Relatives in US set up spare beds for Kosovo refugees

US Kosovars flood resettlement offices to aid kin, who start arriving

Selim Gashi finds it hard to concentrate at work. He can't sleep at night. And when he sleeps, he dreams about Serbian police.

"I can see it - I'm getting bombed or the policemen have come to kill me," he says.

Mr. Gashi is not a destitute refugee struggling across the border to Macedonia or Albania. He runs a pizza restaurant in Wappinger Falls, N.Y. But his parents, brother, and sister have all been chased out of Kosovo in the past month - heightening the anxiety he feels about their welfare.

Now, his dreams have driven him to the Interfaith Community Services (ICS), a refugee resettlement office where he is filling out a form to try to get his relatives into the US.

Gashi is part of the Kosovar-Albanian diaspora, which is concentrated around major cities such as New York, Chicago, and Detroit. Like him, thousands of Kosovars living in the US are now heading to resettlement offices with offers to host family members, now that America is about to open its doors to as many as 20,000 refugees.

The first 400 arrivals are expected to begin landing at Fort Dix in New Jersey tomorrow. Moving Kosovar refugees out of neighboring Macedonia is the top priority, because that country's government says it cannot accommodate them and has been crying out to NATO countries for help.

Originally, the State Department had hoped to complete the refugees' paperwork and processing in Macedonia. But now, in anticipation of a new wave of Kosovars headed to Macedonia's refugee camps, the US has decided to act sooner.

In the resettlement offices here in the US, that priority is cause for confusion, as well as despair. People like Gashi, whose relatives fled to Albania, hope US policy will eventually expand to include refugees in Albania or Montenegro.

Most Kosovars are desperate to get their relatives to the US. They tell stories of aunts and uncles forced to walk for days to camps that have no electricity or running water. Many are still trying to contact relatives so they can fill out applications to bring them here. "This is a place of tears," says Chip Corcoran, executive director of Dallas-based Refugee Services of North Texas.

There is the story of Valbona Krasnigi, whose thinks about what her aunt and uncle face at the Stankovic refugee camp in Macedonia. Her aunt's poems, she says, always gave the family strength.

Another uncle tried to flee Pristina, the capital of Kosovo, but was turned back at the border by the Serbs. Now, Ms. Krasnigi thinks often about his two daughters. "I can't wait to get home to see if there is anything new."

The process of bringing refugees to the US begins at resettlement organizations such as Mr. Corcoran's or the ICS in New York. Most of these voluntary agencies are associated with mainstream religious faiths.

Every Wednesday, the 10 main agencies in the nation meet in Manhattan at the Refugee Data Center to decide where refugees accepted by the State Department will end up. If there is no family sponsorship, a refugee may go to a city that lacks workers or where needed medical help is available. But most of the Kosovar refugees are expected to be located close to their families or other volunteer sponsors.

"Our priority is family reunification," says a spokesman for the State Department's Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration.

Most Kosovar-Albanians like that priority, but many are confused and disappointed when they learn the US is currently taking Kosovars who have fled only to Macedonia. That's the case with Teuta Pelaj, a student at Mercy College, and her mother, Mira, who have come to the ICS. "I will have to tell my mother," says Ms. Pelaj, who can translate from English.

Pelaj tells the story of her uncle (Mira's brother), who left Peje, Kosovo, with his family after only 30 minutes of warning from Serbian police.

THEY fret about the family, says Pelaj, and they want to bring them despite the fact that they barely make ends meet on her father's salary as the manager of a small restaurant in Manhattan.

Some US-based Kosovars have turned to local representatives. Gashi, for instance, contacted US Rep. Sue Kelly (R) of New York, who referred him to the ICS.

Devat Bektesi, who works in a pizza shop in Queens, recounts how his 13-year-old son, Valan, wrote President Clinton about their relatives who have fled to Albania and Macedonia. "My son worries all the time about his cousins who are his age, with all the guns and bullets over there," says Mr. Bektesi.

Many of the Kosovar Albanians expect their relatives will return to Kosovo once the war is resolved. "They have property over there - why wouldn't they return?" asks Bektesi. In the meantime, he has high hopes of greeting his own relatives soon because some are in Macedonia. "I was told they have a good chance of coming."

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