Strangers in Paradise

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

"One of the sad things is, they came with a lot of hope and saw the U.S. and the Western allies as really a sort of savior, and those saviors defined this city as a safe haven, so that meant something to them. But not knowing the culture, or the system for qualifying for work, not knowing your way around or the language, it puts them at a disadvantage."

It's not an even playing field among the refugees, either. The ones with limited English skills get sponsors; they get taken out to the occasional dinner or night on the town. They get first crack at the donated furniture.

"There needs to be a system so that some families don't get completely ignored while others get a lot," Naghshbandi says. The refugees regularly share donated goods, but a walk through several apartments can reveal differences. Where one family might be crowded on a ratty sofa whose holes are barely covered by a sheet, others have hooked up with families or churches that have donated color TVs, plenty of furniture in reasonably good shape and even the knickknacks that can make a low-rent apartment seem less sterile.

The obvious question, though, is whether the refugees are better off here than in Kosovo. Apparently most still consider the U.S. a land where their lives, and the lives of their children, eventually will be worth the current troubles.

Unlike most refugees who come to America, Kosovars who change their minds do not have a problem getting home. Any refugee who arrived here between May 5 and July 31 can fly home for free, an offer from the U.S. Department of State that stands until next May.

And a refugee trying to rebuild a shattered life might find it easier to do so back home, and not only because of familiarity with the language and the support of relatives.

"Are they better off here or there? At least there the eyes of the world are still on them, and they are getting help," Naghshbandi says. "Here, people think, 'They're in the U.S., they must be doing fine.' But what is 'fine' if you don't have the basics for your children, like some of these people don't?"

The outpouring of donations when the refugees first arrived was astonishing, he says, but it inevitably petered out.

"Houston is a very generous city, and these people have been truly appreciative of what they have received," he says. "But as soon as the media attention goes away, people think about something else. As long as the camera is rolling, people are aware of the situation, but when it's not, they think the problems have been solved.

"Everyone who knows about it is trying their best to make it comfortable for these people, but a community awareness of what's going on will help take the burden off the few people and spread it among more."

Al-Noor and Catholic Charities would be good places to funnel donations or ask about setting up a sponsorship, he says.

The Kosovar refugees have a long way to go before they can say they've made it in America. Some have made a good head start, partly thanks to generous Houstonians.

But others are in real danger of being left behind. They may not fully grasp yet that the government assistance they have come to depend on is about to expire. They do not know how to break out of the mind-numbing routine of staring at the apartment walls, hoping somebody can help them figure out their strange new surroundings.

Their big chance -- a free opportunity to live in America, away from the unrest that has plagued their lives -- may just be slipping away.

In the next few months, perhaps more and more will be getting on planes heading home, still utterly baffled by life in Houston, and forever more wondering how life might have worked out differently for them and their children.

To help the Kosovar refugees, call the Al-Noor Society at (713)779-1304 or Babette Hughes at (713)298-5274. E-mail Richard Connelly at rich_connelly@houstonpress.com.

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