For those meeting planes and buses bearing Kosovo’s ethnic Albanians, welcoming war-weary refugees to the United States was like stepping into America’s past.
“We want to welcome these people to America the way we might wish our grandparents and great-grandparents had been welcomed to Ellis Island,” U.S. Army Gen. Mitchell M. Zais, said he had told troops assigned to Operation Provide Refuge.
This is something that’s happened in America from the Irish potato famine to the Jews driven from Europe before World War II to the Italians who came in great numbers, the commander said. “For many Americans,” he said, “this resonated as something that was personally related to their family experience.”
The general, head of Joint Task Force Provide Refuge, said he recalled his own family history as the first planeload of about 450 refugees came down the ramp May 5 at McGuire Air Force Base, N.J. “The babushka-covered ladies looked as I imagined my grandmother looked when she came across the gangplank at Ellis Island — an illiterate peasant refugee from Central Europe, driven out of Kiev by the pogroms,” he said.
Watching 463 Albanian refugees arriving May 29 at the Doughboy Gym reception center, Naval Reserve Capt. Joseph Eiting said he also recalled his grandmother’s journey to a new life. She was 16 when she and her 14-year-old sister arrived in New York from Czechoslovakia in about 1909, he said. “She was much like a lot of these people, I suspect. She couldn’t speak a word of English — except she didn’t have anywhere to go.”
Fort Dix was the place to go for the more than 4,000 Kosovar refugees who arrived here in May. Landing at McGuire after a 13- hour trans-Atlantic charter flight, they boarded buses for a quick ride to this quiet, tree-lined Army Reserve post. A former basic training center, Fort Dix offered a temporary safe haven, and a host of service members, civilians and volunteers worked to make the refugees comfortable.
As Albanian women carrying sleeping toddlers emerged from buses, soldiers from the XVIII Airborne Corps and Red Cross volunteers took over the load. Greeting their new American hosts, elderly Albanian men solemnly put their hands over their hearts reflecting their heartfelt thanks. Kosovar women of all ages timidly smiled when Red Cross volunteer Kaye Ordiway from Chambersburg, Pa., swept each into her arms and said, “Welcome to America.”
A total of nine flights arrived during the month. Formally welcoming the refugees at the gym, Zais told the Kosovars, “America is a land of immigrants and refugees. All of us came from somewhere else.”
Learning Fort Dix would house the refugees, Zais said he set out to ensure the Kosovars would get the best in American hospitality. These people are not the illegal migrants seen in Guantanamo, Panama and Suriname, the commander said. “Those were all people trying to enter the United States illegally, ahead of others who had complied with the law and who had waited their turn to emigrate into the United States.”
The Kosovars, on the other hand, are legal refugees, here at the invitation of the government, he said. “Consequently, I told the soldiers those images of chain link fence, barbed wire, tents, dust and mud, that you have, put those out of your mind. That’s not the image for this camp. This camp will be like a college campus with dormitories, dining facilities, and recreational facilities.”
Zais gathered a team of about 80 soldiers from the U.S. Army Reserve Command in Atlanta and about 200 soldiers from the airborne corps and other units from Fort Bragg, N.C. The New Jersey National Guard assumed the lead in partnership with the American Red Cross in coordinating charitable donations from private individuals, U.S. corporations, church groups and other organizations.
With the help of Fort Dix officials, the military went to work to support the refugee camp named “The Village.” The military also supported the relief effort’s interagency task force, headed by the Health and Human Services Department and including federal agencies, nongovernment resettlement organizations and volunteer groups.
“The military is not in charge of this operation,” Zais said. “We provide facilities to the refugees and to the agencies operating here. That team came together very quickly and has worked very effectively together.”
Shortly after the first Albanians arrived, Zais said, a foreign reporter asked if it was appropriate to bring these refugees to a military installation after they had been traumatized by Serb soldiers in Kosovo. The general replied that only the Yugoslav army uniform would strike terror in their hearts.
“It’s been my experience in Vietnam, in Korea, in the Middle East, and everywhere else I’ve traveled through Central and South America, that the American soldier is loved around the world for his compassion and generosity,” he said. “The only people who fear American soldiers are those who have a good reason to.”
More soldiers have volunteered for the mission than Zais has jobs for, he noted. Soldiers assigned to the task force have enjoyed helping the refugees. “They have loved it,” he said. “They see the gratitude in the eyes of the refugees and the faces of the children. They have received recognition from everyone who comes to visit. It’s been heartwarming.”
A number of teen-age Albanians have told Zais they want to join the American Army. “I suspect a large number of these Kosovar teen-agers and young children who are now refugees, but who one day will be immigrants, will join the military because their first experience with the kindness and generosity of the American people has been at the hands of these soldiers,” he said.
Walking through The Village, it’s apparent the Kosovar children aren’t afraid of America’s troops. Soldiers read to them; they play soccer and volleyball. Children of all ages greet the soldiers with a ‘high-five.’ Hajrullah Berisha, the ethnic Albanian elected to be mayor of The Village, said it’s remarkable how the soldiers can play so long with the children. “It’s the first time Albanian children play with soldiers,” he said.
Rudi Rubik, a 23-year-old refugee who serves as a translator for his people, said the refugees at Fort Dix have lost their “phobia” toward soldiers. “At first they were very afraid,” he said. “Day by day, they became more comfortable. This is the first time we see soldiers and we can speak to them without fear.
After nearly three weeks at the Army camp, Rubik said he has come to love the soldiers and the American workers who teach English and cultural orientation classes. “The soldiers have treated us with great kindness,” Rubik said. “They want to speak to us, to share their culture. I would like to be just like them. We need to learn from you [Americans] and rebuild Kosovo based on your ideals.”