Refugees' Plight Touches American Hearts
By Linda D. Kozaryn
American Forces Press Service
Ft. Dix, N.J. To read more, visit the w, June 11, 1999 This story is part of a series of articles detailing U.S. military support to the Kosovar refugees who have been provided safe haven at Ft. Dix, N.J. To read more, visit the web site at Operation Provide Refuge.
The crowd of Kosovar refugees don't look all that differentfrom a typical gaggle of Americans. They'd certainly blend right in with the fansat a Red Sox game.
Except for the old aged, that is. The wizened, elderly women in babushkas andmen in dark suits, vests and caps who arrived here in May obviously come fromanother land, another time.
More than 4,000 ethnic Albanian refugees reached safety at this Army Reserveinstallation in May. One by one, they got off buses at the post gym, which hadbeen turned into a reception center. Toddlers clutched teddy bears with one handand their moms or dads with the other. Teens in T-shirts, jeans and sneakerswarily eyed adults. Women of all ages looked strained and worn. Young men seemedon edge, leery of what was to come. All ages looked tired after their 13-hourtrans-Atlantic flight from the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia.
All in all, considering what these people had been through, they looked damnedgood. They were not the skeletal, beaten figures now seen on CNN emerging fromSerb prison camps. Yet, there was something about the refugees that weighedheavily on the hearts of all who witnessed their arrival.
Men and women, military and civilian, fought back tears set off by littlethings, little things that meant so much. Like the sight of a young mothergratefully releasing her sleeping 3-year-old into the welcoming arms of agray-haired Red Cross volunteer. One could only imagine how long the mother hadclung to her child, afraid to let go, fearful that he, too, might be lost like herhusband, her father and brothers.
Or the 8-year-old boy who offered an XVIII Airborne Corps soldier the applefrom his box lunch. It wasn't the gift that caused a sniffle, but what the soldierimagined the child had gone through hiding in the mountains without food orshelter before finally escaping the Serbs' ethnic purges. How can he who hasnothing be so generous? Can he understand what has happened to his people?
Or the frail old woman in traditional Albanian clothing -- a woman who surelymust be in her 90s. How in the world did she manage to make it out of Kosovo? Howdid she survive the cold, the hunger, the deprivation?
As the refugees coming off the buses began to look up and smile at their newhosts, the red-eyed Americans quickly blinked away the mist, wiped away snifflesand warmly welcomed Kosovo's tired and poor. "Miredita!" (Mare-dee-tah), soldiersand civilian relief workers said -- "Good Day!" in Albanian. "Miredita! Welcome toAmerica!" they said over and over. "Welcome to America!"
All total, nine Boeing 747 charter flights brought more than 4,000 refugees tonearby McGuire Air Force Base, N.J., in May. From there, buses brought them toFort Dix. "You had to be there to see it," said Army Lt. Col. Joseph A. Brown,commander of the 530th Supply and Services Battalion, XVIII Airborne Corps, FortBragg, N.C. "It's something you can't explain and something I will never forgetthe rest of my life."
A picture of an elderly Kosovar man giving Brown a "high-five" now hangs in thecolonel's office. The commander in charge of the refugee camp known as "TheVillage" said it's something he'll cherish as a permanent memento of OperationProvide Refuge.
"In some cases, I've shaken the hand of every refugee to come off the buses,"said the officer from Marion, Ind. "A lot of the time, they come off the bus witha 'thousand-mile stare' and you can see they've been through a tremendous amount.But as they get off the bus and see Americans volunteers and soldiers, they startto brighten up. You can tell that they're just absolutely thankful to be in a safehaven away from that environment they left."
Sgt. Maj. Steven Woods of Army Reserve Command headquarters, Fort McPherson,Ga., said he tried to imagine his family being forced to abandon their home, livewithout shelter and then leave the country for another land where they didn'tspeak the language. "Trying to think about what these people are really goingthrough overwhelms me," he concluded.
"I wanted to be involved," said Army Reserve Command's Staff Sgt. Daniel F.Holden, who like many others volunteered for the humanitarian mission. "Everybodysees the war, the bad side -- this is the good side of the Army," said theproperty book NCO from Brattleboro, Vt.
Even when Holden was tired and wanted to call it quits, he said, he'd walk inThe Village, see the children, and that would make it all worthwhile. "If it everhappened to me, I would like to think somebody out there would try to help me pickup my life," he said.
