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Crisis in Yugoslavia

U.S. Families Eager for Refugees

Volunteers: Albanian Americans line up to provide new lives for displaced Kosovars.

April 24, 1999|MELISSA HEALY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — With resettlement experts predicting that many of the refugees will never return home, Albanian Americans began queuing up Friday to bring their homeless Kosovo relatives to the United States.

From San Diego to Chicago to New York--all cities with sizable communities of Albanian Americans--legal residents and new citizens who had previously fled the war-torn Balkans began filling out new forms that would allow their relatives to leave Macedonian refugee camps and come to the United States.

Officials said the newcomers will be accorded refugee status, allowing them to apply for permanent residence a year after their arrival and for citizenship five years later. Given the likelihood of a lengthy conflict and a protracted period of rebuilding in Kosovo, many are expected to establish new lives in the U.S. and never go home.

But the Clinton administration, attentive to its political promise of returning Kosovo Albanians to their homes, has set aside funds for the refugees to return if they wish.

"That's quite unique, and it fits quite appropriately to these circumstances," said Mark Franken, executive director of the U.S. Catholic Conference's office of migration and refugee services.

In the meantime, specialists gearing up for a major influx of refugees cautioned that the newly arrived Kosovo Albanian immigrants are certain to bear deep psychological scars and to present significant practical challenges to those helping with their resettlement.

Many are expected to be women with children whose husbands have disappeared or been killed. Most will require both financial support and psychological counseling if they are to overcome the trauma of their expulsion from the Serbian province and adapt to life in the United States.

"There's no question that anyone in this population meets the legal definition of a refugee," said Bob Carey, vice president for resettlement of the International Rescue Committee, the largest of the U.S. refugee organizations that operate independently of religious organizations. "They all have been persecuted and certainly suffer a well-founded fear of persecution. For resettlement workers, that makes the parameters much clearer."

At the same time, Carey said, those coming under the Clinton administration's hastily devised refugee program "are going to need a lot of help. . . . This is going to be a traumatized population."

Under guidelines issued Friday, Kosovo Albanians will be permitted to join relatives in the U.S. as distant as aunts, uncles and cousins--an allowance far broader than that granted to any other recent or current refugee group. Individuals may apply to bring related Kosovo Albanians to the United States as refugees as long as the prospective sponsor is in this country legally, whether as U.S. citizen, refugee or asylum-seeker.

But the Clinton administration has told resettlement officials that initially, at least, Kosovo Albanians in Macedonia, considered most urgently in need of help, must be given priority in coming to the U.S. About 130,000 Kosovo Albanians are in Macedonia--about 50,000 in camps and 80,000 in homes around the country.

In recent weeks, as refugee organizations and NATO allies have sought to move refugees out of Macedonia, many of the most cosmopolitan and the least traumatized of the Kosovo Albanians have left. As a result, Macedonia's existing refugee population has increasingly tilted toward the ill, the deeply traumatized and those with little experience with the outside world.

Carey, with the International Rescue Committee, said such refugees often have no experience with, and are resistant to, traditional psychotherapy. He noted that as traumatized Bosnian refugees settled into Croatian refugee camps during the war in Bosnia-Herzegovina, his organization essentially devised activity groups that became sessions for listening and support.

For example, a "knitting circle" sprang up among one group of Bosnian women--many of whom had been raped or terrorized by Bosnian Serb troops--and served as "their own definition of occupational therapy," Carey said

As U.S. resettlement officials began taking applications from relatives Friday, they said they were besieged by offers from Americans without ethnic Albanian relatives who wanted to offer help and sponsor refugees.

"The outpouring we are getting in terms of assistance is humbling and extraordinary," said Carey, whose group has offices in Los Angeles, San Diego, Garden Grove and Palm Desert. "Our lines are being clogged with Americans who want to provide any kind of assistance they can."

Meanwhile, officials from the Pentagon and the Immigration and Naturalization Service are deliberating how and where they will screen, interview and transport refugees to temporary homes in the United States.

In the interest of speeding the resettlement of Kosovo refugees, the INS has struggled to streamline a process that usually takes months, by consolidating several forms into a single one for U.S. relatives to complete.

But while Clinton administration officials focused on the temporary nature of the resettlement effort, many experts said that a large proportion of those who come to the U.S. will stay.

"We're not looking at a situation of normalcy for many, many months," said Rep. Eliot L. Engel (D-N.Y.), chairman of the House Albanian Issues Caucus, whose district includes about 50,000 Albanian Americans. "And let's face it, after a year or two, they'd have had a taste of political freedom. They won't want to go back. . . . The reality is that the vast majority are probably here to stay."

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