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First Lady Greets Kosovo Refugees

May 6, 1999

FORT DIX, N.J. (AP) _ The first Kosovo refugees to arrive in the United States were greeted by soldiers, roomfuls of toys and Hillary Rodham Clinton, who got a standing ovation when she walked into a gymnasium to welcome them from their war-ravaged homeland.

``We want you to know the American people have been very sad and very angry by what they have seen happening to you over the last weeks and months,″ she said, in a 10-minute speech interrupted by applause about a dozen times.

``Our hearts and our prayers have been with you. Now we want to show you that our hearts and our homes are open to you as well.″

Mrs. Clinton got the loudest applause when she said: ``We will not let Mr. Milosevic succeed in keeping you out of your homes. We will continue to work to create a peaceful Kosovo where you can return home as soon as possible and build your country again.″

NATO launched airstrikes against Yugoslavia on March 24 after President Slobodan Milosevic rejected a Western peace plan to end the fighting with the rebel Kosovo Liberation Army. Hundreds of thousands of ethnic Albanians have since fled the Kovoso province to neighboring countries.

The refugees at Fort Dix _ 249 adults, 195 children ranging in age from 3 to 18, and nine infants _ left a crowded, dirty camp in Macedonia aboard a chartered Boeing 747 and landed at McGuire Air Force base. They boarded buses for nearby Fort Dix.

The refugees appeared in good shape and wore a blend of American and traditional Albanian garb. Many wore blue jeans, and one child wore a teal Miami Dolphins jacket. But others wore traditional clothing, men sporting kufi hats, and some women with their heads wrapped in scarves.

As the first lady left, the refugees broke into spontaneous cheers, in English, of ``Clin-ton! Clin-ton!″ ``U-S-A! U-S-A!″ and ``Free Kosovo! Free Kosovo!″

Reporters were barred from speaking to them.

Their smiles belied conflicting emotions, according to a journalist who has been in touch with people in his homeland.

``I know they’re very scared,″ said Isuf Hajrizi, who writes for Illyria, an Albanian-American newspaper in New York. ``They know they’re going to be safe, but there’s a feeling that they may never see their homes again.″

Most of the 20,000 refugees the United States has agreed to accept will be directly placed with sponsoring families or relatives. The group arriving at Fort Dix from Macedonia were deemed at special risk because they had no family members available to help them or were staying in unstable areas.

Among those eager to help is Halil Beqiri, a Macedonia native who came to Fort Dix on Wednesday seeking information on taking in refugees.

Beqiri, 36, who has lived in the United States for 15 years, said he was willing to take in ``as many as I can. As many as my home can hold, until it falls down. At least it won’t fall from Serbian bombs.″

A 24-hour health clinic was set up for the refugees, and local hospitals were on standby to accept any refugees needing medical treatment.

A pregnant woman was taken from the plane on a stretcher. She was treated at a hospital for dehydration.

The refugees will undergo preliminary screening by immigration officials, receive photo identification badges and get dormitory assignments. Albanian-speaking mental health and trauma counselors also will be available.

The accommodations are a far cry from the refugee camps in Macedonia, which are filled to two or three times their capacity. Sanitation is poor and the risk of disease increases as the weather gets warmer.

Even so, some of the ethnic Albanians had been reluctant to board the airplane earlier in the day in Macedonia.

``Of course I would love to come back, but I’m afraid that we’ll end up staying in America because of my children,″ Mehmet Selimaj said, surrounded by his three daughters, a 16-year-old and 11-year-old twins.

Officials expect to move about 2,000 refugees a week through Fort Dix and New York’s Kennedy Airport and plan to eventually phase out entry through Fort Dix.

The refugee settlement is a massive undertaking by the United States and the first at Fort Dix since Hungarian refugees were brought here in the late 1950s.

The refugees will have a year to apply for permanent residence, State Department deputy spokesman James Foley said at a news briefing in Washington. Officials expect most will return to their homeland.

The group arriving Wednesday was to be given welcome kits, including, soap, shampoo and a towel, and will receive an orientation in U.S. culture.

They eventually will be assigned a city where they can receive one month’s apartment rent, job training, English classes and a sponsor family’s support. New York, Boston, Chicago, Dallas, and Providence, R.I. have large ethnic Albanian populations.

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