A Heartbreaking Mission

A Heartbreaking Mission

Tirana, Albania — Barely six weeks ago, the recreational facility and park grounds known as Piscina, in the nation’s capital, was one of the few places where Albanian families could go for a swim, hike through the forest, or ride in bumper cars.

That was before local authorities turned Piscina into a refugee camp.

Since early April, it has served as a tent city for 2,500 ethnic Albanian refugees forced out of Yugoslavia by the Serbs.

Living eight or nine to a tent the size of your average Manhattan bedroom, the men mill around the compound with dull eyes and nothing to do. The women, dressed in head scarves and the baggy harem-style pants so popular in their culture, either sit in the tents or tend to their bored children. Though more animated than their war-numbed parents, some of the children seem to be worse off physically.

Despite relief workers’ best efforts, many have skin diseases and stomach complaints.

Leading a delegation of two dozen American Jewish leaders around the camp, a worker remarks, “This is the Hilton of refugee camps. The situation is much, more worse in other places.”

Taking in the scene, that’s a bit hard for the visitors to imagine. True, unlike many of the camps, the refugees have access to nutritious hot food and medical care. But a glance into the women’s communal toilets, where feces and soiled tissues and sanitary napkins are piled high in the stalls’ corners, reveals just how little separates these displaced people from a rampant epidemic. And the only thing separating them from the rain that begins to fall are the Israeli tents they’re living in.

Bad as conditions are in Piscina, they would be a great deal worse were it not for the assistance provided by the government and people of Israel and the American Jewish community.

Since March, Israelis have donated $1.25 million and another $500,000 worth of blankets, clothes, tents and other essentials. North American Jews have given an additional $3 million to the Kosovo campaign of the American Joint Distribution Committee, a UJA-Federation beneficiary.

The Jewish Agency and JDC are also assisting more than 2,000 Yugoslavian Jews caught in the fighting.

For the Kosovo campaign, The Jewish Agency has transported more than 120 tons of these supplies in nine chartered flights and has plans to bring more. To ensure that the food, medicine, baby formula and diapers reach the refugees, the agency has a hired a small team of Israeli relief workers to oversee distribution. The Joint, too, has a team of professionals to help assess the needs of the refugees, among them Dr. Rick Hodes, an Ethiopia-based physician originally from Syosset, L.I.

The aid, which continues to pour in, is being distributed to 12 refugee camps. In several instances, these supplies were the very first to reach starving camp residents.

The Jewish leaders, who have flown to Israel, Albania and Hungary with suitcases full of supplies, are here to see how the money their communities have raised is being used, and to gauge what still needs to be done.

That the goods are needed becomes evident as soon as the delegation alights from the plane. Greeted by the deputy prime minister at Tirana International Airport, the leaders learn that poverty-stricken Albania, which has about 3 million citizens, is providing refuge to more than 400,000 refugees.

“There is a lot of help, but there are more refugees than help,” notes the official, referring to the efforts of various relief agencies. Then, singling out the Jewish community’s efforts, he says, “we had expected this sort of help because the Jewish people are people who have suffered in the past.” Stressing that Albania gave refuge to several hundred Jews during the Holocaust, he adds, “we had expected help because Albanians showed solidarity with the Jewish people during the Second World War.”

Though the VIP speech is obviously meant to soften the philanthropists’ hearts, it is unnecessary. Merely visiting Pescina accomplishes that.

Breaking up into three groups, the leaders meet refugees such as Sinan Casnechee, a 38-year-old farmer whose deeply lined face makes him look 15 years older. Walking out of his tent, which, along with the tent next door is home to 18, the father of three relates his story.

“The Serbs came and set fire to our village. Some of our neighbors were murdered. We took what we could but it wasn’t much because we had to travel by foot. There were no carts, no horses. We carried the children,” he says.

“Does your family get enough to eat here?” a visitor asks. “So-so,” Casnechee replies. Asked how he and the others wile away their time, he says, “We don’t do anything. We sit down all day and talk to each other.”

Most of the others relate similar stories. Nahas Sherlameti, who was an unemployed factory worker in Kosovo, fled to Albania with his wife and three children. His brother-in-law, who arrived with them, recently returned to Macedonia to find his wife and two children.

“The soldiers came in the morning but we couldn’t do anything because they had guns. They stole our money,” Sherlameti recounts. Pointing to his clothes and the clothes of his 9-year-old son, he says, “everything we have here was donated.” When asked how often he and the other refugees can take a shower, the reply is “once a week.”

The only upbeat moment of the day comes when groups of 3- and 4-year olds sitting in “school tents” are handed JDC activity boxes containing toy cars, motorcycles, colored pens and Barbie dolls. “They’re children and children need something to keep them busy,” says a JDC field worker. “It’s important to give them as much as a normal life as possible. That’s why we’ve also donated 10,000 books to start libraries in the refugee camps. People need a focus.”

Gazing into the school tents, Eric Goldstein, an attorney from the Upper West Side, says that, though brief, his 12-hour visit to the camp “was worth it.”

“It was an important opportunity to see our dollars being used by the Jewish Agency and the Joint. From what I’ve seen, we’re providing supplies where there otherwise wouldn’t be many.”

Goldstein says that the most moving part of the trip was meeting the children. “I saw children who look like my children. During the Holocaust, my children could have been in this position.”

Lewis Norry, an attorney from Rochester, N.Y., agrees that the trip was well worth the effort, as well as the cost (the visit was financed either by the leaders themselves or their communities).

Ticking off the items he personally bought for the refugees, Norry says, “I had the opportunity to bring over 10 tents, 1,000 diapers, 1,000 baby wipes, 20 pounds of chocolate, 50 pairs of women’s underwear and 50 pairs of socks.” Explaining why he dug so deeply into his own pockets, he says, “I had a moral problem spending thousands of dollars to see suffering and not relieving the suffering.”

Having seen the desperation in the refugees’ eyes, he says, “I can now go back and more personally tell the story of what’s going on here. If we don’t do it, who will?”

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