeira | Erin Texeira,SUN STAFF

A few months ago, Bislim and Gani Veseli lost their identification papers -- and nearly lost their lives -- as they fled Kosovo for safety.

Yesterday, far from their homeland, the brothers began to rebuild those identities in Baltimore.

Clutching new U.S. Social Security cards, they applied for food stamps at the Department of Social Services on North Broadway and learned how to use their food stamp benefit cards.

For the families -- the brothers and their wives have 11 children between them -- who arrived a week ago with a few suitcases and a load of fears, it was the first of many steps they must make in America.

"The first month, just to survive is good," said Gani Veseli, 40, a textile worker from the village of Alastice in southwestern Kosovo.

Sighing and looking down at his rough hands, he said through an interpreter, "We want to go home and repair what we can and rebuild the same kind of life we had before."

The Veselis are the latest in a tiny cluster of Kosovar refugees to settle in the Baltimore region and the second family to settle in the city.

They moved into a rowhouse near Patterson Park with the help of their sponsor, Lutheran Social Services, a national agency that provides everything from temporary rent to beds and sheets.

In addition, a handful of private citizens are helping the families with food, clothes and fans as summer heat settles in.

Unlike many refugees, the Veselis do not have an official local sponsor -- usually a religious group -- that can help with the small essentials and help introduce them to the city.

As a result, aside from a quick walk to Patterson Park to allow their children to play and brief drives for appointments for the adults, they have barely left their five-room home for fear of getting lost.

So, while Lutheran Social Services ensures that they have medical benefits and job training, they spent much of their first days in America enduring a heat wave, waiting for their next appointment and watching images of their homeland through the static on a television set.

"What they really need," said Dominic Wani, the sponsor's liaison, "is another sponsor who can help them with all the little things."

Arsim Cejku, a Baltimore resident originally from Albania who is helping the family, said, "They are more confused than anything, but they don't complain."

Wearing donated T-shirts and shorts in their clean, sparsely furnished home, the Veselis offer smiles and handshakes when visitors arrive. Their English is limited to "hello" and "hi." The youngest of the children, who range in age from 5 to 18, are giggling and running to and fro.

As the adults recall how they came to be in a city they never imagined in a country they never intended to live in, their faces reflect the horror they have lived through.

For months starting last year, as ethnic tension mounted in Kosovo, they stockpiled food in their village of about 2,000 farmers and other working-class Kosovars. They feared the situation would worsen, and it did.

Early this year, tanks and military personnel set up camp in their village. Their brother and mother fled to England, but they stayed. Over the weeks, soldiers restricted their movement, closed schools and markets, and looted and burned homes in the village.

By late March, most of the villagers had fled. Enduring rain and bitter cold, the Veselis hid for three weeks in a dense forest near their home. Some villagers were killed, others were raped. None of the Veselis was harmed.

"We were waiting for them," said Gani Veseli. "[We thought] if they came for us, maybe they will kill some of us, but some of us will live."

They fled the area when the police moved in, and made it to refugee camps in Macedonia. Two months later, they were transferred to Fort Dix, N.J., and a month after that -- June 24 -- they landed at Dulles Airport with barely any belongings.

Lutheran Social Services and a few Baltimore-area residents jumped in to help.

"I think it has a lot to do with just knowing what is happening over there," said Monica Luciano, a legal librarian who responded to an e-mail at work. "This is something I can do."

In frequent visits before and after work, Luciano and her friends, including Susan LeBoeuf and Linda Caballero, have brought clothes, food and a microwave oven to the family. But the Veselis need much more: curtains, books and toys to help the children with English, more clothes and shoes, air conditioners and a car.

Typically, refugee families who are settling in America receive short-term food and medical assistance from the federal Office of Refugee Resettlement, which also provides temporary help with rent and other living costs that is funneled through agencies such as Lutheran Social Services. Within a few months, they must become self-sufficient.

Though they are on their way to doing that, the road could be tough, confusing and lonely. It also may be frustrating, as they yearn to return home and help rebuild their country.

For now, they are looking forward to their first American picnic with Luciano and their other new friends to celebrate the Fourth of July.

They're also getting ready for the hard part of the holiday: days of exploding fireworks that they fear will remind them more of homeland warfare than freedom celebrations.

Pub Date: 7/03/99

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