Strangers in Paradise

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

"Life is good here," says Arben Maloku, 24, whose parents stayed in Kosovo. "I want to stay here. I want to go to college."

Maloku is attending English classes, one of the services offered by the social-work agencies helping out the Kosovars. One of his cousins has found work, doing 12-hour shifts in a candle factory.

While jobs have been found for at least one member of many families, the sudden influx of a large new group of refugees taxed the agencies.

Dental Branch Dean Ronald Johnson examines a refugee patient.
Lisa Garvin
Dental Branch Dean Ronald Johnson examines a refugee patient.
Dr. Jafar Naghshbandi of the UT-Houston Dental Branch has taken on the cause of the Kosovar refugees here.
Dr. Jafar Naghshbandi of the UT-Houston Dental Branch has taken on the cause of the Kosovar refugees here.

"Whenever a new nationality comes in with large numbers, it puts a stress on the delivery systems," says Ross Hicks, the community and resource-development manager for the Alliance for Multicultural Community Services. "We've been taking Bosnian refugees for years, for example, so we have people on staff who can speak the language, who understand the culture and so on. When you get a new group all of a sudden, there's a certain gearing up that you have to do."

In the beginning, the most pressing need was for food; the agencies helped get the refugees qualified for food stamps. About 20 or 30 of the high school-age kids are getting along fairly well at HISD's Lee High School, which has extensive English as a Second Language programs.

But resettling in a strange country brings a host of problems that don't always get addressed by the agencies.

A handful of volunteers became aware of the Kosovar refugees and have been scrambling to help in areas where the agencies aren't.

One is Babette Hughes, a tireless go-getter studying at the University of Houston's Graduate School of Social Work. She was supposed to travel to Albania to help in the camps, but events overtook her. By the time of the planned trip, refugees were already being sent here.

"If I had gone, I would've just been helping them move, so I hooked up with them here," she says.

She was among the people who dropped off new arrivals at their apartments that first night. "With one family, there were 14 people in one apartment, and all they had in it was one fork, four pillows and, like, two towels," she says. "I'll never forget it."

Hughes has become something of a designated shouter for the refugees. She yelled at one apartment manager who hadn't turned on the a/c for two hot and humid summer days; she most recently got into a half-hour-long screaming match with the owner of a pizza parlor who, she says, tried to pay some of the refugees about half of what he had promised.

"These guys couldn't believe it," she says, when the Maloku cousins chuckle after catching the word "pizza."

"They couldn't do the arguing, so they just kind of listened to music and waited while I yelled. Some of these people who say they have jobs just really want free labor."

She has learned a little Albanian, enough to help out when someone needs a prescription or necessities that aren't covered by food stamps.

"If you go into these people's homes, you'd think they are well-off because they try to make it look like they are. They could have only one bottle of Coke in the house, and you're going to get it," she says. "You'd never know there's nothing else in the kitchen."

A few minutes later one of the Maloku cousins comes home, carrying some groceries. He disappears into the kitchen; when he comes back out, he puts a can of Sprite in front of each of his guests and graces the table with Ho-Hos, artfully served unwrapped in donated plastic bowls.

"You'll never be able to tell just walking in that they have problems," she says. "You have to ask, 'Do you have laundry detergent? Do you have clean towels?' "

The most pressing need now, she says, is jobs. The refugees have work permits; beyond language woes, transportation is the main obstacle. Few refugees have the confidence yet to tackle the bus system.

Used cars, even bicycles, would be a help, Hughes says. Phone cards that would let families call home would also be a godsend.

"We'd love to get sponsors for some of these families -- not even financial sponsors, but just people willing to come by and visit," she says. "It gets real lonely for some of these people, being stuck here all day."

Some of the churches that originally volunteered to help families have stuck around, but like anything else, interest fades once the novelty wears off.

Attracting attention was the least of the refugees' problems the first few days of July.

That week vans pulled into the parking lots of their apartment complexes and workers tumbled out to knock on doors with the amazing offer of free dental work.

Someone had tipped off a few local dentists that the refugees' applications for Medicaid had just been approved, meaning the government would pay for any dental work done on children.

Adults, some of them suffering from dental conditions so bad they needed full-blown operations, were brushed aside. Only the kids could get worked on, the adults were told.

Soon enough the children sported thousands of dollars of dental work that some experts say is all but unnecessary, including steel crowns on baby teeth.

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