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.
By Linda D. Kozaryn
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.
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."
"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.
"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."
"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.
"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.'"