Baby Amerikan's chances fade


Refugee: Fourteen months after the baby named Amerikan was born, a symbol of hope in his refugee parents' new land, he is in Kosovo as his family struggles.

July 20, 2000|By Daniel Rubin | Daniel Rubin,KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

FERIZAJ, Yugoslavia - He arrived in the world to great fanfare, delivered from war and named for his new country.

Fourteen months later, Baby Amerikan is back home, in this heavily policed farming village about 20 miles south of Pristina. His father is out of work. His mother is pregnant. And there is no more space in the four-room house that the toddling Kosovar shares with 14 relatives.

"Things here are not very good. Not very good at all," said his mother, Lebibe Karaliju, 22, balancing the child on her hip as a dozen family members gather barefoot in the den and tell the story of Kosovo's most heralded refugee. "We don't have work here. We don't have a home."

When the first flight of ethnic Albanians landed at New Jersey's McGuire Air Force Base in May 1999, Lebibe Karaliju was in labor. She'd told doctors in the Macedonian refugee camp that she was seven months' pregnant. She was really nine.

"I was terrified that I was going to deliver in the streets," she said.

The next day she gave birth, and Lebibe and Naim Karaliju, 28, called their first-born child Amerikan, an Albanian spelling, in honor of the land that lifted them from their war-ravaged home.

President Clinton welcomed the tiny U.S. citizen in a letter that spoke of the "bright opportunities" ahead. Strangers sent gifts. Scores of cameras and reporters chronicled his release from the hospital. The picture of the infant clutching a red-white-and-blue flag ran on front pages across the country, a symbol of America's largess, and a promise for a better life.

The dream didn't last long for Baby Amerikan's family. Shortly after moving to Dallas, where a cousin sponsored 31 relatives, Naim gave an interview to the New York Post in August, complaining that their resettlement agency wasn't taking care of them.

Agency officials countered that in addition to free rent and food money, the family had income from Naim's construction job, his mother's hotel housekeeping work and government assistance checks for his father. Still, officials from United Parcel Service dropped by their apartment the next day, offering jobs for both Naim and his cousin.

Naim worked the night shift at UPS for several months in Texas. But the seed money from the refugee agency was running out. His 64-year-old mother, Xheurie, didn't have the energy to continue working as a maid. They knew no English, felt homesick, and worried that they would be evicted from their apartment.

Xheurie Karaliju had left three daughters behind, including one who was pregnant and hiding in the mountains. "I needed to see how they were," she said.

Bits of news began arriving from Kosovo. The Serbs had fled the village. Naim's house had survived. Americans had taken over the region, setting up a giant military base nearby. They'd even built a Burger King.

So the five Karalijus chose to leave their air-conditioned, two-bedroom, two-bath apartment with a kitchen full of appliances, and flew home.

Naim's house was still standing, but that was all.

"It was completely destroyed," said Lebibe, a tall, seven-month pregnant woman with raven curls flowing past her shoulders. Serbs had ransacked the interior, then moved a tank into the first floor to hide it from NATO bombers.

Xheurie found her three daughters were safe and her daughter had delivered a healthy baby girl. But her husband's brother and his wife were so not lucky.

Her husband told this part, the 68-year-old patriarch in a navy beret and trim mustache, wearing a dusty sports coat and vest, and sitting with his legs twisted, his arms crossing his chest.

"When we saw them burning houses and shooting, we just left," said Vehbi Karaliju. "Unfortunately, my brother did not. He wanted to wait for his daughter who lived nearby."

Karaliju recounted what people told him happened next.

"They came in this part of the town. Soldiers started shooting and burning houses. My brother lived two doors down from my house. So they kicked them out. They directed them to go to Macedonia. They just pulled them out of the convoy of people and just shot them. Serb police did that."

Vehbi Karaliju rolled another cigarette, pinching stringy yellow tobacco leaves with his sun-burnished fingers. Above him hung a picture from Texas: he is smiling, under a 10-gallon hat.

Five children listened intently, but this was all he told.

After the NATO bombing campaign began March 24, 1999, Serb army, police, paramilitaries and armed civilians looted and burned Albanian-owned houses in Ferizaj, and began forcing Albanians onto buses and trains bound for the Macedonian border, OSCE reported. The violence reached its peak in early April after NATO bombs hit the Army barracks, killing 12 Yugoslav soldiers. Officers rolled through town, shooting, beating and evicting.

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