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Refugees and asylees follow pathways to freedom, safety and new starts

February 21, 2017 Leave a comment

This is one of two stories I did for The Reader’s (www.thereader.com) February 2017 cover package whose headlines read “Resettlement in America Takes a Village” and” Immigration: Refugees Reunite and Resettle; Fighting for Dreamers.” The story shared in this post is about refugees and asylees and their journey to new lives.

Refugees and asylees follow pathways to freedom, safety and new starts

Resettlement in America takes a village

©by 

Originally appeared in the February 2017 issue of The Reader (http://thereader.com/)

 

 

 

Feb2017

 

 

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War and Peace, Bosnian Refugees Purge War’s Horrors in Song and Dance that Make Plea for Peace

August 18, 2011 2 comments

Here is a story I did in 1996 in the flood of refugees coming to America from war-ravaged Bosnia and Serbia. I tell the story of two families from Saravejo whose lives were turned upside down when the city fell under siege. Rusmir and Hari stayed behind to fight, as their wives and children narrowly escaped, eventually to the West. The men were eventually reunited with their families and ended up starting new lives in America. In my hometown of Omaha no less.  I came across this story when I learned about a music and dance performance that a local choreographer organized as a way of commemorating the experience of these Bosnian refugees.  The cathartic performance served as a bridge between the war that changed everything and the peace they had to flee their homeland to find.

War and Peace, Bosnian Refugees Purge War’s Horror’s in Song and Dance that Make Plea for Peace

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

Even with United States peacekeeping troops stationed in Bosnia-Hercegovina, the war-ravaged nation and troubled Balkan region remain a shrouded mystery to many Americans.

But on two successive nights in October, audiences packing a Creighton University theater came face-to-face with the tragic, ultimately triumphant odyssey of Omaha’s Bosnian war refugees.

The forum for this unusual intersection of cultures was the finale of an October 25-26 Omaha Modern Dance Collective concert. The closing piece, “Day of Forgiveness,” featured a melting pot of dancers and musicians, but most poignantly, local Bosnian refugees performing as a five-piece band

The work incorporated vigorous Bosnian folk dances and songs symbolizing the relative harmony in Bosnia before the war and the healing so sorely needed there now. Ironically, a dance whose context was an ethnic war, joined Croats, Muslims and Serbs in a unifying celebration.

The refugees are among a growing, diverse Bosnian colony that has sprung up in Omaha since 1993. They say the Bosnia they knew was free of ethnic and religious strife until Serb nationalism began rearing its ugly head. Many are natives of Sarajevo, where they enjoyed an upscale, Western European lifestyle. Since escaping the carnage to start over in America, they’ve forged a tranquil Little Sarajevo in Omaha.

“Bosnia was like a small United States, where many different cultures, many different religions lived together,” says the band’s lead vocalist and guitarist, Rusmir Hadzisulejmanovic, 41, formerly a marketing manager with a Sarajevo publishing firm. Today, he works as a handy man and attends Metropolitan Community College. “We prepared a good life in our country. We had nice jobs. We made good money. But somebody from outside tried to destroy that. And we lost everything in one day.”

Fellow refugee and musician Muharem “Hari” Sakic, 39, a friend of Rusmir’s from before the war, was an import-export executive and now works odd jobs while attending Metro. Hari says, “In Sarajevo we never cared what religion you were. And none of us care about that now. It doesn’t matter. We only care what kind of person you are.”

Both men are Muslim. Rusmir’s wife is Serb; Hari’s, Croation-Catholic. They say mixed marriages such as theirs were typical.

The two men fought side-by-side defending their beloved Sarajevo, the besieged Bosnian capital devastated by Serb aggressors. Talking with Rusmir and Hari today, surrounded by loved ones in their safe, comfortable southwest Omaha apartments, it’s hard to imagine them as fierce soldiers engaged in a life and death struggle with forces who outnumbered and outgunned them. But then Rusmir passes around snapshots of he and Hari in camouflage fatigues, armed to the teeth, outside the burned-out shell of a train station. A later photo shows Rusmir, usually a burly 240 pounds, looking pale, drawn and shrunken from the near-starvation war diet.

War Hits Home

Although Serbia invaded Croatia by late 1990, beginning the pattern of pogroms and atrocities it repeated elsewhere in the former Yugoslav Republic, most Bosnians never suspected the conflict would affect them. But it did, beginning, shockingly and viciously at noon, April 4, 1992, when Serb artillery units dug in atop the hills overlooking Saravejo launched an unprovoked, indiscriminate attack on the city’s homes, streets and businesses.

Rusmir was eating lunch in a cafeteria when the first explosions rocked the city. He was trapped there until morning. “I saw many, many damaged houses and cars and dead people in the streets. It was the first time in my life I saw something like that,” he recalls. It was the start of a three-year siege that killed thousands of civilians and soldiers.

At the family’s apartment he found his wife Zorana, 39, and their children Ida and Igor, then ages 8 and 2, respectively, unharmed, but “very scared.” He immediately set about finding a safe way out for them. Escape was essential, since Ida suffers from a serious kidney disease requiring frequent medical treatment, and his family’s Muslim surname made them targets for invading Serbs. As for himself, he had no choice but to stay – and fight.

The roads and fields leading out of town were killing zones, manned by roaming Serb militia. Air service was disrupted. With the help of Jewish friends he finally got his family approved for a flight to Belgrade, Serbia several days later. On the day of departure Zorana and the kids boarded a bus for the tense ride to the Serbian-held airport. As it was too dangerous to be seen together, Rusmir followed behind in a car.

The scene at the airport was chaotic. Hundreds of people milled about the tarmac, frantic not to be left behind. When a mad dash for the plane began, Zorana, carrying Igor in one arm, felt Ida being pulled away by the surging crowd. She grabbed hold of her daughter and hung on until they were aboard.

