Pulling political and purse strings

US Albanians find themselves in un-familiar arena of rallies and TV

Nick Ndrejaj, who retired from the real estate business, lives on a pension in Daytona Beach, Fla. But the retiree has managed to scrape up some money to send to the Kosovo Liberation Army, the rebel force that is opposing Yugoslav strongman Slobodan Milosevic. "It's hard, but we have had to do this all our lives," says the elderly man.

Mr. Ndrejaj is one of many Albanians in America who are sending all they can spare to aid their beleaguered compatriots in central Europe. The disaster in Kosovo is uniting the minority into a major fund-raising and congressional lobbying effort.

While many here have long supported those back home financially, raising their voice is a new experience for Albanians, who mainly work hard - often as building cleaners - and mind their own business. But, with bombs falling on their relatives and ancestral villages, they find themselves in protest marches and in the unfamiliar glare of television cameras.

The decades-long conflict has been like an unofficial tax for the 500,000 Albanians around the US. Families are tithing themselves. Parents are sending used clothing to relief organizations. They are hosting fund-raising dinners. "It's being done family by family, individual by individual," says Shirley Cloyes of the Albanian-American Civic League, based in Ossining, N.Y.

At the same time, they are lobbying Congress to pass legislation that would fund the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) with $25 million. "We're calling Congress, we're calling the White House, we're calling every number that's in the phone book," says Bekim Krasmigi, a resident of Mt. Kisco, N.Y., alongside 3,000 other Albanians in a recent New York rally.

For many Albanians, the fund-raising effort is not new. Over the past decade, the 15 million Albanians living outside of Albania have dug deep into their pockets as their friends and relatives lost jobs in Kosovo. "People have been surviving on money from the diaspora," says Ms. Cloyes.

About a year ago, she says, Albanians shifted some of their fund-raising to support the KLA. Analysts say as a result of that, the army has gotten much more sophisticated weapons. Now, however, they are trying to raise money for the humanitarian disaster as hundreds of thousands ethnic Albanians are forced out of their homes by Serb troops. "We have raised over $2 million for the refugees who are flooding into Albania, Montenegro, and Macedonia," says Mr. Krasmigi.

Typical of the donors is Agim Jusufi, a building superintendent on Manhattan's West Side. Mr. Jusufi gets a weekly paycheck. He describes himself as an ordinary "working man." However, he has donated $5,000 to the KLA.

"It is always stressed that we should donate when we can," he says, "We are in a grave moment, so we are raising money."

Jusufi bridles over reports that drug money funds the KLA. There has been an Albanian organized-crime element involved in the drug trade for decades. But, he says, in this country, the money comes from hard-working immigrants. "We have canceled checks to prove it," he says.

Jusufi, who has worked in Switzerland, says Albanians living there and in Germany often donate 3 to 6 percent of their salary toward Albanian causes. He calls it a kind of tax.

ONE of the Albanians' main political supporters is Rep. James Traficant (D) from Ohio. Representative Traficant has introduced legislation calling for an independent Kosovo. The bill is opposed by the Clinton administration since it believes it would prevent any agreement at the bargaining table.

On March 29, Traficant said he plans to "ante up" the debate by offering a resolution for the US to arm the KLA. "Let's assist them so they can defend themselves, because freedom for Kosovo won't come from without. It will come from within," he said, adding that the administration opposes the measure.

For Traficant, whose district includes Youngstown, Ohio, there is a certain amount of risk in his support of the Albanians. His district has many more Serbian-Americans than Albanians. "It's certainly not in anyone's best interest to become involved," he says, "But the debate must be brought forward."

Former Rep. Joseph DioGuardi, who has Albanian roots, argues that arming the anti-Serb forces worked in Bosnia. After years of civil war, the US armed the Croatians and Muslims. Once they could fight the Serbians on an equal footing, Mr. Milosevic agreed to a peace accord.

"The Kosovars need those weapons now to take out the missiles that are hidden in the woods and the tanks that are in the cities," says Mr. DioGuardi, who spoke at the New York rally.

While Congress debates the merits of arming the Kosovars, the world's relief agencies are gearing up to try to help in the humanitarian effort.

This week, the Italian government donated a naval vessel, buses, tents, and other refugee aid. Italian television said the government is assuming it will have to accommodate 25,000 refugees. The European Union also began to reach into its pocketbook. It earmarked $21.5 million for humanitarian aid. Germany said it might add an extra $8.3 million.

For most Albanian-Americans, however, the relief efforts don't help them cope with the agony befalling their relatives. "We give money, we march, we do everything we can, but we still feel hopeless," says Dijana Vajushi, a hospital supervisor living in Queens, N.Y.

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