What struck many of the Americans was the refugees lack of personal belongings.Army officials had two trucks standing by when the first planeload of 450 refugeesarrived May 5. As it turned out, the trucks weren't needed. For some refugees, aplastic bag contained all their worldly possessions. Whole families carried asingle small suitcase.
"Here's a 747, a big plane," said Army Reserve Command's Maj. Kent Jennings,"and you could have taken all the baggage these folks had and put it into the backof a pickup truck. They had lost everything."
Army Sgt. Jennifer L. Barrs of Fort Bragg's 507th Corps Support Group said shewas at the reception center when first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton welcomed thefirst refugees. "It was so moving to see how grateful they were," she recalled."When you look at the refugees and see all they have is in a bag, it's veryhumbling. You learn to appreciate everything you've taken for granted."
That especially includes your family, Barrs added. "I was a mess afterHillary's visit. I did nothing but call my mother, and my sister, people I hadn'ttalked to, and I said, 'I love you.' All of us here may be separated from ourloved ones, but at least we have mothers and fathers and sisters and brothers tocall and talk to. A lot of these people have seen their relatives, brothers,sisters, mothers and fathers killed."
At first, Barrs said, many of the airborne corps soldiers groused about beingdeployed to New Jersey. "The command said, 'Bring your duffel bag and a carry bag.You're going.' All I could think was, 'Well, what about all my civilian clothes?'All my stuff? Who's gonna take care of my house? Who's gonna wash my truck and mowmy lawn? Then you get here and you look at these people, and they're grateful tohave somebody's secondhand T-shirt."
The sergeant said she could tell which troops had met refugees and whichhadn't. "One minute they'd be in a bad mood and then they'd go out to The Villagefor the first time, talk to the people, play with the kids. They'd come backcompletely different people. They realized everything they were complaining aboutjust doesn't matter. It's all about the smiles on everybody's faces out there."
"You just can't get enough of the kids and all the people here," said Army Spc.Brandy Gilliam, 358th Mobile Public Affairs Detachment. "You see them on the news,but it doesn't quite hit home," she said. "I don't think it registers until you'reactually here. Once you walk through the village, you are a changed person."
Gilliam, who volunteered for the humanitarian mission and then extended foranother two weeks, said she witnessed events that caused strong, mixed emotionsamong refugees and Americans alike. When the first group left to join sponsors,for example, she said, they were happy to relocate, but sad to say goodbye tothose they left behind.
A fence thwarted a young girl and her boyfriend's farewell embrace that day,Gilliam recalled. "It was the saddest thing. They were both crying and hugging. Ithought to myself how lucky I am that I'm not divided by a fence from my lovedones. But at the same time, I was happy they had somewhere to go. That's how it'sbeen around here all along. Everyone is happy for the Kosovar Albanian people, butsad for what they've lost."
A wedding at the camp brought out similar mixed feelings, she said. The youngcouple "wanted to keep it low-key, but there was music and they were smiling,dancing and having a good time," she said.
"That was nice to see, but then I looked on the sidelines and saw singlemothers with their children just sitting there crying," Gilliam said. "They hadlost their husbands and fathers to the war, and you could see the heartbreak intheir faces as they watched this new romance, this new family beginning."
"I tried to comfort one woman, but she just sobbed. I cried then, too," Gilliamadmitted. "I see this stuff and I can't help but get emotional. It's hard to be inyour uniform representing America -- you want to be strong and help support thesepeople, but at the same time, you're human, too."
Gilliam, from Salt Lake City, Utah, said she thought about what it would belike if someone tried to eliminate people of her faith. "I can't imagine havingeverything torn away, not having anywhere to go," she said. "I just hope if I werein that situation that somebody -- some people -- would reach out and say we'resorry for your heartache. What can we do to help?
"It's a humbling experience to realize how much we have, and it makes me feelgood to help out even in the slightest," she concluded.
America's religious freedom was also on Army Chaplain (Maj.) John Stepp's mindas he helped support the Fort Dix mission. As the Christian chaplain helpedprepare for the Muslim refugees' congregational "Jumma" prayers one Fridayafternoon, he said he was approached by one of the Albanian men.
"I was helping one of the Army's Muslim chaplains deliver prayer rugs, Stepprecalled. "One of the men came to me and said in broken English, 'I never wouldbelieve a Christian would help a Muslim worship.'
"I told him I was there to serve him," Stepp said. "I told him, 'This isAmerica, and here in America we are all brothers.'"