A Maryland Thanksgiving for Kosovars

Refugees: Separated from their family in Yugoslavia, a father and three children share an American holiday with Carroll County hosts.

November 26, 1999|By Todd Richissin | Todd Richissin,SUN STAFF

The Agostino home in Carroll County smelled, looked and sounded like a traditional Thanksgiving day. Down in the basement, children giggled and played in a tent. One girl played with a flashlight. A little one played with her toes.

Upstairs, the cranberry sauce wobbled, the potatoes roasted and the adults chatted it up while the bird cooked. Babies napped in a bedroom. The good plates were on the dining room table, the cloth napkins were out and folded, and the whole house looked as if Martha Stewart had stopped by.

But for Nicole and Dennis Agostino, their three children and the guests at their Eldersburg home, yesterday wasn't planned as a normal Thanksgiving.

"Yeah," said Nicole, "this one's kind of different."

The Agostinos were treating a family of displaced Kosovars to their first Thanksgiving, serving up turkey and all the trimmings to the Rexhepis: Mirlinda 12; Labinot, 11; Mirgeta, 10; and their father, Musli, 40.

They fled to the United States in June after Serbian soldiers forced them from their village of Ferizaj, Yugoslavia. Musli was wounded in the knee and foot by soldiers spraying bullets. He lost his job, his home, his uncle, his good friend and, for a while, his country.

Yesterday, though, he could not have been more thankful for what remains.

"I am thankful for my family," he said of the three children with him in America and the five who remain with his wife and mother back in Yugoslavia.

His temporary house in the New World is nice, Musli said, school for his children is nice and his new job is nice.

"But family " he said, and then he finished his sentence by moving his hands to his heart.

Nicole Agostino's mother, Joyce Kruse, is one of the people overseeing the Rexhepi family's stay in the United States. Her church, Govans Presbyterian Church in Baltimore, took the group in and found schooling for the children, a job making windows and doors at Titan Inc. in Baltimore for Musli and housing for all of them.

"They're very special people," Kruse said. "They've certainly given us more than we've given them, just by sharing their lives and their stories with us."

The Rexhepis were among the first wave of Kosovar refugees to arrive in the United States. With Serbian soldiers blowing apart their village, Musli and his wife, Nadire, took their eight children and his mother and fled to the refugee camps in Macedonia. It took them 12 hours to get there, on foot.

The 11 family members made it on a plane to Fort Dix, N.J., stayed there for a month and then were taken in by Kruse and the church. They watched from Maryland as NATO airstrikes struck the Serbs.

By June, their ethnic Albanian village was safe again. And in September, Musli's homesick mother, Nafia, decided to return. Five of his children and his wife went with her.

"I have a good job here, so I stay and send money so the family has clothes," he said.

The family that returned to Ferizaj, however, needs more than clothes.

Their house, like so many in the area, has a big hole in the side and the roof. They stay in temporary housing with cement floors and no heat. They have no telephone, so keeping in touch has been difficult. Musli has spoken to his wife and mother only twice in the past three months, the last time on Monday.

Bursting with news, the women had traveled together to the Kosovo capital, Pristina, to call Musli: President Clinton was coming to their little village.

Nafia was among the throngs who took to the streets to cheer Clinton.

"I looked for her on CNN but didn't see her face," said Musli.

His children don't know exactly why Thanksgiving is celebrated.

"It's for chicken!" Labinot guessed.

"Every November, America eats turkey," explained Mirlinda.

Mirgeta just shrugged.

By dinner time, the dining room resembled a traditional Thanksgiving after all.

The Agostinos' daughter Marissa, 5, had made name cards telling everyone where to sit. The babies -- Stephen, 2, and Benjamin, 10 months -- were awake and seated in highchairs on either side of their father.

The turkey came out, grace was said, thanks were offered for family, friends and good health. The children told stories, the parents laughed and the babies got a little messy with the food.

"I guess it was kind of traditional," Nicole said. "It was fun."

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