Strangers in Paradise

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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.

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.

"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.

"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.

(The Houston Chronicle reported recently that Texas dentists install such crowns at a rate far above those in other states, mostly on indigent children qualified for Medicaid.)

"Some of the [dental] offices apparently have a connection inside the relief agencies, and they knew exactly which day the Medicaid would kick in," says someone familiar with the refugees, who prefers anonymity. "Some of the kids probably got good treatment, but I question the good intentions -- these people had been there for long before the Medicaid kicked in, and no one cared, and all of sudden these vans were rolling up."

Complaints about the work reached Dr. Jafar Naghshbandi, a faculty member at the dental branch of the University of Texas-Houston Health Science Center. He couldn't do anything about work already done on the kids, but he decided to help the adults.

"A lot of these people, it's not just that they've been in this country with no dental care, but they haven't had any decent care in 15 years because of the political situation over there," he says.

Naghshbandi recruited volunteers from the UT faculty. He recruited volunteers to drive school buses and to knock on the doors of refugees. He got translators.

And on September 25, six schoolbuses, carrying 200 or so refugees, pulled up to the dental branch's building in the medical center. Eighty volunteer dentists were on hand; another 40 volunteers from the Al-Noor Society of Greater Houston were also there.

The refugees got a big lunch, including ethnic delicacies from local restaurants; there was baby-sitting and a big-screen TV for the kids. If someone needed emergency treatment -- and many did -- it was taken care of on the spot.

Most, however, were simply screened and diagnosed. Coming up with the money to treat their problems is a very big Step Two.

It may cost $100,000 to treat all the adults, Naghshbandi says. It's still up in the air where that money might come from. "We needed to put some data together through the screenings to see what the scope of the problem is and what kind of budget might be needed," he says.

"Right now we're trying to put together that budget and determine how best to do the treatments, and then we'll take it to the school for approval," he says. "We're not looking to give them whiter teeth or to straighten their teeth -- these are people in pain from their dental problems."

He says the refugees still talk about that day at the dental branch.

"They expected maybe two or three doctors there who would give them a quick look and say, 'You're fine, move on.' But there were 80 doctors there, and the dean of the school ate lunch with them. It was truly a nice day. It was so elegant, and the school treated them with such respect, saying, 'You are our guests.' You could see it in their faces how much that meant."

Corporate donors tapped their supplies of samples to give toothpaste, toothbrushes, floss and mouthwash.

Naghshbandi has become heavily involved in the refugees' lives. A native Kurd who has been in America for 20 years, he helped Kurdish refugees from the Gulf War when he was in Dallas. Now he's helping the Kosovars.

He can't walk ten steps into the refugees' apartment complexes without being greeted -- sometimes by a gaping mouth. A recent visit saw Qemal Robaj stop him and point to his mouth; some pantomiming and Naghshbandi's limited Albanian got across the point that Robaj was in pain.

He needed a root canal, but without Medicaid or UT's program, he wasn't going to get one. Medicaid would pay for antibiotics, though, so Naghshbandi phoned in a prescription, and Hughes gave Robaj a ride to the pharmacy.

Several other refugees asked Naghshbandi when they might get the treatment that the UT dentists had said they needed. "I would be lying to you if I said next week or next month," Naghshbandi told one, "but soon, my friend, I think it will be soon. We are working on it."

"Some of these people, they are so bored living here and not being able to get out that they just get so happy to see another human being," he said later.

In some cities around the country, Kosovar refugees have expressed bitterness over what they see as broken promises made by the U.S. government. At refugee camps and at Fort Dix, refugees have said, American officials promised them jobs, English classes and enough money to cover their living costs, at least for a while.

Some agency workers have said the money intended to support the refugees here gets sent home to help relatives in ever more dire conditions. While noble, that's not what the money is intended for, they say.

Naghshbandi and Hughes say that the complaints from refugees have been more muted here in Houston, but they admit that the gap between expectations and reality can often be daunting.

"How realistic is it that they should make it in the U.S.? They've seen all the movies, they see the high-rises and the highways," Naghshbandi says. "Now, did you promise them that, or did you just say that you would give them a safe place to live away from the war?

"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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