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Jewish Agency helps Kosovars other aid organizations missed

TIRANA, Albania, May 6 (JTA) — The Jewish Agency for Israel is sustaining 30,000 Kosovar Albanian refugees, living in about a dozen isolated camps in southern Albania, who have not been reached by other international aid organizations. “We went to the camps to distribute directly where no other relief agencies have gone,” said Ziva Ohayon, managing director of Latet, an independent Israeli humanitarian group working for the Jewish Agency in Albania. “This aid can sustain these refugees for about three months.” Ohayon made her comments Wednesday to United Jewish Communities leaders on a mission to Tirana, the Albanian capital, to assess relief work being done by the Jewish Agency and the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee. The delegation of 27 participants from 16 communities continued from Tirana to Budapest to visit Serbian Jews who fled NATO bombings. More than 30 Serbian Jews came back with the mission to Israel early Thursday morning, where they will either “wait out” the war or decide to stay in Israel. Later Thursday, the delegation was expected to visit 111 Albanian refugees in Israel. Mission participants said that seeing the suffering of both sides in the Yugoslav-NATO conflict reinforced their determination to continue providing humanitarian aid. “It was very important for UJC, as a new entity, to have a firsthand, nonfiltered, close-up and personal look at the rescue and relief work being done in the field by our overseas partners,” said Carole Solomon, UJC national campaign chairwoman. “We have to look beyond our borders. History has forced us to do so.” Mission delegates arrived on one of two planes, carrying a total of 20 tons of relief, including food, toiletries and diapers. The Jewish Agency has airlifted 120 tons of supplies to Kosovar Albanians throughout the region on nine flights since early April. Israelis have donated more than $1.25 million in cash and $500,000 worth of supplies to support the campaign. JDC’s Kosovo relief efforts have raised more than $2.25 million in the United States. JDC has been distributing mattresses, bedding and thousands of activity kits for children, including crayons, coloring books and dolls. Albanian Deputy Prime Minister Ilir Meta greeted the delegation at the once-quiet Tirana airport now dominated by NATO helicopters and military tent encampments along the runways. Meta thanked the Jewish people who “have suffered in the past and understand quite well the humanitarian side of this crisis. “We expected this solidarity because the Albanians have shown and demonstrated their solidarity with the Jewish people during the Second World War,” he said, urging American Jews to continue their support. More than 420,000 refugees have arrived in Albania since the crisis began. At least 200,000 more are expected, and the crisis is placing a severe burden on Albania, Europe’s poorest country. Chaim Chesler, chairman of the Jewish Agency’s immigration and absorption committee, pointed out that Albania saved virtually all its Jews from the Nazis during World War II. Today, there are 50 Jews in Tirana. The mission continued to the Piscina refugee camp, located at what was once a swimming pool in Tirana, where a truck full of Jewish Agency relief items were unloaded. They met refugee families and children, many wearing tattered shoes without laces. Children proudly showed off their JDC activity boxes. In some tents, JDC boxes lay alongside cartons of aid from the Red Crescent, the Muslim relief organization, testifying to the international relief effort. Dr. Richard Hodes, JDC’s field worker who is scouring Albania to identify refugee needs, called the Piscina camp — with its neat rows of tents and organized distribution of aid — the “Hilton of the refugee camps.” In camps throughout the country, refugees were living in far worse conditions. Marc Gold, of the Montreal Federation CJA, said he felt somewhat uncomfortable “intruding” on the Kosovars’ personal crises. But the experience hammered home the importance of Jewish involvement in Albanian relief and the rescue of Serbian Jews. “In both cases, we are fulfilling our role as a light unto nations,” he said. “This is what we Jews do, and that felt very good and natural.” Kenneth Hain, the incoming president of the Orthodox movement’s Rabbinical Council of America and a member of UJC’s Rabbinic Cabinet, said the visit to the camp “triggered all the memories of the Holocaust, and the instinctive Jewish response to people in need.” Meeting the Jews from Serbia later, he added, “reminded me of what is all too often forgotten — that bombings hurt innocent people.”