Refugee watches as Afghans arrive: “I know what it takes”
Njomza Kaja of Fort Lee is moved as she watches the latest news of Afghan refugees arriving in the United States after being forced to leave loved ones and belongings in a country now controlled by the Taliban.
It’s the same when she hears about Syrian refugees who are now making a new life thousands of miles from their homeland in the United States after fleeing war at home.
Kaja can understand because in 1999 she was one of thousands of refugees who were airlifted to the United States after the outbreak of the Kosovo War, which displaced 1.5 million people from their homes in the south. -est of Europe.
“It was very emotional for me because we just went through what they are going through again,” said Kaja, now a US citizen and business owner. “I go through it with them, because I know what it takes and what it feels like. And when I see babies, it’s really touching.
Tens of thousands of Afghan refugees, who will be living temporarily in military facilities across the country, including Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst, New Jersey, are expected to settle in the United States in the coming months, as are Kaja did this over 20 years ago. They will receive medical examinations and work authorization as their immigration documents are processed. Resettlement agencies will help them connect with their families or find apartments and work.
A State Department spokesperson said this week the goal is to resettle the Afghan people as quickly as possible. But it is not yet clear how long they will be held in the various military bases. A report on the environmental impact of housing refugees at the New Jersey military base noted that refugees could live at the base for at least six months and up to a year.
Those arriving in the United States are Afghans who have applied for a humanitarian visa known as the Special Immigrant Visa (SIV), which is granted to those who have assisted the United States military, as well as others Vulnerable Afghans, officials say.
“Individuals granted special immigrant status by the Department of Homeland Security and their families will receive resettlement benefits through our refugee program,” the State Department spokesperson said. “Others will receive initial resettlement assistance through resettlement agencies. “
Alison Millan, deputy director of the International Rescue Committee in Elizabeth, whose organization has resettled 4,266 people in New Jersey over the past 20 years, said the group has been supporting families as they rebuild their lives. She said their work includes securing and furnishing the apartments, often in partnership with other organizations and volunteers. They also help families apply for public benefits such as food stamps and health insurance.
“Register for employment services and training in English,” she added in an emailed statement. “Connection and navigation in healthcare; educate children; apply for a social security card; provide cultural orientation; and identify short and long term goals towards which families can progress.
The agency also provides employment, education, case management and immigration services that refugee families can access for up to five years after arrival, she added.
A story of terror, trial and triumph
Kaja was six and a half months pregnant when widespread violence erupted in her hometown of Pristina at the start of the Kosovo war in 1999. Within days, Serbian police were forcing ethnic Albanians like Kaja to leave their homes. home and boarding. buses and trains to neighboring Macedonia.
Kaja, who said she was worried that hospitals would not take care of her when she gave birth, decided on her own to get on one of the buses with her husband, Faton, her sister and his brother-in-law and take refuge in a cousin’s house. in Macedonia.
“At that time, everything was paralyzed, everything. Nothing worked, ” Kaja recalled recently. “So we weren’t safe to go out. We had no more food in the house. And I was panicking because I was pregnant, so I didn’t know who was going to help me deliver my baby.
She said that before getting on the bus, a woman stopped her and asked her if she would agree to take her two children to Macedonia and not leave them until they arrived. She has accepted.
“She just wanted to save her children,” Kaja recalls. “Because they were just 13 or 15, something like that. And I took them and they were holding my hand all the time.
During the bus ride to Macedonia, she said they were constantly afraid. The rebels stopped the bus at various checkpoints and ordered some people to get out of the vehicle.
“They just picked the people, who they think they should take, and then took them outside and killed them,” she recalls. “And then the bus continued. This is what we saw all the way until we got to Macedonia. We prayed that they would not choose our husbands.
She said as they approached the border, they saw hundreds of Albanians marching towards Macedonia, many of whom were carrying children. She said that when they arrived at the border, her cousin, who lived in Macedonia, took them to his home. They also dropped off the two children at an address their mother had given them.
Military flight to new life
Weeks later, Kaja said she was told Albanians were heading to the United States, so she asked to be considered. A few weeks later, she and her husband flew to New York. She was only carrying a backpack full of personal belongings.
When they arrived at John F. Kennedy Airport after being airlifted by the military, she said, they were handed over to her sister-in-law who lived in Queens. She said other people on the plane who did not have families were sent to the New Jersey military base.
She said several organizations donated baby clothes and items to her as she prepared for her daughter’s arrival.
“Thank goodness for the people around us,” said Kaja, who arrived on May 27, 1999 and gave birth to her daughter in August of that year. “We had a lot of people… a lot of Americans, who I still don’t know who they are. They came to the door and gave us clothes, food. It was amazing the hospitality we got from everyone, that we didn’t even know. ”
She said that for the first few months after arriving she did not work but her husband found jobs as a handyman and in landscaping. She said that less than a year later, she and her husband were both working and no longer receiving government assistance. They were also able to start repaying the $ 2,800 they owed the US government for their one-way ticket from Macedonia to New York. Those entering the country under the refugee admission program must repay an interest-free travel loan.
She said that over the past 20 years there have been challenges, especially in the first few months getting used to a new country with different cultures and traditions. But she and her husband were able to get green cards a few years after arriving and become citizens a few years later.
“We appreciate every day that we are alive,” she said.
Her husband now works for Con Edison in New York City and she now owns a skin care business in Bergen County.
“I don’t know how it will work for them,” Kaja said of the newly arrived Afghan refugees. “But with very hard work, they can achieve anything. This country offers you many opportunities. Here you can become whatever you want.