From a distance Rusmir watched the plane lift off safely, carrying his family to an uncertain fate. It was the last flight out for many months. Three-and-a-half years passed before he saw his family again.

While in Belgrade, Zorana and the kids stayed at a hotel. Zorana made Ida promise (Igor was too young) never to say their Muslim name aloud, but only her Serb maiden name, Vojnovic. Zorana says she felt “shame” at denying her true identity and “guilty” for what some Serbs were doing to Muslims. “It was very hard.”

“You had to say some Serb name to save your life,” notes Hari, whose family took similar precautions. Like Rusmir and Zorana, Hari and his wife Marina were desperate to get their daughter Lana out, as she has a kidney condition similar to Ida’s. Marina and Sakic’s kids eventually fled to Croatia.

In Belgrade Zorana often confronted Serb enmity, such as when a hospital denied Ida treatment fate learning her real name. From Belgrade, they fled to norther Croatia, staying with relatives and friends.

Life in Croatia had a semblance of normality until Croat-Muslim hostilities erupted. Then Zorana was denied work and Ida expelled from school and refused care. A human rights organization did fly Zorana and the kids to London, where her brother lived, but they were denied residency and returned to Croatia. Growing more desperate, she pleaded her family’s case at every embassy, to no avail.

With few resources and options left she heard about the International Organization for Migration (IOM), a humanitarian agency offering visas based on medical need. After her first entreaties were rejected she went to IOM’s offices “every morning for three months,” before finally getting the visa that eventually brought them to Omaha in October, 1993. Zorana was among the first group of Bosnian and Croatian refugees to arrive here.

Omaha – A New Home, A New Life

Why Omaha? Dr. Linda Ford, a local physician affiliated with IOM, was matched with the family as a medical caseworker and mentor. Zorana says Ford was her “main moral support” when she first arrived. “She showed me how to live on my own. She was a great help.”

Ford arranged for the family to live at the home of Dr. Dan Halm and at her urging Zorana, an attorney in Saravejo, earned a para-legal degree at UNO while working part-time jobs. Zorana now works full-time at Mutual of Omaha. Ford says the contacts Zorana made here as a result of her own refugee experience have aided other Bosnians in settling here, including Rusmir’s sister and brother-in-law. Since moving her family to the Woodcreek Apartments, Zorana has guided 12 other refugee families there.

Barbarism, Heroism and Sacrifice

Meanwhile, Rusmir, who as a young man served in the Yugoslav equivalent of the CIA, had joined Hari and others in mobilizing the local Bosnian Army, It was a civilian army comprised of Muslims, Croats and Serbs, They lacked even the most basic supplies. Uniforms were improvised from sleeping bags. Many soldiers fought in athletic shoes. Shelling and sniper fire continued day and night. The streets and outlying areas were a grim no-man’s land. The only respite was an occasional cease-fire or relief convoy.

 

Image of Bosnian folk dancers from KUD Kolo of Waterloo

 

As the siege progressed conditions worsened. Rusmir’s and Hari’s homes were destroyed. But life went on. “In war it’s not possible to keep a normal life, but we tried,” says Rusmir. For example, school-age kids who remained behind still attended classes, and Hari’s wife Marina gave birth to their son, Adi, on May 22, 1992.

“At that time the situation was terrible, especially for babies. No food, no water, no electricity , no nothing,” Hari recalls.

Somehow, they hung on. Marina and their two children got out as part of a Red Cross convoy that fall.

Hari and Rusmir fought in a special unit that took them behind enemy lines to wreak havoc, do reconnaissance, collect intelligence and capture prisoners. Miraculously, neither was wounded.

“I was many times in a very dangerous position,” says Rusmir. “I know how to use a gun and a knife. That helped me to survive. I’m lucky, you know? I survived.”

Two of his best friends did not – Dragan Postic and Zelicko Filipovic.

Rusmir witnessed acts of barbarism, heroism and sacrifice, An artillery shell landed amidst a group of school kids during recess, killing and maiming dozens. “That was very awful.” In the heat of battle, a comrade jumped on an enemy tank and dropped hand grenades inside the open turret, killing himself and the tank’s crew. Despite overwhelming odds and losses the city held. “We stopped them…we survived,” Rusmir says.

By the time a United States-brokered and NATO-enforced peace halted the war in 1995, Rusmir, who’d stayed gallantly (“Stubbornly,”says Zorana) on to protect his homeland and care for his ill father, felt very alone. Except for his father, there was nothing left – no home, no job, no family, no future. Hari was gone, too, escaping on 1994 on foot via a tunnel dug under the Saravejo airport, and then over the mountains into Croatia, where after a long search he was reunited with his family.

The Sakics emigrated here in January, 1995.

Music – Celebration and Mourning

Every refugee has a story. The Bosnians’ story is of suddenly being cast as warriors and wanderers in an ethnically-cleansed netherworld where borders and names suddenly meant the difference between freedom or imprisonment, between living or dying.

It all happened before – to their parents and grandparents in World War II. It’s a story burned in their memories and hearts and told in stirring words, music and dance.

Their music inspired choreographer Josie Metal-Corbin to create “Day of Forgiveness.” The professor of dance at the University of Nebraska at Omaha first heard the music when a former student and Bosnian emigre brought the band to her class. They played about 10 minutes and right away I knew I had to do something with this music,” Metal-Corbin recalls. “I was very taken by it, I’m part Italian and part Slovak, and this music really spoke to me. It’s very passionate.”

