Kosovo refugees grateful for haven in Israeli kibbutz

HAIFA — Protected from the harsh midday sun by a picnic-table umbrella, Kreshnik Bajraktari replays the events that led him from Kosovo to the shores of Israel.

Like most of the 74 ethnic Albanians housed at Kibbutz Ma'agan Michael near Haifa, Bajraktari's thoughts are far away — tuned to members of his extended family still in the Balkans, the fate of his home in the Kosovar capital of Pristina and his dentistry studies that were abruptly cut off by the war.

Some of the refugees hope to return home as soon as possible, others want to rebuild their lives in Israel. All consider themselves lucky.

"We are grateful and appreciate what Israel has done for us," said Bajraktari, 23. "I don't think any country in the world would have greeted us like this."

Last week, on the eve of Holocaust Remembrance Day, 111 ethnic Albanians were airlifted to Israel as a humanitarian gesture.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu greeted them; Bajraktari spoke in front of a Knesset parliamentary committee; and the group was taken on field trips over the weekend to see the country.

As the media attention dies down, many appear to be in shock from the events that shattered their lives. Older men play chess and children frolic amid the white stucco field-school dormitories, but a sadness has descended upon the refugees.

Many are desperately calling home to try to locate relatives and friends. All are still coming to terms with what they have left behind and the challenge of rebuilding their lives in a country most know nothing about.

Just a few weeks ago, for example, Bajraktari was studying dentistry in Pristina. Like many ethnic Albanians, his family believed it would only be a matter of days before NATO air strikes crushed Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic.

For 10 days, they hunkered down in their Pristina home, praying they would be spared both the NATO bombs targeting Serb military positions and the Serbian shells crashing down throughout the city.

But with no end in sight, the Bajraktari family piled into their car and headed south for the Macedonian border. Although they did not witness any killings, bodies littered the streets of the Kosovar capital.

At the border, cars packed with fleeing families were backed up for miles. Serb soldiers herded the vehicles into an immense parking lot of an abandoned factory. For five terrifying nights the Bajraktari family stayed there, fearing all along that they may be part of a Serbian scheme to have them slaughtered should NATO bomb the plant.

When they finally reached the refugee camp near Skopje, Macedonia, Bajaktari and his cousin Astrit Kuci, also a dentistry student who had nearly completed his degree, soon found themselves working alongside doctors at the Israeli field hospital. When Israel said it would take in more than 100 refugees, they were among the first to sign up their families.

"I have seen some movies about what the Germans did to the Jews in World War II, and it touched my soul," said Kuci, an Israel patch pinned to his T-shirt. "I couldn't believe nobody spoke out against the atrocities then. But when we experienced this ourselves, I realized that Albanians and Jews had the same fate."

While most Jews would not feel comfortable comparing Auschwitz to Kosovo, Israelis have almost instinctively demonstrated sympathy and support for the plight of Kosovo's Albanians.

The Israeli government and Jewish citizens have raised more than $1.25 million to aid the Kosovars, and Israeli companies have sent an additional $500,000 worth of food, blankets and other relief.

"The response in Israel has been phenomenal," said Sallai Meridor, acting chairman of the Jewish Agency.

Israel's Arab community has also raised about $1.25 million to help the Albanians, most of whom are Muslims. When Islamic leaders from a village near Ma'agan Michael last week came to invite the Albanians to services at a local mosque, however, the refugees politely declined.

The refugees may be wary of insulting their Jewish hosts and becoming embroiled in another ethnic conflict by showing their affinity with the Muslim community — even though officials with the Jewish Agency, which is sponsoring their stay, have told them to feel free to practice their religion.

More likely, however, the refugees simply do not identify with the local Muslims.

"The Muslims invited us to use the mosque, but we said we are not religious," explains Emrush Rama, a 19-year-old musician who has two earrings in his left ear. "We have a different way of thinking."

Bajraktari agrees. "We were not persecuted because we are Muslims, but because we are Albanians," he said. "We tried to explain this to the local Muslims."

A portion of another small group of Balkan Muslims that was on the receiving end of Serbian nationalist expansion earlier in the decade remains in Israel today. In 1993, Israel gave refuge to 84 Bosnians who were fleeing under circumstances similar to those faced by the Kosovars.

Safet Bajric is one of 35 who remained in Israel. He is currently working for the Jewish Agency as a translator for the Kosovars, through their common language of Serbo-Croatian.

"We are almost the same type of people," he explains in fluent Hebrew, comparing the Bosnians to the Albanian Kosovars. Bajric, a factory worker who recently bought a house, is full of praise for Israel, although he has one gripe: Israel promised citizenship to the Bosnians who stayed on.

"We did not receive it, though," he says. "We put in a request to the Interior Ministry last year, but have not received a response."

Several of the new arrivals, already believing they will have nothing to return to, want to apply for citizenship. Israel has promised citizenship to those who choose to stay after six months. In addition, many of the refugees in Israel are professionals, and they want to begin studying Hebrew as soon as possible so they can find jobs.

"We hope to get the Hebrew ulpan started quickly, and we are also trying to find them workplaces," said Jaffa Barsis, who is managing the Ma'agan Michael site on behalf of the Jewish Agency. "Their main problem will be to decide where their future lies, whether to stay here or return home."