U.S. to Kosovans: go home!

Doug Henwood dhenwood at panix.com
Sat Apr 3 08:40:35 PST 1999

Refugees reach U.S., but find no sure haven By Debra Lynn Vial The Record (Bergen, N.J.), April 2, 1999

Afrim Karaqica is a farmer from Kosovo who claims his home was bombed and he was beaten after he helped other refugees reach safety. The ethnic Albanian fled to America and says his wife and three children are counting on him to help them escape before they are slaughtered.

But the U.S. government wants to send him back.

He's not alone. In the past two weeks, immigration officials in Elizabeth have also denied asylum to 19-year-old Arton Sadiku, who arrived in September. He had promised his parents he would take his two siblings to safety in America. Now, he's being held with other aliens facing deportation at the Elizabeth Detention Center, and the two children are depending on the kindness of strangers for a place to sleep.

The two cases, both decided after the United States had begun planning to bomb Kosovo to stop persecution of ethnic Albanians, have terrified other Albanians in the metropolitan area who are awaiting their own hearings. Many say they will be harmed if they return to Kosovo.

"I have nightmares about what could happen to my brother," 16-year-old Akrem Sadiku said through an interpreter. His brother, Arton, is appealing the judge's decision to deport him.

The irony of the situation -- that one arm of the American government is ready to return these men to the very region another arm is bombing -- is not lost on the men or the people trying to help them.

"There is not a day that passes that I don't think about this guy sitting in the detention center," said Dennis Mulligan, director of Lutheran Social Ministries of Trenton, the group providing legal counsel to Karaqica. "We are at war there. He was persecuted and his life was threatened by the Serbs. That's why he's here. That's why we're over there."

Though the men are appealing and have been told its unlikely they would be deported until the armed conflict ends, family members and friends say Kosovo will never again be safe for ethnic Albanians.

"This hatred runs too deep," said Helen Sokov, a Jersey City resident who counsels ethnic Albanians seeking asylum. "These people will never be welcomed back there."

Immigration officials refused to discuss the two cases, saying asylum requests are confidential. In general, asylum is granted when immigration judges believe that aliens would be persecuted because of their race, religion, or political beliefs if sent home.

Officials said requests are handled on a "case-by-case basis" and that nearly half of 1,050 people from the Balkans who applied for asylum in fiscal 1998 won the right to stay.

The United States was so concerned about violence in Kosovo last summer that officials announced that anyone who came here before June 10, 1998, would receive temporary protected status and would not be deported. As NATO missiles are falling on Kosovo for the second week, officials are discussing offering that protection to more recent refugees, said Barbara Francis, spokeswoman for the Immigration and Naturalization Service.

Officials could not say how many ethnic Albanians have recently applied for asylum. But, as refugees continue to spill by the thousands over the borders of the lands neighboring Kosovo, officials expect a surge of immigrants like Sadiku and Karaqica.

One Manhattan immigration attorney who is representing two other people denied asylum by a judge last year believes he will win the appeal because it is now clear that ethnic Albanians are in grave danger.

"I can't imagine that someone would get denied at this point," said the attorney, Martin Vulaj. "Things have changed since the hostilities have begun."

In his cell at the Elizabeth Detention Center, Afrim Karaqica is not so positive. Karaqica, in his early 30s, says he no longer eats or sleeps because he is so worried about his family back home. Locked up in Elizabeth, he can't protect them from the rapes and torture he keeps hearing about. He hasn't received a letter from them in a long time. He fears the worst.

"I don't know what happened to my family," he said.

Back in Kosovo, Karaqica was a member of the Kosovo Liberation Army, the group trying to stop the Serbian ethnic cleansing campaign. His job was to help deliver medical supplies and provide a haven for refugees, said his attorney, Victor Yee, of Lutheran Social Services.

He said he witnessed several massacres, and, after his involvement in the KLA was discovered, his home was bombed, then set aflame. He was beaten by police, he said. Karaqica fled to Croatia, leaving his family behind because he couldn't afford to take everyone. His plan was to send for them when he got to the United States. "I want to thank the United States for all the help with my people in Albania, but when I came here to survive, I was arrested."

Immigration officials arrested him at Newark International Airport in December because his passport was forged, Yee said.

At his hearing, Karaqica and his brother, who lives in North Jersey, testified about the dead bodies and carnage they witnessed. But the judge did not believe his story was credible, did not really believe Karaqica was who he said he was, because he had falsified his identification, Yee said.

But Karaqica could never have left the region without forged documents, attorneys said. Indeed, many of the thousands of ethnic Albanians who are pouring over the borders of neighboring countries report that the Serbs have confiscated and destroyed their paperwork, birth certificates, and licenses to keep them from reentering Kosovo.

"They can't say to their oppressors, 'I'm fleeing the country, please give me a copy of whatever records you have for me,' " Yee said.

Arton Sadiku, the 19-year-old who escaped Kosovo with his teenage brother and sister in September, also was detained at the airport because authorities said his documents were forged, his brother said Thursday.

When he learned two weeks ago that he was denied asylum, he became suicidal and so angry he threw food all over his cell, family members said. He had trouble explaining to the judge just how fearful he is of the Serbs, his family said.

Meanwhile, he worries about his parents, left behind. He doesn't know if they are still alive. He also is worried about his brother and sister who, for unexplained reasons, were not detained, but were taken in by a sympathetic family in Waterbury, Conn. They can't stay there forever, and there is no money for them to live on their own.

Sadiku calls his brother and sister every day. The two brothers cry openly. The sister, trying to be brave, shuts her bedroom door before she lets any tears fall.

"They are all struggling," said Tuli Redzepi, who is helping the children. "They just say they don't understand why their brother is being treated like a criminal. They need their brother to be with them."

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