Strangers in Paradise

Kosovar refugees in Houston fight to hang on in a land they don't understand

 On the fuzzy TV where the rabbit ears struggle in vain to pull in an adequate signal, an antic, fiercely smiling home-shopping host is incredulous that he's asking only $900 (after rebates) for an Intel computer.

Christine Ramzi, a dark, pretty teenager only months removed from the vicious battleground of her Kosovo home, stares blankly at the screen. This is America to her: stuck inside a dicey apartment on a perfect Sunday afternoon -- partly because she's babysitting a handicapped brother, partly because the complex is no place for a young girl to be strolling alone -- gazing with little comprehension as a slick TV personality screams about the wonders of computers and digital cameras and handheld televisions, all easily available if you just call now.

She's hoping the show will help her with her English, if not her ability to understand her new home.

Kosovar kids and their parents were entertained and treated one day at the UT-Houston Dental Branch.
Lisa Garvin
Kosovar kids and their parents were entertained and treated one day at the UT-Houston Dental Branch.

A few miles across town, in another apartment complex littered with broken beer bottles and syringes, four strapping cousins fill the living room of a tiny one-bedroom flat. The TV doesn't work; a clock radio tries to fill the air with the tired classic rock of 101 FM. The familiar chestnuts by the Stones or Led Zep are reminders of home -- the Maloku cousins used to hear them in the tiny Kosovo farm town of Gjilan, before they had to run for their lives.

In Gjilan, the songs signified America, where convertibles rolled down endless broad highways, where jobs were plentiful for anyone who wanted to work hard.

Now that they're in America, the songs signify home, where at least they knew the language, where they could get around town without getting inescapably lost on confusing buses that cruise past shopping centers that all look alike, where they could find a job, where they didn't have to sit in a dilapidated apartment, on mismatched donated furniture, wondering desperately if they can learn enough English to support themselves when their financial aid runs out in a few weeks.

But as bad as it may seem at times, the Maloku cousins, Christine Ramzi's family and hundreds of other Kosovar refugees have made their decision: Houston is better than going home to nothing.

If today the days seem mind-numbingly repetitive, the Houston experience for many Kosovar refugees began in the exciting, blinding lights of TV news cameras, with lots of helpful new friends warmly welcoming them as they stepped off a commercial jet in May.

About 15,000 refugees were flown to America to escape the Kosovo conflict; after a brief period at Fort Dix, New Jersey, they were scattered in groups across the country, wherever sponsoring agencies could handle them. About 500 came to Houston, assigned to one of four local groups: YMCA International, Catholic Charities, Interfaith Ministries and the Alliance for Multicultural Community Services.

The whole plan, from Fort Dix on down, was put together hastily and was implemented haphazardly.

Some families came to Houston and were dropped off in all-but-empty apartments, bare of anything except the white walls, cheap gray carpet and perhaps a couple of pillows. In some, no one had managed to get the air-conditioning turned on; families sat there, sweating, wondering just what they had gotten themselves into.

In the first blush of publicity, though, donations of furniture, food and clothes came quickly enough (in fact it's easy enough to spot the refugees in their complexes -- they're the ones wearing shirts for 1993 charity fun runs or long-ago entertainment specials; shirts advertising an HBO Cher in Las Vegas special are oddly prevalent).

The four agencies pitched in, getting the refugees signed up for food stamps and Medicaid and helping where they could with finding jobs.

Some families had someone with passable English skills, and those were the lucky ones -- they hooked up with sponsoring families; they found jobs. But many families weren't so lucky. The bus system is a blur to them. The apartment complexes they're living in aren't close to the entry-level manual jobs for which they're qualified, linguistically speaking. And in the next month or so the sponsoring agencies will no longer be paying the rent.

Many of the families couldn't take it and accepted the U.S. government's offer of a free ride home. Maybe one-fifth of the Kosovars who settled here have returned to their homeland, often to find their homes, and whatever they left behind, are gone.

Some of the ones who left sent word back that it's better to stay in America than to come home to Kosovo.

Kosovo is ravaged not only physically, it is the root of many of the psychic scars that still afflict the refugees. With limited interpretation skills available, the stories come out in monosyllabic, undramatic drips and drabs, smothering the horror of forced marches and near-death escapes.

But the fear doesn't die. One family has a young daughter, heartbreakingly embarrassed because, at seven years old, she still has to wear diapers. Her ability to control herself has vanished ever since she saw families gunned down in a roadside massacre.

Faced with those memories, and the ever-present hatreds and conflicts still festering in their homeland, most have chosen to stay here and make a go of it.

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