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A Strange Mix of Anxiety, Awe at Ft. Dix

Refugees: Many fantasize about future in U.S. while worrying about loved ones still in Balkans.


FT. DIX, N.J. — Maybe it's the soft bed, spring air, compassionate care and friendly faces. Maybe it's the food and the music and the soccer and the smiles of a world designed to make her feel wanted, comfortable, even pampered.

She can't speak the language, doesn't know the geography, hasn't grasped the culture, but she knows she can become an American citizen some day. She hasn't seen her parents in months, but she has seen the first lady, the governor, a brace of bureaucrats and a big-screen TV.

Teuta Hyseni--a 19-year-old ethnic Albanian whisked from the crisis in Kosovo and placed gently into the arms of a people showing an overwhelming, perhaps unsettling, willingness to help them, house them, adopt them, even marry them--is beginning to like this life in America.

Except for one thing. Like virtually all of the 3,000-plus ethnic Albanians being housed in the spruced-up barracks of this army base, she knows somebody who is still hiding, missing or murdered somewhere in Kosovo, or living in the crude camps in neighboring countries.

Authorities have begun resettling refugees here in cities across the country, the next phase of their almost surreal transition from being ethnically cleansed to smothered with affection. There is a very real sense of survivor guilt amid the separation anxiety here, inside the two heavily guarded containment areas that authorities have dubbed "the Village" and "the Hamlet."

Teuta, like many others, finds herself fantasizing about a future in this country even as she obsesses over the fate of her parents and her brother. The premed student was in Pristina picking up some books when word came that the Serbian purges of ethnic Albanians had reached her town of nearby Hajvaliu. The bus she took wouldn't go back, and every cabby she stopped just shook his head as she bawled and begged for a ride back home.

Finally, one agreed to try, but three times Serbian gunmen turned him away. Teuta got out and ran, hiding in bushes to avoid police, and reached the home of an uncle in Pristina. Two weeks later, masked men wearing Serbian military uniforms and driving cars with loudspeakers ordered everyone on her uncle's block to leave. The family left bread baking in the oven and went to the train station, where mobs of ethnic Albanians were herded into boxcars.

Teuta and the others were dumped at the border and ordered to hike to Macedonia. A Serbian soldier snatched her leather satchel, which contained the diary she'd kept since she was a girl. The crowd shivered in the mud and rain outside Blace, huddling under blankets until tents arrived. More refugees came every day. Teuta met every group, looking for familiar faces.

She did this for weeks, until she found out that her uncle's family would be among the 20,000 refugees that the U.S. agreed to harbor.

She walked off the plane and into her new world May 5. Though the goal is to eventually return the refugees, they have been granted permanent residency.

"The welcome we have received is very unbelievable," Teuta said as she sat on a picnic table in the Village park one recent afternoon. "If my family was here, I would like to stay here."

Many agencies say the interest in these folks is unmatched since the fall of South Vietnam spawned oceans of boat people two decades ago. There has been such an outpouring of offers for food, clothing and logo-laden products that Ft. Dix officials asked people last week to stop donating things.

Though most offers are altruistic, some are self-serving. Some people want Kosovo Albanians to work as baby-sitters or housekeepers. Infertile couples are casting nets for orphans to adopt, and at least one lonely heart rang up an agency to ask for a wife.

Theories abound as to why this country is captivated. Heavy television coverage of white people with Western clothing fleeing a European war zone being pummeled by U.S. warplanes raises issues of race, evokes images of World War II, stirs patriotism and comes at a time when American pocketbooks are bulging.

"I haven't seen anything like this," said Scott Wasmuth, an official for a New Jersey resettlement agency. "These refugees are coming at the right time, I guess. There is a potential danger of overindulging these people."

Refugees from countries such as Haiti, Liberia, Indonesia, Angola and Sudan have suffered as much or far worse, yet "Liberians are not on TV," said Barbara Lonegro of Catholic Community Services of Newark.

"In a way, it is disconcerting to see so much attention to one group," said William Sage, interim director for immigration and refugees at Church World Service. "When we had Sierra Leoneans come here, it would have been nice to have some high-profile public official here to greet the first ones."

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