Muslims Find Refuge in Israel

On Symbolic Day, Refugees Gain Asylum

By David Abel  |  Defense Week  |  4/26/1999

PETROVIC, Macedonia - Only a few hours before nightfall Monday, when Israel would begin observing Yom Hashoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day, a gleaming Boeing 737 lifted off the tarmac of Macedonia's principal airport, heading to Tel Aviv with 111 refugees from Europe's worst ethnic conflict since World War II.

None of the men, women or children recently exiled from Kosovo had ever visited Israel, a nation founded in 1948 in the wake of wartime genocide and ethnic persecution of Jews. Some of the ethnic Albanians said they knew little about the country they were being taken to, other than it had set up an efficient field hospital in their refugee camp. Others, however, knew exactly why they were going to Israel.

"We have had a very similar fate as the Jews," said Astrit Kuchi, a 24-year-old medical student forced from his home at gunpoint in Kosovo's capital Pristina. "I think they understand us better than anyone. If they can't help us, no one can."

The refugees spent much of the previous three weeks on the cusp of hell. Serbian police forced them from their homes, sent many marching miles through snow-capped mountains and pushed them into a disease-infested no man's land. Later, some were separated from their families as Macedonian police hastily herded them into sprawling refugee camps.

The ethnic Albanians came to Petrovic International Airport in four city buses. Most wore the same clothes and hadn't showered since leaving their homes in the embattled southern province of Serbia. Pregnant women, babies sucking pacifiers, unshaven old men, unkempt teenage girls and young men lugging their family's few possessions slowly emerged from the buses as their names were called.

Names such as Hasani, Ramadini, Hamid. Distinctively Muslim names. Going to a land that uneasily grapples with the ethnic tensions of its own Muslim citizens.

Lost fathers
"I am going to Israel," beamed Kujtim Cerimi, 4, clutching a panda bear he calls Monkey. "We will find a home there."

The little boy walked through a metal detector holding his uncle's hand. No one knew where his father was. He might have been dead or just in another refugee camp. Or somewhere searching for food near the family's burned home in the Kosovar village of Fushe. But Kujtim and eight others from his family collected their blue boarding passes and shuffled toward the Israeli passenger jet to start a new life.

Onboard Flight 100, the refugees found red and yellow nylon tote bags in their seats. Inside were a few welcoming gifts: a white baseball cap, a bag of chocolates, an Israeli flag with its Star of David. Watching the refugees' tattered luggage roll into the cargo bay, the flight's captain, David Vernick, observed, "That's usually about enough bags for one family."

Next to Vernick stood a row of Israeli dignitaries who had flown in a few hours before to deliver eight tons of medical supplies. Included in the entourage was Irana Raslan, the 22-year-old Palestinian recently crowned Mrs. Israel.

"Israel doesn't care if they are Muslim, Christian or Jewish," she said, watching as muddy shoes scurried up a staircase and 105 adults and six babies boarded the flag-draped airplane. "We came to help because these are people who are suffering."

Ran Curial, Israel's ambassador to Greece, said he expected his country would likely accept more Kosovars over the next few weeks. Israel is well-adapted to taking in refugees and large immigrant populations, he said. It accepts on average 50,000 new residents every year and previously has admitted refugees from wars in Bosnia, Rwanda and Ethiopia.

Next stop: Kibbutz
While many of the refugees may eventually return to Kosovo, Curial said they would be housed on a Kibbutz near the city of Haifa, where they would be given language training and opportunities to find work in their fields.

"It is very symbolic that this is happening on Yom Hashoah," Curial said during a tour of Israel's field hospital at the refugee camp in Brazda, which had tended to more than 700 patients and delivered six babies in its first six days of operation. "My feeling, and the feeling of many Israelis, is that we have to do what people did not do 55 years ago."

Shehide Ramadani wasn't sure where she was going last Monday, but she was sure it would be better than where she came from. The 19-year-old English student from Pristina watched as Serbs in black masks pillaged her home. Her father later was separated from her family in Macedonia. She believes he's in Germany.

Ramadini and the five family members heading with her to Israel learned about the openings because their tent in Brazda was near the Israeli hospital. It was the first ticket out of misery, she said.

"Really, I'm not sure where I'm going or what I will do," she said. "But these people helped us when we needed help in the refugee camp. I believe they will help us more."

Copyright, Defense Week