After months of working with the musicians and UNO’s resident dance troupe she directs, the Moving Company, Metal-Corbin grew close to the refugees and their families, particularly Rusmir, Zorana and their children, now ages 12 and 6. Zorana acted as the project’s interpreter and cultural guide.

During the Creighton concert, which marked the dance’s premiere, Rusmir and the other, all-male musicians exuberantly accompanied the rousing dance from a rear corner of the stage.

Rusmir, who grew up singing and playing the romantic tunes that accompanied the dance, says, “I feel the songs in my heart, in my soul, in my blood.” Song and dance are a big part of Bosnian celebrations, which can last from evening through dawn.

A Gypsy song – “Djurdjevdan” (“Day of the Flowers”) – was chosen by Metal-Corbin to give the dance its thematic design. The song, like the dance she adapted from it, tells of a holiday when people go to a river to cleanse themselves with water and flowers as an act of atonement and plea for forgiveness. According to Rusmir, the song and dance reflect Bosnians’ forgiving nature.

 

Bosnian war header.no.png
The executive council building burns after being hit by artillery fire in Sarajevo May 1992; Ratko Mladić with Army of Republika Srpska officers; a Norwegian UN soldier in Sarajevo.

 

“What is very hard about the war is that we lost so many friends. We lost neighbors. We lost family members. And for what? Really for nothing. We tried to keep Bosnia in Bosnian borders. But I can forgive,” Rusmir says, “because my wife and kids are alive. My father is alive. It’s time for forgiveness, for one reason – the war must stop, always, I cannot live with hate. My people are not like that. You can kick me, you can beat me…I will always find a reason to forgive you. That is the Bosnian soul.”

Hari, though, cannot so easily let go of the memory of Marina and their two children barely escaping a direct artillery hit on their Sarajevo apartment. “Forgive, yes, but forget, no,” he says. “I must try never to forget.” Even now, the whine of a siren and the clap of thunder are nervous reminders of incoming artillery rounds. “That is the kind of sound you can never forget,” Hari says.

He still wakes up in a cold sweat at the thought of the three-finger sign used by Chetnik Serbs in carrying out their terror campaigns. “When they started to use that sign,” he says, “the poison came. It meant. ‘You are not with us.’ Then the killing started.”

As a haunting reminder of what the dance was about, an enlarged news photo in the background pictured the tearful reunion of a Bosnian refugee family. The image had special meaning for Rusmir and Hari, who had only recently reunited with their own families. For them, the dance was their own personal commemoration of loss, celebration of survival, offering of thanks and granting of forgiveness.

Adding further resonance, virtually the entire local Bosnian refugee colony attended out of a deep communal sense of pride in their rich culture, one they’re eager to share with the wider Omaha community they’ve felt so welcomed by.

 

Josie Metal-Corbin

 

 

Zorana was there. “I was real proud, but at the same time I was kind of sad,” she says. “It was the music of our country – but in a different country. I was real touched when I saw Americans feel the same we do. I wanted to cry.”

Zorana, whose journey with her children across the war-torn region took a year before she found safe passage to America, adds that forgiveness must never come at the price of wisdom. “I would not let anybody to that to us again. Yo can trick us one time, but just one time.”

Yes, these Bosnians, are remarkably free of bitterness, but they do feel betrayed by the European community’s delayed, timid intervention. Zorana says, “You cannot wait so long and be so passive. You cannot say, ‘Oh, this is not my war. I don’t want to be bothered – they’re not killing me.’ Because tomorrow they may come to your house and try to kill you.” Hari says, “All the time we waited for a miracle.”

Rusmir decries the Serbs’ targeting of civilians. Hari hopes “world justice catches the war criminals, so that they will never sleep good again.”

New Pioneers

With the aid of Neb.Republican U.S. House of Representatives member John Christensen Rusmir finally got permission to immigrate and was reunited with his family last November. Once here there were many adjustments to make. Igor didn’t remember him. Ida was slow to warm to a father she hadn’t seen for so long. Rusmir spoke no English. The family barely got by. But in classic immigrant tradition they’ve adapted and now call Omaha – a city they’d never heard of before – their home.

“It is hard. But step by step, day by day, we make connections, we make new friends we make a good life, too. We feel like Bosnian pioneers in Omaha and Nebraska,” says Rusmir, who hopes to start a construction business with Hari.

 

Zorana

 

 

The Bosnians like America and feel sure they’ll thrive here. Their children already have, with many earning top grades in school. Ida and Lana are both healthy and doing fine. The Bosnians are deeply grateful to America, which Hari calls “a dream country” for its warm reception.

Hari says, “In America I can once again live like a normal person. There’s no fear that somebody will knock on my door and ask, ‘Who are you?’ and say, ‘You’re guilty.’ We are safe here. Many Americans have helped to give us a chance. Thanks America. We are sure that we will be a success.”

Zorana downplays their heroic struggle, saying, “You need to go on if you think ou have some tomorrow. You need to believe in yourself. Then nothing is impossible.”

America is, after all, the land of opportunity.

“You give me a chance to be equal,” she says. “To work. To be a citizen. I wanted my children to be Bosnian, but now I want them to be American. Here, you can be proud of your last name. You don’t have to feel ashamed.”

A Long Way from Home, Two Kosovo Albanian Families Escape Hell to Start Over in America

August 18, 2011 4 comments

This story from a decade ago or so is one of two I have done that try to paint a human, intimate portrait of the late 20th century European wars that erupted in the aftermath of the end of Communist rule, when generations of long-simmering ethnic hatred spilled over in the power grabs that ensued. The following story for The Reader (www.thereader.com) portrays the journey of two Kosovo Albanian families escaping the chaos and horror of war in their homeland to starting new lives in America.  The second story along these lines, which I will be posting soon, tells a similar journey, only of a Bosnian family. There were numerous atrocities to go around in these wars, and on both sides, but the sad truth of the matter is that every day men, women, and children like the people I write about got caught up in the carnage. The result: untold hundreds of thousands dead and injured; broken societies and families; hatred that perpetuates from one generation to the next; retaliation attacks; refugee cultures; and the recipe for ongoing tensions that will only continue flaring until there is true reconciliation.  The related articles below indicate the region is still a cauldron of unrest.

