"The children are terrified when they see a person in uniform because they saw what the Serb police did," said Renate Brand of the Kosovar refugees being resettled with relatives here with the help of the Jewish community.
The refugees (39 have arrived in the last two weeks) are coming with horrific tales of Serbian atrocities they either witnessed or heard about, according to Brand, supervisor of the Kosovar resettlement program for NYANA, the New York Association for New Americans.
"Some were crying," she said, "especially one woman who came here without her husband. She suffered so much, she said she could write a book about what happened to her. And the parents of two children, 4 and 8, said they would start to cry when they saw a New York City policeman."
Brand said the children and their parents were given five minutes to pack up their belongings and leave their homes. As they fled, Serb police set their home and the rest of the village ablaze.
"They had to leave in April when the weather was terrible," she said. "They had to walk in deep snow through treacherous mountains so they would not be seen by the Serb police who were patrolling the roads below. They had nothing to eat or drink, so they ate snow to sustain themselves. And they did not have enough clothes. Many babies died along the way and were abandoned on the wayside. The children saw that."
NYANA, a UJA-Federation agency, is one of several Jewish organizations involved in resettling Kosovar refugees who have arrived here with the help of the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society. The first group of 30 refugees (all of whom are related) are living with relatives in Brooklyn. Two other families arrived last week and are now living with relatives in Yonkers. None of the refugees are Jewish.
Mark Handelman, executive vice president of NYANA, said his organization is gearing up to handle as many as 200 refugees over the next three months.
"I think it’s a very, very important part of our overall value base to help people who have been victims of persecution," he said. "We have a mandate upon us that stems from the Jewish value of redeeming the captives. This program is a reflection of that value system."
Stephen Solender, executive vice president of UJA-Federation, said the "Jewish community here and throughout the country is prepared to receive these refugees. We have memories that remind us that it wasnít too long ago that Jewish people were caught in similar circumstances. We have learned from history and certainly want to be our brothers’ and sisters’ keeper."
The UJA-Federation network of agencies has resettled about 140,000 Jews from the former Soviet Union since 1989, and in the process earned a "good reputation in the immigrant community," Handelman noted.
That was the reason 29 non-Jewish families here went to NYANA for help in bringing their 180 relatives to the city from refugee camps in Albania and Macedonia, according to Arie Beerman, NYANA’s director of resettlement services.
He said that when the first group of 30 refugees arrived two weeks ago on the eve of Shavuot, his office was prepared to stay open on the holiday with a three-person skeleton staff "to see what their needs were and to give them some emergency cash assistance." But because of a paperwork snafu that compelled them to return to the airport on Shavuot, "it would have been impossible to meet on that day. So we saw them on Monday and every day since."
Beerman also enlisted the support of the Metropolitan New York Coordinating Council on Jewish Poverty.
"We’re going to provide the refugees with basic house furnishings, like beds, tables, chairs, lamps, linens, dishes, pots and pans, flatware, toiletries and shower curtains," said William Rapfogel, the council’s executive director.
"Our council has offices in Jewish areas, therefore our client base tends to be mostly Jewish," he observed. "This is the first concerted assistance we have provided to the non-Jewish community."
Rapfogel said he believes it will cost the council about $40,000 to buy supplies. Contributions may be made to the council at 80 Maiden Lane, 21st Floor, New York, N.Y. 10038.
Among those helping the council support the refugees is the American Jewish Committee, which this week said it would contribute $25,000. The organization has raised $1.1 million for its Kosovar assistance program. The rest of the money is to be distributed to help the refugees in Albania, Macedonia and Montenegro, according to AJC spokesman Kenneth Bandler.
Handelman said NYANA also works with another UJA-Federation agency, FEGS, to provide the refugees with vocational training.
"We have our own direct job placement program, as does Met Council," he added. "Any refugee is eligible."
Handelman said NYANA also does follow-up work to make sure the refugees have received food stamps, Medicaid and other federal entitlements. In addition, it provides counseling and English language training.
Beerman said he has received calls from local synagogues offering to help, and from a Manhattan dentist, Jeffrey Dorman, who offered to provide free dental care for the first group of 30 refugees.
Dorman, an assistant professor at Columbia University’s School of Dental and Oral Surgery, said he had made the offer "as a gesture of goodwill between Jews and Muslims. My pre-eminent interest is doing something similar with Jews and Palestinians. … My goal is to promote world peace."
Meanwhile, Brand said she is working with the refugees, all of whom have been traumatized by their experiences.
"One family told me the Serbs put a group of teenagers in a well and dropped a bomb on them," she said. A psychotherapist, Brand said she has interviewed each refugee to take their histories. She said parents took pains to shield their children from as much as possible.
"Some whole families were shot," she said she was told. "One person said she lived in a large apartment block with several hundred people and that today it is totally deserted."