From Americans, an outpouring of aid for refugees

Plight of expelled Kosovars stirs citizens to give at a level similar

Hands reaching for bread. Babies wrapped in thin blankets, clutched by mothers choking back tears. Bewildered faces staring out from crowded trains.

The images of exiled Kosovars that confront Americans every time they pick up a newspaper or turn on the TV are triggering a strong impulse to help ease a sense of suffering.

Major relief groups say the response has been overwhelming in the past week, with contributions pouring in at a level similar to that directed toward Central America after hurricane Mitch struck last November.

"When they are looking through photographs or television video into the eyes of someone who's homeless and cold ... who's very young or very old, they just react to the humanity of it," says Kathy Doherty of the Atlanta-based CARE, which has already raised more than $1 million in grants and individual donations for the ethnic Albanian refugees from Kosovo While the size of donations varies widely, it averages about $150, she says.

"I wanted to do something, and I really didn't know where to start," says Karen Robinson-Roach, who works in Worcester, Mass. She's not able to afford a cash donation, but took a bag of clothes to the New England Albanian Relief Organization (NEARO) Tuesday. Having ancestors from Italy and other parts of Europe, she says this situation really hit home.

News coverage is catalyst

Media coverage of humanitarian crises serves as a catalyst for charity by helping Americans identify with people as neighbors in need, says Paul Schervish, a Boston College sociology professor who has studied patterns of giving.

The Kosovars' plight also resonates because of how American culture has been shaped by the Holocaust, the civil rights movement, and a history of religious freedom, he adds. Americans see these refugees as "especially representative of that which we have stood against: racism, religious intolerance, and genocide."

Not only are people calling hot lines or logging on to the Internet to make donations, but some have also offered to sponsor refugees if they are allowed to come to the United States. Currently, the US plans to temporarily house 20,000 Kosovars at the Guantanomo Bay naval base in Cuba, but the degree to which Americans want to personally embrace the refugees is extraordinary, says Peggy Connolly of Boston-based Oxfam America.

The US and other NATO nations are working to coordinate and assist the many groups providing humanitarian assistance. (For a list of aid agencies, see page 9.) A toll-free number announced by President Clinton Monday had to be expanded to keep up with callers seeking information on how to help.

"The point we're trying to make to people is: Please give cash," says Brian Atwood, administrator of the US Agency for International Development and chairman of the council overseeing relief efforts. "In the case of Mitch, we were overwhelmed by warehouses full of uninventoried goods that we couldn't get down there."

Most aid organizations echo that call for cash. But those who feel they can afford only to donate used items are often referred to NEARO in Worcester. Operating out of a shared warehouse, the volunteer organization has been shipping clothes, food, and medical supplies to Albania since 1990. Used items from all over the US are sorted into piles along the walls.

"Two years ago we started to set up warehouses in the north of Albania.... We saw this coming - the Kosovo problem," says Leon Lonstein, who founded NEARO with his wife of Albanian ancestry, Mary Sahahgen-Lonstein.

About 100 people a day have been making donations this week, says director John James as he packs boxes coded with blue stickers to go to the refugee areas.

New England and parts of the West Coast account for a large portion of the donations because of their significant Slavic populations, says Brian Gray of the American Red Cross. The group raised about $2.8 million in the first week of the aid drive, but will continue to need $1 million a week for several months to supply its share of aid to the more than 400,000 Kosovars who have been driven from their homes since NATO started bombing March 24.

Strong economy abets generosity

Aid organizers say a thriving economy translates into generosity. "People are feeling their good fortune and know that they can set something aside to help people who really are in need," Oxfam's Ms. Connolly says.

In fact, charitable giving by individuals in the US went up about 7 percent in 1997. And amounts given to international causes rose 15 percent in that year, to almost $2 billion, according to the American Association of Fund-Raising Counsel Inc. in New York. "Americans do have a sense of being relatively affluent," says Mr. Schervish. Still, those international causes account for less than 2 percent of all US charitable giving.

Cambodia's "killing fields" in the late 1970s prompted a similar outpouring of support because "people were aghast at the atrocities," says Connolly. But nothing has surpassed the money raised for the Ethiopian famine, when people donated $16 million in one year to Oxfam America alone, she adds.

Hurricane Mitch was the first major disaster to attract heavy donations since the aftermath of the 1994 Rwandan massacres. But even though Kosovo came right on Mitch's heels, "there is no sign of donor fatigue," Connolly says. "There's always a debate about when will people stop giving, but I firmly believe when a need is presented, Americans have a deep reservoir of concern."

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