 

Exodus, Kosovo War 1999:

 

 

A Long Way from Home, Two Kosovo Albanian Families Escape Hell to Start Over in America                                     

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

Uprooted
Among the mass exodus of ethnic Albanians fleeing their embattled native Kosovo last year were two young couples who met in a refugee camp and ended up starting new lives together in Omaha. Gazmend and Fortesa Ademi and Basri and Valbona Jashari left Kosovo during the March-May 1999 NATO bombing campaign targeting Serbian military strongholds.

With Serb troops ousted and NATO peacekeepers in their place, many refugees returned to the ravaged province. The couples, however, opted for asylum in America. After arriving here July 1 under the auspices of a humanitarian agency, they lived five weeks with their Bellevue sponsors, the Theresa and Richard Guinan family, whose parish — St. Bernadette Catholic Church — lent aid. The Kosovars, who today share a unit in the Applewood Pointe Apartments near 96th & Q Streets, are now first-time parents: the Ademis of a 5-month-old boy, Eduard, and the Jasharis of a 3-month-old girl, Elita.

Last August, Basri Jashari’s sister, Elfeti, her husband and their five children moved to Omaha (sponsored by Kountze Memorial Church). Another 59 Kosovars settled in Lincoln. The U.S. State Department reports some 14,000 Kosovars found asylum in America. Of the more than 800,000 refugees who fled the province, most have gone home, including some who came to Nebraska.

War may have been the catalyst for Kosovo Albanians’ leaving their homeland, but the events prompting their expulsion are rooted in long-standing ethnic conflict. During a recent interview at their apartment, Gazmend Ademi and Basri Jashari told, in broken English, their personal odyssey into exile. As the men spoke, sometimes animatedly, their wives listened while tending to their babies.

Only in their early 20s, the Kosovars exhibit a heavy, world-weary demeanor beyond their years. They carry the burden of any refugee: being apart from the people and culture they love. With a patriotic Albanian song playing in the background (“the music, it gives us power to live…to go on,” Ademi said) and defiance burning in their eyes, the men lamented all they have lost and left behind and expressed enmity for Serb aggressors who threw their lives into turmoil.

“We never wanted what happened. We never wanted this. THEY wanted the war. It’s like old Albanian men used to say, ‘Don’t ever trust the Serbs. They don’t keep their word,’” Ademi said. Do the refugees hate the Serbs? “No, I just don’t like them,” Jashari said, adding, “I know not every Serbian was guilty. But I still hate the cops.”

 

 

 

 

Aside from bitterness, sadness consumes them. Ademi said, “Sometimes I stop and think, Why do I have to go through all these things? It’s just too much. I miss my family. I miss my friends. I miss everything in Kosovo. That’s why I’ll go back. But, for now, things are still bad there. Many people have no work, no homes. What the Serbs couldn’t take they destroyed. When I speak to my friends by phone they all tell me to stay where I am.” Or, as Jashari simply put it, “It’s better here.”

Watch Out for the Dark
Conflicts between ethnic Albanians and Serbs were part of the uneasy landscape Ademi and Jashari grew up in. Born and raised in southeastern Kosovo cities 40 kilometers apart, the two came of age in the late 1980s and early 1990s, when the ugly rhetoric of Slobodan Milosevic’s Serb nationalism turned openly hostile. Serb aggression in Bosnia erupted into full-scale war that United Nations forces helped quell. Although ethnic Albanians comprised the vast majority of Kosovo, Serbs controlled key institutions, most tellingly the police and military, which became oppressive occupying forces.

Ademi and Jashari say police routinely interrogated and arrested people without cause, extorting payment in return for safe passage or release. The harassment didn’t always end there. “For just a little thing they could arrest you or beat you or kill you. If they stopped you and demanded money, and you didn’t pay, your car was gone or you were gone,” Jashari said. “You had to pay,” Ademi said.

As Milosevic pressed for a Greater Serbia, life became more restrictive for ethnic Albanians (schools were closed and the display and teaching of Albanian heritage banned), whose Muslim culture contrasted with Serb Orthodox Christianity. The Ademis and Jasharis received much of their education in makeshift schools housed in basements and cellars. When young ethnic Albanians began fleeing Kosovo to avoid military service in the raging Balkans War, a moratorium on passports was enacted. Freedom could be bought, with a bribe, but most Kosovars could not afford it. Ademi, a bartender, and Jashari, a university student, faced bleak prospects. Jobs were scarce and those available paid low wages, yet prices for goods and services remained high. Bartering and blackmarket trading prevailed.

The start of the Kosovo War is generally agreed upon as March 23, 1998, when a Serb police action ended in the massacre of some 50 civilians and ignited the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) to escalate its armed resistance. However, for rank and file ethnic Albanians “the war started much earlier,” Jashari said. As early as 1989 the Serb political-military machine tightened its noose around Kosovo. Ademi and Jashari say they witnessed friends beaten by cops. Ademi said a cousin was held and tortured for days in a police station without legal counsel.

