April 26, 1999
(CNN) -- Thousands of Kosovars, having faced disease, hunger and miserable weather in refugee camps in the Balkans, could soon have new challenges -- where to find work, housing and public assistance in the United States.
The U.S. government has agreed to house up to 20,000 people, displaced by fighting in Yugoslavia, in the United States. An earlier plan called for them to go to the U.S. military base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
Refugee resettlement agencies, already working with U.S. officials, are asking Albanian Americans to complete sponsorship forms for their Kosovar relatives. The refugees will be able to receive federal housing, health and job assistance benefits, and the right to work for at least one year.
"They are eligible for welfare, but obviously we are not going to encourage them to take that as a first step," said Patricia Callahan of Catholic Charities.
"They are work-authorized so we would also look for work for them, but primarily the family will house them and feed them," she said.
In New York, Jim and Sherife Sylmetaj hope to bring as many as 21 relatives to the United States, even if they all must crowd into their apartment in Brooklyn.
"There is an Albanian saying: 'Even if we have to eat bread, salt and water, that's what we'll do.' Our main concern is to bring them to safety," Mr. Sylmetaj said.
Most Albanian Americans welcome the opportunity to bring relatives to the United States, but some worry it will split up families.
"My biggest concern is my kids will be scattered all over the world and we don't know where they're going to be," said Sherife's mother, Maria Davarishaj, her words translated by her son-in-law.
All refugees admitted under the program can obtain green cards, which would give them permanent resident status.
But Sherife Sylmetaj thinks her family will want to return to Kosovo.
"I don't think my father and whole family would like to stay here and turn their back on my land," she said.
Her mother, however, who arrived before NATO airstrikes began March 24, has decided she would like to stay.
"With all the killing and atrocities ... there's nothing for her to back there," Mrs. Sylmetaj said.
Hundreds of thousands of people, most of them ethnic Albanians, have left Kosovo since NATO began its air assault, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.
The U.S. plan intends to ease the burdens on Macedonia, which has been flooded by 136,000 refugees.
More than one dozen nations have agreed to take displaced Kosovars to help Serbian border areas hosting refugees from the war. Albania has the most, with 364,000, the United Nations estimates. Macedonia is second, and the Yugoslav republic of Montenegro is third with 64,000.
Correspondent Cynthia Tornquist contributed to this report.
20,000 Kosovo refugees to be allowed into U.S.
Extensive list of Kosovo-related sites:
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