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Kosovar Family Lands in Virginia

May 13, 1999

MANASSAS, Va. (AP) _ On a sweltering spring day, Fatime Sylejmani wraps her frail, 61-year-old frame in a turtleneck and buttoned sweater, with wool tights beneath her ankle-length skirt.

``This is all I have. It’s all I could take with me,″ she says, pulling at her sleeve.

Sylejmani has said little since she left Macedonia and landed in America less than a week ago. She roams the three-bedroom house she shares with seven other refugee relatives and recalls what she left behind at her home in Pristina in the Serbian province of Kosovo. Her house, her jewels, her photographs.

``Her teeth!″ exclaims her brother-in-law, Ali Shala. The household explodes in laughter, a rare comic moment for a family forced to start over in a new country, all the while hoping to return to their old one.

``I forgot the teeth,″ Sylejmani says. ``My head was not thinking. I had no time to grab them.″

Serbian police didn’t give her the chance, explains her 15-year-old niece, Shpresa Shala.

The girl, now her family’s interpreter and link to understanding their new world, is undaunted by the new home and responsibilities. She is simply grateful to have her family. When Serbian soldiers forced their way into the home of an aunt she was visiting, Shpresa never thought she’d see her parents again.

``They come into our house, and they said, ‘What are you waiting for?’ We didn’t know what to say. We were just eating breakfast,″ she says, shaping her hands into rifles before continuing. ``They said, ’Go out, go out! Leave the house! If you don’t leave, we will kill you!‴

The girl joined columns of Kosovar Albanians walking toward the Pristina train station, where she headed by rail toward the Macedonian border. Once across, Shpresa was finally reunited with her parents in the town of Blace.

The family was stuck there for three days. They fought other refugees for bread and milk containers thrown to them by aid agencies.

Eventually, buses took the group to an area where they met an Albanian family and, Shpresa says, ``For one month, they did everything to us, everything good.″

When the United States agreed to take in up to 20,000 Kosovo residents who had been forced from their homes, Shala’s brother in Springfield, Va., filed papers to sponsor their journey to America.

The family first arrived in New York on ``American plane,″ Shpresa says, with wide eyes. ``It was a nice plane, with a TV!″

Shpresa says she wanted to come ``because it was safety _ anywhere out of Kosovo I wanted.″

But her father, Ali Shala, felt differently.

At 59, he soon would have started receiving pension benefits from his longtime office job in Pristina. Instead, he finds himself starting from scratch and, for the first time, unable to provide for his family.

Shala shrugs.

``What can I do?″ he says. ``I’m happy I come here, but I’m angry. Thirty-three years I worked. Why I have to leave 33 years work?″

Both Shala and his wife have applied for U.S. Social Security cards and hope to begin working again soon.

``Anything, anything just to work,″ says Shpresa’s stepmother, Hasret Shala, who was a bank teller in Pristina.

Until then, they pass the time at home. For now, it is a modestly furnished townhouse in this Washington suburb. They will live rent free for several months through an agreement between the landlord and a local refugee assistance agency, but Shala’s brother in nearby Springfield hopes to move the family in with him sooner.

Others sharing the home include Shpresa’s two cousins, the wife of one cousin and their 7-month-old son.

Shpresa picks up the boy during a tour of the house. In her bedroom, 22-year-old cousin, Besnik Sylejmani, lounges on the floor playing cards. He slips a cassette into a boombox and an Albanian rap song begins to play. The two begin joking about what they miss the most.

``His girlfriend!″ Shprasa squeals, finally acting like a teen-ager instead of a caretaker responsible for too many.

Downstairs, neighbor Mary Hammond has stopped by to welcome the family. Legal pad in hand, she is ready to write down anything her church might provide them. Glancing across the room, Hammond sees the family’s matriarch, Sylejmani, who stands up to shake her hand.

The sight of Sylejmani’s crinkly face and rail-thin body, wrapped in layers of clothing on an 85-degree day, drives Hammond to tears. She embraces her and sobs, ``Know that I care.″

``I know you’ll return one day,″ Hammond says. ``I just know you’re going to go back.″

Sylejmani just nods and begins wiping away her own tears.

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