 

 

 

 

At mass demonstrations he recalls police firing tear-gas, even bullets, into crowds. Once, he said, a cop guarding a train load of tanks drew his weapon on he and some friends taking a short cut through a rail yard. In such a climate, once carefree days spent playing soccer or shopping in open air markets were replaced by caution. Nights were most ominous, with the Black Hand, a secret police/paramilitary force, roaming the streets. “After the dark would come, people who were out on the streets were taken away. Many were killed. Everybody was afraid from here,” Ademi said, clutching his chest. “Walking home every night I was afraid what might happen. I didn’t know if I was going to make it back. If you saw a car coming you turned back into the road and stayed until it passed. When they passed, you were like, ‘Whew, I made it okay.’”

Amid brutal police tactics and outright terrorist acts, the KLA began striking back with savage retaliatory attacks of its own, which led to Serb reprisals. When entreaties and threats by the U.N., the European Union and the West failed to get Milosevic to back down, a controversial U.S.-led NATO military response followed.

A Taste of Freedom
The night of the first air strikes prompted celebrations.

“We were very happy. We were waiting for this day,” Jashari said. “Some people started to shout, “NATO, NATO” and “Clinton, Clinton.” Everybody was cheering and shaking hands.” Any sign of air power brought hope, even though the concussion from bombs and missiles shook and even shattered windows. “Every time I saw the planes in the air I could feel myself a little bit more…free,” Ademi said. “I prayed for the noise of those planes.”

The revelry soon gave way to dread.

“The Serbs were really mad. They didn’t know what else to do, so they started to burn out everything,” said Ademi, referring to the systematic ethnic cleansing that ensued.

The Ademis and Jasharis joined a flood of refugees streaming into villages, where they presumed it was safe. They were wrong. The villages, some housing KLA bases, were burned or pillaged. Houses that once served as quarters for OSCE (Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe) monitors were torched or trashed. Pundits criticized the fact that, for a time, the air strikes only intensified the Serb raids and further destabilized the region. While Ademi and Jashari confirm “that’s how it was,” they contend what happened “was not NATO’s fault,” As Jashari said, “We didn’t flee because of NATO bombs. We fled because the Serbs started to attack us.”

With no where to hide, ethnic Albanians became a displaced people, moving from village to village and house to house in a desperate bid to stay ahead of marauding Serb troops. The Jasharis managed to remain at home until Serb forces closed in. Once a house was vacated, a next wave of refugees moved in and consumed whatever stores were left. “

People didn’t know where to go,” Ademi said. “They would stay a couple days and move again, helping themselves to food. People would take from all over just to stay alive.”

Ademi’s family found long-term shelter at the home of an uncle in a nearby village. Soon, they were joined by a caravan of refugees from a ransacked village, their dead and injured carted on tractors and trucks. “I carried in a young woman who was wounded in the leg. An old woman who’d been shot died later,” said Ademi, whose family took in dozens of new arrivals, swelling the house’s occupants to 50.

When, weeks into the bombing, there seemed no end in sight to the war, the Albanian Kosovars decided to cross the border into Macedonia. “Everything was going bad. Supplies were low. We thought it better to move because maybe later we could not get out. If Milosevic won, we could not live in Kosovo,” Jashari said.

While there was little choice but to flee, leaving was hard. The refugees brought only bread and the clothes on their back, “My family cried. They knew that maybe we were not coming back,” said Jashari, who left with Valbona and his family in May and made it across the border in a motorized convoy. Weeks earlier, the Ademis set-off, in two groups, for the border. Gazmend and a younger brother went ahead first, traveling on foot with a band of young men along a mountain road. A guide helped them skirt Serb patrols and checkpoints.

 

Boy on the beach at Durres, Albania

Durres is a popular holiday spot, but is implicated in a dark chapter of history

 

 

The men crossed the border after a 15-hour hike. Two days later Fortesa got out with Ademi’s family, enduring rain and snow on a trek along the same path. Upon reaching northern Macedonia the refugees were housed and fed by ethnic Albanians who led them to a camp, Stenkovec #2. It was there the Ademis and Jasharis, who were still single, married as insurance against being separated later. The couples befriended each other and after six weeks sleeping 10 to 20 to a tent, their applications for asylum were granted. Their shared destination: Omaha. Neither couple had American relatives.

Starting Over
Meanwhile, half-a-world away in Bellevue, Theresa and Richard Guinan followed the unfolding refugee odyssey via media reports. Moved by what they saw, the couple contacted Sen. Chuck Hagel’s office and were put in touch with Heartland Refugee Resettlement, an affiliate of the ecumenical Church World Service. The Guinans volunteered as a host family and the Ademis and Jasharis were matched with them.

Why agree to take in a four refugees? “We wanted to do more than just send money. That’s too easy. We have so much to offer here (in America) and this was our way to help,” Theresa Guinan said. After an 18-hour journey (by plane from Macedonia to Greece to New York to St. Louis to Omaha), the refugees arrived here exhausted. Fortesa Ademi, then pregnant, was sick for much of the trip. They were overwhelmed by the greeting party awaiting them at the Eppley Airfield terminal, including the Guinans, members of their church and reporters.

 

Ethnic Albanian refugees from Kosovo at a camp in Kukes, Albania

Many Kosovan refugees ended up in a refugee camp in Kukes, Albania

Within a week Richard Guinan found jobs for the men, as cold storage construction laborers, and they’ve been employed ever since. “They’re hard workers and their employers love them,” Theresa Guinan said. Living under one roof, the Americans and Kosovars forged deep bonds that remain strong a year later. “We love them like our own. We call them ‘our kids,’” Theresa Guinan said.

Ademi said, “Our sponsors helped us a lot. They made us feel like we were in our own home. Everything was just perfect. We call Theresa and Dick our American parents.” Still, adjusting to American life has posed many challenges, not the least of which is Omaha’s nearly non-existent Albanian community, which Ademi said has left he and the others feeling isolated. “We really haven’t had a chance to make any friends. We don’t go out too much. When we came here we meant to stay five or six years, but now I don’t how we’re going to make it. It’s really hard.” He and the others would like to meet members of the ethnic Albanian refugee colony in Lincoln.

