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Life in "The Village": From Chaos to Calm

By Linda D. Kozaryn
American Forces Press Service

Fort Dix, N.J. To s, June 14, 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 Fort Dix, N.J. To see the entire series, visit our Operation Provide Refuge Web site.

As the 4,000 Kosovar refugees who arrived here can attest, life goes on regardless of war's death and destruction. Since early May, there have been three births, a wedding and a funeral in the refugee camp here known as The Village.

The first newborn, a boy, was named 'Amerikan' to honor the United States for providing safe haven for those forced to flee their homeland. Two 21-year-old refugees, separated by Serb purges in Pristina and reunited in Macedonia, were wed May 24 in a quiet ceremony so that nothing could tear them apart again.

A woman in her late 70s died aboard one of nine charter flights that carried ethnic Albanian refugees from Macedonia to the United States. The woman's son sat beside her body for four hours before the plane landed at nearby McGuire Air Force Base. Army Chaplain (Capt.) Mohammed Khan of the 525th Military Intelligence Brigade arranged for the woman's funeral and burial according to Islamic tradition.

"It was done swiftly and smoothly," said Khan, a Muslim imam, or religious leader. "At the funeral, the son thanked the United States and everybody who supported him. He said a beautiful thing. He said he wished his mother had remained alive for just three more days so she could see the generosity of America -- the reception they received. The support they got -- the kindness."

The United States has opened its arms and hearts to the refugees. Donations of food, shoes, clothing and other goods have poured into the base to help ease the loss of all they owned. The military commander charged with caring for the refugees at the camp is determined to ensure the Kosovars feel safe, comfortable and respected.

Employing the acronym "TIPS" is key to supporting the refugees, said Army Lt. Col. Joseph A. Brown, commander of the 530th Supply and Services Battalion, Fort Bragg, N.C. He said he encouraged his 150 red-bereted XVIII Airborne Corps soldiers on temporary duty here to: "T," talk to the refugees and "I," inform them of what they need to know. "Which leads to the 'P,' which is to make their lives predictable," he said.

"All of this is absolutely imperative for the refugees as they come from an overseas flight, suffering from jet lag, fatigue and trauma," Brown explained. "We want to tell them what's going to take place in the hours ahead as they get their rooms assigned and their first meal."

The final letter of the acronym, "S," is the most important of all, Brown said. It means "being sensitive to the refugees' needs and treating them with dignity and respect -- understanding where they've come from," he said.

Refugees enter Brown's domain after completing immigration processing at the reception center set up in Dix's Doughboy Gym. Processing the first 450 Kosovars who arrived May 5 took nearly eight hours, Brown noted. Officials streamlined the process so the last 460 refugees who arrived on the final flight May 29 finished in less than three hours.

At the last processing station, soldiers assigned refugees to color-coded dormitories in "The Village" and "The Hamlets," two camps resembling college campuses. Army officials ensured families stayed together, Brown said. The largest extended family to arrive had 34 members, he noted.

Soldiers and Immigration and Naturalization Service interpreters then escorted the refugees to their quarters. Brown adopted a soldier's suggestion to use golf carts to transport families with young children or elderly members the short distance to The Village, capable of housing 3,000. Buses carried refugees to The Hamlets, a little over a mile away, where housing was available for another 1,200.

The soldiers provide the refugees' main daily contact with Americans. Two soldiers serve as charge-of-quarters -- in military terms -- or as hotel desk clerks -- in civilian terms. Two Immigration and Naturalization Service security guards and an interpreter are also on duty in each dorm 24 hours a day.

Many refugees ask the troops about America, said Army Spc. Aaron W. Smith, one of the charge-of-quarters who works 12-hour shifts followed by 24 hours off. He said most Kosovar men aged 20 to 30 speak English. They want to know what states the soldiers like best and what kind of music they listen to, and where the best beaches are.

The Kosovar children's generosity most impressed the young soldier from LaGrange, N.C. After being forced from their homes, he said, "They had been living out in the woods for so many days, but when they got their food here, the first thing they did was offer it to someone older. They have a lot of respect for their elders."

Smith said that even though he had watched the news on the Kosovo conflict, meeting the people was "a whole 'nother thing." The experience has made him realize there are people who really need help, he said. "They're real grateful people when they see somebody in uniform helping them instead of trying to hurt them," he said.

"This makes me glad I'm in the Army, because back at work, you get an 'attaboy' every now and then, but here, you really feel appreciated," Smith continued. "You could have the most menial of jobs, but somebody here is always saying 'thank you,' and that just makes you feel good."

The children's attachment to the soldiers reminds Brown of the way ducklings imprint on the first living thing they see. "We're the first ones the children really see in the continental United States," the commander said. "They attach themselves to one or two soldiers and they follow them wherever they go and want to play with them."

Brown has his own following. "When I'm in The Village," he said, "there's one little boy who constantly brings me a piece of fruit or a bottle of water. He's always giving. It makes you feel you want to give back to them as much as they want to give to you."

The bond between the soldiers and the refugees is good for both, Brown said. "The adult refugees have said it's like a breath of fresh air that they are able to see soldiers in a different light -- that they are not going to cause harm," he said. "It's been great for my soldiers, too. They know they're doing something that really makes a difference. In many cases, this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to really have an impact on people's lives."

