Family connections: Refugees start anew
Those with sponsors began arriving Saturday. Many will be able to get
| NEW YORK
It's been 11 years since Nick Rugova last saw his uncle, Nezir. And he's never met Nezir's son and daughter. But the family reunion is bittersweet: Nezir and his children, who spent several weeks in tent camps, have just arrived here from Macedonia.
Many of his relatives - including Nezir's wife - are unaccounted for in Kosovo. "This is not the way I would like it to be," says Mr. Rugova, a resident of Bedford, N.Y.
Rugova's sentiments were shared by many of the relatives who greeted 102 refugees Saturday night in a giant hangar at New York's John F. Kennedy Airport. They were the first group to arrive under the State Department's family-reunification program. The scene will replay as the remainder of an estimated 20,000 refugees arrive in coming weeks.
"The United States is doing what it has for centuries - it is being a place for these people to alight," says Sen. Charles Schumer of New York, who greeted the refugees as they landed. "The Statue of Liberty is in our harbor, and it's a very real symbol because these people had no place to turn and it's opened up its doors."
The doors started opening last week when Kosovar Albanians who were considered vulnerable because of torture or illness started landing at McGuire Air Force Base in New Jersey and being placed temporarily at nearby Fort Dix.
But the bulk of the refugees will arrive the way the Rugovas have - at US airports, greeted by families who hope to give them some rest from the turmoil in the Balkans.
The effect of the turmoil was readily apparent on Rugova's cousin, Sherif, a student. He sobbed as he told reporters about how the family spent 12 days living in an automobile on the Macedonian border. And like every other refugee arriving, he had no luggage - only the clothes he was wearing. One family recounted how an uncle was chased from his apartment in his pajamas - the only clothing he had when he arrived at the Macedonian border.
To help make life seem more normal, sponsor families have been busy in the kitchen. Shqipe Malushi of Cliffside Park, N.J., has cooked tespishat, a sweet similar to baklava. Sabrije Selimi, a teenager, says she has been baking spinach pies.
Most sponsors expect to provide some of the money their relatives will need to get their feet on the ground. "I hope to get my uncle working as quickly as possible to get his mind off his troubles," says Rugova.
And almost all of them are happy to share their homes - no matter what the size - with their kin. Sabrije's family of six will share a two-bedroom apartment with her uncle's family of five. "It doesn't matter; some will sleep in the kitchen," she says.
Refugee resettlement agencies are also gearing up to help. The Kosovars will be eligible immediately for cash assistance (welfare), food stamps, and Medicaid - state money that will be reimbursed by the federal government. Senator Schumer says he intends to fight for additional money in the supplemental-spending bill now working its way through Congress. "I met with a group of Kosovars last week, and they were pleading for more refugee assistance," he says.
Many voluntary agencies also expect they will need to provide mental-health services for people who have experienced intense hardship in Kosovo. "They will need people who specialize in post-traumatic stress survival - people used to working with torture survivors," says Mary Diaz, director of the Women's Commission for Refugee Women and Children in New York.
In New York State, aid agencies have raised the issue of the requirement that all able-bodied welfare recipients must do some community work. "We're all in agreement the state should grant a variance on the immediate work requirement," says Dick Sessler, executive director of the Mohawk Valley Resource Center for Refugees, based in Utica, N.Y.
Relief groups are also concerned about the children, who are arriving at the end of the US school year. Mr. Sessler expects agencies will have to put together a summer program to teach the children English and get them ready for school in September.
The arriving refugees are likely to find work once they learn English. Jack Griswold, deputy executive director of the Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service in New York, says his agency finds jobs for about 95 percent of its cases. He says he has been getting requests from labor-short areas, such as Grand Forks, N.D., to place refugees. "Right now, getting employment is not a problem," says Mr. Griswold.
In fact, the work ethic of many of the refugees is attractive to employers. Sessler says immigrants usually start working at $6 to $7 per hour, usually taking the entry-level jobs. "Employers get a day's work for a day's pay," he says, "and the refugees just want to get back on track."
Communities have learned from past experience the benefits of hosting refugees. Only six years ago, Sessler's organization sponsored two Bosnians in Utica. They applied to bring over their relatives. The families have now extended to more than 3,000 Bosnian immigrants in only six years. Once in Utica, they have bought and renovated houses and begun small businesses.
Now, the mayor of Rome - about 20 miles away - is calling to ask for refugees. "I am sure this will happen with the Kosovars, too," says Sessler.