Jews to help Albanian refugees resettle here

The Bay Area Jewish community is preparing to welcome a wave of Kosovar refugees, most of whom are now languishing in Macedonian camps.

Some of those refugees will join relatives already living in Northern California. Others will arrive without family here, granted the opportunity to come because of serious physical or emotional hardship.

"I suspect there will be at least a half dozen families in the next couple of months," Anita Friedman, executive director of the S.F.-based Jewish Family and Children's Services, said Wednesday. The agency, with extensive experience in refugee resettlement, will join several other local volunteer organizations who plan to take in the primarily Muslim newcomers.

When the refugees arrive, JFCS will help them get settled in housing, find day care or schools for their children, learn English and get appropriate medical care and psychological aid.

JFCS' efforts will be part of a federally funded campaign to resettle Kosovars forced from their homes by war.

The Clinton administration has pledged to accept 20,000 Kosovar refugees, most of whom will be ethnic Albanians but some of whom may be Serbian or Croatian. The Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, one of nine national agencies that resettle refugees, has agreed to help by channeling federal money to Jewish federations and family service agencies participating in the refugee program.

"The Jewish community knows only too well the importance of assisting those who were forced to flee persecution, war's devastation and displacement," said Leonard Glickman, executive vice president of HIAS.

The first group of Kosovar Albanians is scheduled to arrive in the United States in three weeks. It is unknown when the refugees will first touch down in the Bay Area.

Under the rules of the program, the refugees can remain in the United States and pursue citizenship if they choose. "I think for the most part, people who come here will stay here," Friedman predicted.

Regardless, they will be dealing with the shock of displacement.

"We've had a lot of experience with traumatized populations," Friedman noted. "We've had Cubans, Iranians, Ethiopian Jews and non-Jews, Afghanis, Bosnians."

Bosnian refugees, in particular, have displayed high rates of post-traumatic stress syndrome, Friedman said. Some women bear the scars of rape.

"It is very important that counseling services are available," she said.

Glickman of HIAS said it has not yet been determined how much the U.S. government will pay, or what the costs will be to local agencies.

Northern California is home to a relatively small number of Albanians, estimate those who work with refugees.

"I can tell you there are not very many," said Miguel Garcia, program director for citizenship, refugee and immigration services at Catholic Charities. "I would guess less than 100 that we know of."

Along with JFCS, Catholic Charities is among the local volunteer organizations prepared to resettle Kosovar refugees. Others include the International Rescue Committee, World Relief and the International Institute.

Northern Californians who believe they have relatives who meet the criteria for the U.S resettlement program can call any of the participating agencies. Resettling agencies will take in refugees on a rotating basis, Glickman said.

The State Department said there are large enclaves of Albanians living in New York, Chicago, Detroit and Boston. According to HIAS, Binghamton, N.Y., also has a sizable Albanian population.

While Jewish organizations in many larger cities have already resettled refugees from Bosnia and serve a large number of non-Jews, smaller federations like the one that serves Binghamton may be caught off guard.

For example, Jewish Family Services for the Jewish Federation of Broome County — where Binghamton is located — has resettled only one family of Jews from the former Soviet Union during the past three years.

Resettling Kosovars is "a wonderful thought, but we are very small here," said Eileen Kriegstein, director of Broome County's Jewish Family Service.

Mark Handelman, executive vice president of the New York Association for New Americans, said his agency has already received calls from Albanian Americans who want to bring their relatives to the United States under the program.

JFCS in San Francisco has received similar calls.

Jewish Family and Children's Services of the East Bay has not yet heard from refugees' relatives living in Alameda and Contra Costa County. But the agency is braced to respond should the need present itself.

Leslie Katz

Leslie Katz is a former J. staff writer.