Should the Ademis and Jasharis return to Kosovo any time soon, they know what awaits them: few prospects, a devastated infrastructure and a region littered with land mines and ethnic tensions. As efforts to form a new democracy proceed under NATO’s Joint Interim Administration, the men dream of an independent Kosovo. “That’s the best way to be. That’s what we deserve,” Ademi said.

 

Image result for kosovo albanian war

 

In the wake of human rights investigations confirming Serb atrocities and of international tribunals naming Serb war criminals, the split between ethnic Albanians and their adversaries is greater than ever. Ironically and tragically, some ethnic Albanians have been engaging in ethnic cleansing reprisals against average Serb citizens. As the cycle of bigotry and violence winds on, the possibility of peaceful co-existence seems remote. Jashari described the gulf this way, “Albanian and Serbian culture is very different. That’s why the conflict is so deep.” Ademi said blood will continue to be shed “until the Serbs are out of Kosovo.” After all that has happened, he said, an ethnic Albanian like himself cannot abide living, drinking or working beside a Serb: “He’s going to be in my way. I’m going to be in his way. There’s no escaping that.”

Like the lyrics of the song playing that night at the apartment, Ademi said one thing is clear. “If you are Albanian, you are my friend. We want the same thing. If you are Serbian, then living together is too hard.” And the jingoistic beat goes on.

Coming to America: The Immigrant-Refugee Mosaic Unfolds in New Ways and in Old Ways In Omaha

July 10, 2011 12 comments

I was born and raised in America, as my parents were before me, yet when I allow myself to think about it, the immigrant experience is well engrained in my DNA. You see, both sets of my grandparents emigrated here from Europe: my father’s family, the Bigas, from Poland; my mother’s family, the Pietramales, from Italy. I always used to kid my folks about their mixed marriage. And so despite my own experience and appearance to the contrary, I am not so very far removed from the newcomer tale, though I was spared all of the struggles of leaving one’s homeland and making it in a new land that my grandparents endured. The following story for The Reader (www.thereader.com) is an attempt to chart the immigrant-refugee landscape in a place like my city, Omaha, and what it looks like to be a newcomer here.

 

 

 

 

Coming to America: The Immigrant-Refugee Mosaic Unfolds in New Ways and in Old Ways In Omaha

©by Leo Adam Biga

A version of the story is published in The Reader

You don’t need to look far to find the tired, poor and huddled masses following America’s seductive promise as THE immigrant-refugee haven. With Omaha hosting ever more ethnic minority populations from around the globe, the metro increasingly mirrors the culturally diverse world.

Actually observing these newcomers is another matter. That’s because many stay close to their own tight-knit communities. If you want to engage them, you best go where they live, shop, eat or worship. Seen or unseen, they are part of a long, multicultural stream that’s fed Omaha since its 1854 founding. Omaha’s story, like that of America’s, is an ever evolving immigrant flow.

“It’s not a static story, it’s a very complex mosaic we have here and it takes a long time to appreciate some of the nuances of it,” says University of Nebraska at Omaha emeritus history professor Bill Pratt.

Complicating that mosaic are ethnic-religious tensions within and between certain national groups. Then there are segments of American society that express hostility, suspicion or discrimination toward The Other.

Pratt’s UNO emeritus history colleague, Harl Dalstrom, says the immigrant dynamic varies among ethnic communities and the circumstances surrounding them.

“Different groups tend to have different patterns of settlement. Each group from each country are going to have different experiences. You really have to get down to whatever the time period is,” he says. “Many folks who come today are from backgrounds even more alien to the American experience then the immigrants of the late 19th and early 20th century. After all, many new arrivials today are from Africa. They’re not only black, they’re not part of the European language group, and so on.”

Nebraska’s foreign-born population increased 31 percent from 2000 to 2008. From 1990 to to 2000 that segment nearly tripled. Latinos, Asians and Africans account for most of the growth. The new groups are mainly concentrated in Omaha and Lincoln. The Omaha Public Schools now serve thousands of refugee students, including more than 1,100 from Burma, Thailand, Sudan and Somalia.

One measure of a place’s diversity, says Pratt, is its signs. Omaha’s Eurocentric, English-only commerce now has its Asian, Arabic, African, Spanish counterparts.

As low-key as many new immigrants may be, it’s fairly common now to hear their mother tongues and to see their native fashions in public. Events like World Refugee Day and Omaha Heritage Festival celebrate this diversity. Signs and symbols all of Omaha’s maturation into a more cosmopolitan, international city.

South Omaha continues its historical role as the city’s primary immigrant gateway and resettlement district. Its affordable housing, blue collar job sector and robust small business climate make it a conducive place to get started. North Omaha and mid-town accommodate growing pockets of immigrants and refugees.

For most of its history South O hosted Poles, Czechs, Lithuanians and Germans. Just south of downtown, Sicilians and Calabrese formed Little Italy. There were Jewish, Greek, Chinese and other well-defined ethnic communities as well, each replete with small businesses, most often grocery stores and restaurants.

Then, as now, anti-immigrant sentiments peaked during hard times and fell silent during good times. Riots prompted by nativist attitudes erupted in the early 1900s.

Omaha’s a welcoming place, says UNO history professor Maria Arbelaez, but here as elsewhere, barriers exist: “There is still segregation, there is still prejudice, there is still racism, sometimes overt, sometimes well hidden, and people do feel it.”

The south side’s now a largely Latino district whose eateries, food carts and shops are emblazoned with Spanish names. Not that Latinos weren’t there before. They were, just in smaller numbers and almost exclusively tracing their roots to Mexico.

