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First Lady Greets Kosovo Refugees

May 6, 1999

FORT DIX, N.J. (AP) _ They stepped off the buses and were greeted by soldiers, American troops standing on their own soil who reached out to shake their hands in a compassionate welcome.

Dressed in blue jeans as well as traditional Albanian kufi hats and scarves, the first Kosovo refugees brought to the United States responded with smiles and, later, applause and cheers of ``USA! USA! USA!″ One 9-year-old girl said: ``Thank you for bringing me.″

The 453 refugees arrived in New Jersey on Wednesday. They were met by first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton and U.S. officials who are coordinating the $100 million resettlement effort that has transformed this old Army base into a modern-day Ellis Island.

``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 said, standing beneath a red, white and blue banner that said ``Welcome to America″ in English and Albanian.

Mrs. Clinton received 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 air strikes 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 Kosovo province to neighboring countries.

The refugees _ 249 adults, 195 children ranging in age from 3 to 18, and nine infants _ walked ably and smiled as they shook hands with the soldiers from Fort Bragg, N.C., who were brought in as part of the relief effort.

Reporters were barred from speaking with them. Isuf Hajrizi, who writes for Illyria, an Albanian-American newspaper in New York, said many were scared.

``They know they’re going to be safe, but there’s a feeling that they may never see their homes again,″ he said.

Many Albanians now living in the United States turned out Wednesday, including Jack Rugova, 37, of New York.

``If I can help someone, to take them in and support them,″ he said. ``Money. Clothes. Apartment. Anything.″

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

``These people are vulnerable because of their conditions,″ said Marguerite Rivera Houze of the Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration.

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

About 2,000 refugees a week are expected to move through Fort Dix and New York’s Kennedy Airport. They will spend three to six weeks at the base, undergoing background checks and securing sponsor families who will help them prepare to live in America.

They will have a year to apply for permanent residence, State Department deputy spokesman James Foley said. Officials expect most will return home.

Those arriving Wednesday were given welcome kits, including, soap, shampoo and a towel. They will rest before completing immigration screening and getting an orientation on U.S. culture _ including English lessons and information about opportunities for jobs and education.

``We want to welcome them to America as we would have hoped so many of our grandparents and great-grandparents would have been through Ellis Island,″ Brig. Gen. Mitchell Zais said.

Volunteers at St. Rita’s Center in New York City unloaded boxes of soap, diapers, toothbrushes, toilet paper and detergent Wednesday.

``I was thinking, what would they need? They have nothing,″ said Sister Jean Marshall, who directs the center in the Bronx where about 3,000 refugees are expected to settle.

Some of the refugees have tuberculosis, and others are elderly people with health problems, said Lavinia Limon, director of the Office of Refugee Settlement for the Department of Health and Human Services.

A health clinic will be available, and hospitals near Fort Dix are on standby to accept any refugees needing treatment, she said.

A pregnant woman was taken by stretcher to a hospital to be treated for dehydration, said Michael Kharfen, a Health & Human services spokesman. The child, when born, will be a U.S. citizen, he said.

When the refugees arrived, tears streamed down the face of Halil Beqiri, 36, a Macedonia native who now lives in New York.

Beqiri, who is married and has two children, said he was willing to take in ``as many as I can. As many as my home can hold, until it falls down.″

Another 400 refugees are expected to arrive at Fort Dix on Friday.

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