Each dorm in The Village houses 330 people and features a free "country store" manned by the New Jersey National Guard, a children's play room, a TV room and a laundry room. "We have a laundry contract, but when the refugees exchange their linens, they wash and fold it, and then turn it in," Brown said. "They just don't feel comfortable having people do services for them."

The refugees also set up teams to clean the latrines and began policing the area to save the soldiers from the chore. "They are so humble and thankful for what we're doing for them here, the minute we said 'If you don't pick up the litter, the soldiers will have to do it,' they took over."

Each dorm also features a prayer room oriented toward the Muslim holy city of Mecca. Chaplain Khan located an Albanian-speaking imam to conduct Jumma, the Muslims' congregational Friday prayers. The XVIII Airborne Corps' Muslim chaplain said he also created a 'do's and don'ts' card and conducted sensitivity training for the soldiers.

"I told them the enemy here is hopelessness and helplessness," he said. "We are fighting their misery, their hardship, displacement from their homes. They are coming from a genocidal environment. They lost everything -- their families, their property, their jobs. The only things they have are their names and their faith. So we will guard and protect their faith while they are here."

Khan said he frequently visits refugees traumatized by the war. A young woman remains in a psychiatric ward where her mind replays images of her sister's death at the hands of the Serbs. Another man continues to hear the sounds of the atrocities committed in his village. Another cries when he sees the imam; the Serbs repeatedly raped his wife. Another cries profusely as he tells the chaplain that Serb tanks demolished his family home while his father and brother were still inside.

"I find myself deeply affected by the stories and feeling their conditions," Khan said. "It's hard to describe. No civilized person can understand genocide, atrocities, rape, plunder. You have to fight your tears back sometimes. This is like a sequel of the Holocaust. So many split families."

Despite what's happened to them, Khan said, most of the refugees he's talked with say they will go back if the fighting stops. "Some will stay," he said. "The majority want to go back. Right now, they are very happy -- one eye is sorry to leave their country, the other is happy to be here."

Brown also said the majority of the refugees want to go home. "They're very thankful that they're here and not in the environment they just left, but their ultimate goal is to get back to their country," he said. "The adults and the elderly really want to go home."

As more and more refugees arrived at the camp, Army officials noted evidence of the difficulties the refugees had experienced in Kosovo and at other camps overseas. Long lines at the dining facilities made people afraid there would not be enough food. Security guards and interpreters had to reassure the Kosovars there would be plenty for all. "We adjusted hours in the dining facility to reduce congestion," Brown added.

Feeding and housing the refugees was only part of the commander's mission. He also had to give them something to do during the time they would live on post. So, the soldiers set up soccer fields, playgrounds and a community gathering area. English and cultural orientation classes started, along with arts and crafts classes for the children. A group of professional soccer coaches visited the camp, as well as the Army's Soldier Show. "We're constantly looking for things to keep them involved and active," Brown said.

On Mothers' Day, the Fort Bragg soldiers invited the Kosovars to a picnic to celebrate the American tradition. "I had some folks do some research on the Internet," Brown said. "They found that Julia Howe, who wrote the lyrics for the 'Battle Hymn of the Republic,' suggested the establishment of a Mothers' Day in 1872 as a day to help heal the scars and the suffering from our Civil War. We thought, 'What a connection.'"

Working with the Red Cross, soldiers volunteered to set up arts and crafts tables for the children to make cards and colored pipe cleaner flowers. A local florist donated 500 individually wrapped roses. At the end of the day, Albanian children recited patriotic poems that were translated into English for the soldiers.

"You could see a lot of tears in the refugees' eyes," Brown recalled. "And you could see a lot of tears in the soldiers'."

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Click photo for screen-resolution imageXVIII Airborne Corps Chaplain (Capt.) Mohammed Khan helps minister to the religious needs of Muslim ethnic Albanians at Fort Dix, N.J. Capt. Ronald Kopp, USAR   
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Click photo for screen-resolution imageKosovar men talk together in the refugee camp known as The Village at Fort Dix, N.J. Staff Sgt. Keith O'Donnell, USA  
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Click photo for screen-resolution imageEthnic Albanians turn sadness into song as other refugees listen at Fort Dix, N.J. NJARNG Photo  
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Click photo for screen-resolution imageIlire Hasanraka, 11, recites patriotic poetry in her native language during a Mother's Day celebration May 9 at Fort Dix, N.J. Staff Sgt. Kim Price, USAF  
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Click photo for screen-resolution imageArmy Lt. Col. Army Joseph A. Brown greets an elderly Kosovar man with a "high-five" upon the refugee's arrival at Fort Dix, N.J. Brown commands the 530th Supply and Services Battalion of Fort Bragg, N.C., supporting the Dix mission. Capt. Ronald Kopp, USAR  
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Click photo for screen-resolution imageA Kosovar couple unites in marriage at Fort Dix, N.J. Reunited after being separated by Serb forces, the high school sweethearts were wed May 24 with hopes that not even war can separate them again. Maj. Seth Braverman, USAR  
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Click photo for screen-resolution imageEthnic Albanians proudly show off and welcome the newest American citizen into the refugee center known as "The Village." Since Operation Provide Refuge began in May, four babies have been born to refugee families. NJARNG Photo  
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