“The Mexicans have always been here,” says Arbelaez.

Historically, she says, ethnic minorities go undercounted, as their racial identities fall outside census categories and they tend to be highly mobile populations. Plus, the undocumented among them have extra motivation to remain under the radar.

 

 

Maria Arbelaez
Maria Arbelaez

 

 

Despite the Latino migration that’s transformed the area, remnants of South O’s immigrant past persist in such landmark venues as the Bohemian Cafe, Johnny’s Cafe, Sokol South Omaha and St. Stanislaus Catholic Church. Italian vestiges remain in Orsi’s Bakery, St. Frances Cabrini Catholic Church and Sons of Italy hall.

Even though many second, third and fourth generation immigrant groups no longer live in defined ethnic neighborhoods, their heritage festivals continue.

Today, the variety of cuisines found in South O extends well beyond Mexican to encompass Guatemalan, Salvadoran and national foods from Central America, South America, Africa and many other parts of the world, too.

Exotic eats are no longer confined to South O or the Old Market, as greater Omaha is home to an ever expanding landscape of ethnic dining spots. Then there are ethnic retail stores and other expressions of cultural identity. Inner city health clinics, social service agencies and public schools serve large immigrant bases.

It’s much the same way the immigrant story played out a century ago.

The story of Early Omaha is inextricably linked to the large European immigrant waves from 1880 through 1920 that helped grow this and nearly every U.S. city and filled the industrial labor pool. The internal migration of African-Americans from the South to the North and their subsequent resettling in places like Omaha also brought an influx of new ethnic-cultural influences and workers.

In the aftermath of World War I and the Great Depression and in the first two decades of the Cold War, America grew isolationist, instituting more restrictive immigration policies, and so the steady flow slowed to a trickle. Exceptions were the millions of braceros recruited from Mexico to work in the agricultural, railroad and meatpacking industries and the many displaced persons or refugees from Europe. Omaha welcomed its share of both groups.

The heavy tides of new arrivals didn’t begin in earnest again until the mid-1960s, spurred by more open immigration policies. These waves, no longer predominantly European, but Asian, Indian, African and Latin-American, continue today. Somalia, the former Burma and Bhutan account for a large number of recent newcomers to Omaha. Each group of asylees fled homelands marred by war and political or religious persecution. A generation earlier, Sudanese escaped similar trauma. As did Soviet Jews before that. In the ‘70s, Vietmanese and Laotian refugees.

The surge in Latino immigrants and refugees the past two decades followed economic crises in Mexico and civil wars in Central and South America.

Then, as now, Omaha’s home to ethnic enclaves of foreign-born new arrivals and first generation offspring. South Omaha, once a separate municipality, earned the nickname Magic City for a dynamic growth spurt fueled by the railroads, the meatpacking plants, the stockyards, plus all the ancillary services that supported these industries. Large numbers of immigrants lived and worked in South O. The jobs lasted through the 1960s. Many contemporary immigrants and refugees work equivalent jobs in meatpacking and construction as well as in painting, lawn care, cleaning and other service sector fields.

Not all newcomers work menial jobs, reminds Arbelaez. Their ranks include professionals, skilled tradespeople, entrepreneurs. Many start micro businesses.

Just as opportunity and freedom drew the first waves of immigrants here, they remain enticing beacons of hope for those coming today.

“The pull of the (U.S.) economy is so strong,” says Arbelaez. “It’s better to get a menial job (here) than in Mexico because the pay is so much greater in the States that it allows you to support yourself and your family in Mexico.”

Whether propelled by family, economic, political or survival reasons, new arrivals expect and find a higher standard of living and greater liberty here. That doesn’t mean they don’t struggle making it. Most do. Language-cultural hurdles hinder them. Many live near the poverty line. Even basic food staples like rice stretch tight budgets. Then there’s the scarcity of jobs new arrivals traditionally fill.

Many of those originating from Third World nations or refugee camps harbor unrealistic expectations for what Sudanese community leader Malakal Goak terms “the heaven” they envision America to be. Invariably, say Goak and local refugee community leaders, reality falls short of these utopian, riches-laden dreams.

While Omaha remains an attractive destination or secondary migration site for its relatively low cost of living, healthy job market, good schools and family-friendly environment, it’s not devoid of challenges.

Kumar Gurung, a Bhutan community leader, says his people have great difficulty overcoming language-cultural barriers and finding employment. He says these struggles cause a disproportionate percentage of Bhutanese-Americans to suffer mental health problems such as depression.

The language-cultural divide is a serious barrier for newcomers, say local refugee and immigrant leaders. Clashing cultural norms of child-rearing practices and spousal relationships cause conflicts and sometimes leads to arrests.

Finding decent affordable housing is also an issue.

Many go months before starting a job, while studying to become proficient enough in English to be interview and work-ready. Those finding employment often work two or more jobs to try and make it. Omaha’s spotty public transportation system poses problems, leaders say, for individuals working overnight shifts in industrial areas where buses don’t run off-hours.

Leaders say some newcomers cannot feed their children, cover rent and pay bills on the temporary state allotment provided refugees.

“They’re really struggling,” says International Center of the Heartland & Refugee Services director Maggie Kalkowski.

Newcomers still requiring aid after six to eight months are referred to agencies like ICH, an arm of Lutheran Family Services.

 

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 International Center of the Heartland in the Center Mall

 

 

 

The situation just got tougher for some due to the state ceasing welfare assistance to legal, noncitizen immigrant adults. Parents depend on the aid to help support their family households. Aid to children is not affected by the cut.

“It’s definitely going to affect some refugees here,” says Goak. “If they cannot quality for any government assistance I don’t know how they’re going to survive if they can’t find jobs.”

