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U.S. Offers Kosovar Albanians Safe Haven Today's Refugees Recall America's Past Life in 'The Village': From Chaos to Calm Military Team Helps Make Hospitality Happen National Guard, Red Cross seek donations, volunteers

The Americans _ military and civilian _ had spent the past few days creating a modern-day Ellis Island. Now, they waited anxiously for the climactic moment when the first Kosovars would arrive. They were standing in for the Statue of Liberty and in the weeks ahead would open their hearts to America's latest tired, huddled mass of refugees yearning to breathe free _ the victims of Yugoslavian ethnic cleansing.

Refugees' Plight Touches
American Hearts

By Linda D. Kozaryn
American Forces Press Service

Kosovar child waves American flag

Waving the American flag and wearing an Army XVIII Airborne Corps maroon beret, a Kosovar child rests on the shoulders of Spc. Brian Tiehen of the 612th Quartermaster Company, Fort Bragg, N.C. The Bragg soldiers are at Fort Dix, N.J., as part of Joint Task Force Provide Refuge and are helping care for some 3,500 refugees.
Capt. Ronald Kopp, USAR

drop capORT DIX, N.J. -- The crowd of Kosovar refugees doesn't look all that different from a typical gaggle of Americans. They'd certainly blend right in with the fans at a Red Sox game.

Except for the aged, that is. The wizened, elderly women in babushkas and men in dark suits, vests and caps who arrived here in May obviously come from another land, another time.

More than 4,000 ethnic Albanian refugees reached safety at this Army Reserve installation in May. One by one, they got off buses at the post gym, which had been turned into a reception center. Toddlers clutched teddy bears with one hand and their moms or dads with the other. Teens in T-shirts, jeans and sneakers warily eyed adults. Women of all ages looked strained and worn. Young men seemed on edge, leery of what was to come. All ages looked tired after their 13-hour trans-Atlantic flight from the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia.

All in all, considering what these people had been through, they looked damned good. They were not the skeletal, beaten figures now seen on CNN emerging from Serb prison camps. Yet, there was something about the refugees that weighed heavily on the hearts of all who witnessed their arrival.

Men and women, military and civilian, fought back tears set off by little things, little things that meant so much like the sight of a young mother gratefully releasing her sleeping 3-year-old into the welcoming arms of a gray-haired Red Cross volunteer. One could only imagine how long the mother had clung to her child, afraid to let go, fearful that he, too, might be lost like her husband, her father and brothers.

Unidentified soldier assists weary Kosovar mother on her arrival from Macedonia

An unidentified airman takes over for a weary refugee Kosovar mother, embracing her child after a long flight from Macedonia.
U.S. Army photo

Or the 8-year-old boy who offered an XVIII Airborne Corps soldier the apple from his box lunch. It wasn't the gift that caused a sniffle, but what the soldier imagined the child had gone through hiding in the mountains without food or shelter before finally escaping the Serbs' ethnic purges. How can he who has nothing be so generous? Can he understand what has happened to his people?

Or the frail old woman in traditional Albanian clothing -- a woman who surely must be in her 90s. How in the world did she manage to make it out of Kosovo? How did she survive the cold, the hunger, the deprivation?

As the refugees coming off the buses began to look up and smile at their new hosts, the red-eyed Americans quickly blinked away the mist, wiped away sniffles and warmly welcomed Kosovo's tired and poor. "Miredita!" (Mare-dee-tah), soldiers and civilian relief workers said -- "Good Day!" in Albanian. "Miredita! Welcome to America!" they said over and over. "Welcome to America!"

All total, nine Boeing 747 charter flights brought more than 4,000 refugees to nearby McGuire Air Force Base, N.J., in May. From there, buses brought them to Fort 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, Fort Bragg, N.C. "It's something you can't explain and something I will never forget the rest of my life."

Army Pvt. Joshua Bennett holds the hand of a refugee Kosovar boy

Army Pvt. Joshua Bennett of the 530th Supply and Services Battalion, XVIII Airborne Corps, from Fort Bragg, N.C., holds the hand of a refugee Kosovar boy. Bonds of friendship developed between the Kosovar children who arrived at Fort Dix, N.J., and the American service members there to support them.
Capt. Ronald Kopp, USAR

drop cappicture of an elderly Kosovar man giving Brown a "high-five" now hangs in the colonel's office. The commander in charge of the refugee camp known as "The Village" said it's something he'll cherish as a permanent memento of Operation Provide 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 with a '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 start to brighten up. You can tell that they're just absolutely thankful to be in a safe haven 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, live without shelter and then leave the country for another land where they didn't speak the language. "Trying to think about what these people are really going through 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. "Everybody sees the war, the bad side -- this is the good side of the Army," said the property book NCO from Brattleboro, Vt.

Even when Holden was tired and wanted to call it quits, he said, he'd walk in The Village, see the children, and that would make it all worthwhile. "If it ever happened to me, I would like to think somebody out there would try to help me pick up my life," he said.

A soldier plays ball with some Kosovar girls at Ft. Dix, NJ

An unidentified soldier plays ball with a group of Kosovar girls at Fort Dix, N.J. Soldiers assigned to Joint Task Force Provide Refuge volunteered to spend their free time with the Kosovo conflict's youngest victims.
U.S. Army Photo

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 refugees arrived May 5. As it turned out, the trucks weren't needed. For some refugees, a plastic bag contained all their worldly possessions. Whole families carried a single 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 back of a pickup truck. They had lost everything."

Army Sgt. Jennifer L. Barrs of Fort Bragg's 507th Corps Support Group said she was at the reception center when first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton welcomed the first 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 very humbling. You learn to appreciate everything you've taken for granted."

That especially includes your family, Barrs added. "I was a mess after Hillary's visit. I did nothing but call my mother, and my sister, people I hadn't talked to, and I said, 'I love you.' All of us here may be separated from our loved ones, but at least we have mothers and fathers and sisters and brothers to call 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 being deployed 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 mow my lawn? Then you get here and you look at these people, and they're grateful to have somebody's secondhand T-shirt."

1st. Lt. Kristine Sullivan poses with Kosovar refugee friends

First Lt. Kristine Sullivan of the XVIII Airborne Corps, Fort Bragg, N.C., poses for snapshots among her new Albanian Kosovar friends in The Village at Fort Dix, N.J.
Capt. Ronald Kopp, USAR

The sergeant said she could tell which troops had met refugees and which hadn't. "One minute they'd be in a bad mood and then they'd go out to The Village for the first time, talk to the people, play with the kids. They'd come back completely different people. They realized everything they were complaining about just 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're actually here. Once you walk through the village, you are a changed person."

Gilliam, who volunteered for the humanitarian mission and then extended for another two weeks, said she witnessed events that caused strong, mixed emotions among 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 to those 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. I thought to myself how lucky I am that I'm not divided by a fence from my loved ones. But at the same time, I was happy they had somewhere to go. That's how it's been around here all along. Everyone is happy for the Kosovar Albanian people, but sad for what they've lost."

A wedding at the camp brought out similar mixed feelings, she said. The young couple "wanted to keep it low-key, but there was music and they were smiling, dancing and having a good time," she said.

Army Reserve Spc. Brandy Gilliam with Kosovar refugees

Army Reserve Spc. Brandy Gilliam of the 358th Mobile Public Affairs Detachment, Salt Lake City, Utah, reaches out to a refugee Kosovar child in The Village at Fort Dix, N.J. Gilliam said she extended her temporary duty at the Army Reserve post because working with the children was so rewarding.
Staff Sgt. Keith O'Donnell, USA

drop caphat was nice to see, but then I looked on the sidelines and saw single mothers with their children just sitting there crying," Gilliam said. "They had lost their husbands and fathers to the war, and you could see the heartbreak in their 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," Gilliam admitted. "I see this stuff and I can't help but get emotional. It's hard to be in your uniform representing America -- you want to be strong and help support these people, but at the same time, you're human, too."

Gilliam, from Salt Lake City, Utah, said she thought about what it would be like if someone tried to eliminate people of her faith. "I can't imagine having everything torn away, not having anywhere to go," she said. "I just hope if I were in that situation that somebody -- some people -- would reach out and say we're sorry for your heartache. What can we do to help?

"It's a humbling experience to realize how much we have, and it makes me feel good to help out even in the slightest," she concluded.

America's religious freedom was also on Army Chaplain (Maj.) John Stepp's mind as he helped support the Fort Dix mission. As the Christian chaplain helped prepare for the Muslim refugees' congregational "Jumma" prayers one Friday afternoon, he said he was approached by one of the Albanian men.

"I was helping one of the Army's Muslim chaplains deliver prayer rugs, Stepp recalled. "One of the men came to me and said in broken English, 'I never would believe a Christian would help a Muslim worship.'

"I told him I was there to serve him," Stepp said. "I told him, 'This is America, and here in America we are all brothers.'"endding dingbat