Goak says some refugees exhaust public aid limits before achieving self-sufficiency. No one, he says, wants new arrivals to become a chronic community burden, but he feels aid should be extended as needed.

Local pantries, Goodwill, Salvation Army, Heart Ministry Center and like agencies pick up the slack for those who fall through the cracks.

In good times or bad, assimilation is hard. It’s that much harder for illiterate individuals.

“Navigating the systems and paperwork process is still very difficult, especially for those refugees who do not read or write in their native languages,” says Southern Sudan Community Association executive director Anne Marie Kudkacz. “Assimilation can be made easier by means of programs and services available to assist refugees along the way.”

Kudlacz says new arrivals here benefit from solid support provided by two main resettlement agencies: SSC and Lutheran Family Services. Catholic Charities’ Lincoln office does resettlement and its Omaha office offers legal and additional services. Ethnic communities themselves also provide educational and other support. “Omaha has not only helpful organizations but strong ethnic groups that provide cultural support and integration,” she says.

Caseworkers, many of them from the communities they serve, assist clients with housing, banking, budgeting, interpreting and various other needs. Kalkowski says these indigenous caseworkers, all multi-lingual, become vital conduits, advisors, mediators and advocates for newcomers. “Because they are the knowledge ones, they are leaders and they’re willing to share it,” she says, “their job doesn’t end. They’re always on call. It’s a great service they do.”

Whatever the issue someone calls him with, says Goak, “it’s a big problem in their life until you solve it.”

“In my community, when you speak English they depend on you,” says Thein Soe, a local Burmese community leader and LFS caseworker.

Hamid Guled, a medical-legal interpreter and LFS caseworker for her native Somali community, says, “It’s fulfilling to me when I get to speak up for somebody who cannot speak up for themselves. I step up on their behalf — I advocate.”

“I think that advocacy is an important part of the work we do,” says Kalkowski.

In the process, she says, local merchants and landlords are educated about these populations’ special needs and clients are taught “how to navigate the American systems of healthcare, housing, legal issues, education, et cetera.”

Refugee service organizations provide English as a Second Language classes, legal assistance, micro business programs and a myriad of other assistance. Most services are free. Some require a nominal fee.

Three of Omaha’s largest and newest refugee groups — from Burma, Bhutan and Somalia — have their own community associations. The same is true of established refugee groups, such as the Sudanese. Using words like “empower” in their mission statements, the groups offer everything from ESL and driving classes to job and life skills training. They also stage activities to help members maintain their native culture.

Cultural cohesiveness is important as groups transition to being American while holding on to familiar, touchstone traditions and ways.

“Whether you come out of rural Alabama or Poland or Sicily or Mexico, you want to hang on to as much as you can that’s meaningful to you,” says historian Bill Pratt. “Not simply the language but a social structure, a social order, and so there’s often a built in cultural conservatism for new arrivals. If you come here from Mexico this is why you’d want to move into a neighborhood where there’s Mexicans. You have an emotional support system there, and then as people move up economically they move away.”

 

 

An oath of allegiance

 

 

There’s power in numbers. Thus, each organization serves as a communal network, lifeline and link for newcomers. Each provides a voice for it’s community’s needs.

Pratt says, “One of the things I think is sometimes overlooked is that these (associations) are products of these particular communities — they’re not organized by well-meaning folks outside the community, they’re not part of government, they’re part of a civic structure that comes out of that community.”

UNO’s Maria Arbelaez says grassroots community organizations often emerge in response to unmet needs. Their formation is an act of self-determination. She cautions that self-contained ethnic enclaves can isolate immigrants from the mainstream and curtail their progress. She says providers must be vigilant reaching out to immigrants and connecting them to services.

Kudlacz says collaboration among service providers and ethnic communities happens through the Omaha Refugee Task Force and the Refugee Leadership Academy, whose members identify issues and work together on addressing them.

Coming to America as an immigrant is one thing. Arriving as a refugee is another. The assimilation path for both groups is strewn with challenges. But whereas immigrants tend to be more highly educated and with some financial assets, “most refugees arrive with little more than clothing, personal items and legal refugee status documentation,” says Kudlacz. She adds that refugees generally have little education due to the disruption caused by wars or disasters in their homeland or lack of opportunities in camps they get placed from.

Lutheran Family Services’ Maggie Kalkowski admires the resilience of those coming here. She surmises today’s new arrivals face a harder road than their predecessors by virtue of the more complex social-government systems and technologies they navigate. “There’s so much more to learn,” she says. “It’s so much more demanding.” America’s bounty, she adds, is a blessing and a curse for new arrivals, who find  “overwhelming” all the choices and decisions.

One thing that hasn’t changed is new arrivals supporting family members still residing in refugee camps or countries of origin.

Hamdi Guled says, “The families back home expect, ‘OK, you’re in America, you have to send some money to support us — don’t forget about us.’ They don’t want to hear about how hard you have it in America.”

Then there’s the pressure newcomers feel to be Americanized overnight, though the reality of learning English and everything else is a long process.

“That’s a lot easier said than done,” says Pratt. “People ask today, ‘Why don’t they learn English?’ Well, it’s damn hard to learn another language when you’re working and raising kids.”

Arbelaez says immigrants-refugees here generally are “moving along into mainstream society,” but adds that full integration “takes generations.”

The cultural enrichment immigrants bring extends beyond food or language. They have something to teach about communal engagement, too.

“They still have that whole idea of it takes a village to raise a child,” says Kalkowski, “I think the values these new populations bring actually help America move more to the center, back to family, to neighborhood, to community, to working for others, instead of being focused on the greed side or what’s in it for me. It’s really valuable to us from my perspective.”


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