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Kosovar refugees welcomed into Los Angeles Jewish homes

LOS ANGELES, May 23 (JTA) — The extended Vlashi family from Kosovo, all 28 of them, arrived at the Los Angeles International Airport around midnight May 20 and were engulfed by television cameras and the arms of the Jewish community. Luggage retrieval was no problem. All the refugees’ worldly belongings fit easily into small carry-on bags. Leading the welcoming party was Hajrush Vlashi, who embraced the parents, brothers, sisters, and extended family members he had not seen since he left Kosovo for Los Angeles eight years ago. Hajrush, like all his relatives, is Muslim. However, it was his Jewish wife, Renee Laub Vlashi, who turned to the Jewish Federation Council of Greater Los Angeles when she was suddenly confronted with the prospect of putting up 28 relatives — with one or two dozen more to come. Hajrush, a waiter, Renee, a puppeteer and college student, and their 20-month-old daughter live in a modest, three-bedroom house in the city’s San Fernando Valley. They made room in their own home for his parents and three siblings. The federation’s Valley Alliance pledged to find homes nearby for the rest of the Vlashi clan. When the request went out — mainly through synagogues and federation agencies — for money, clothing, household appliances and host families for the refugees, the response was electric. “People have been incredible in opening up their homes,” said Miriam Prum Hess, the federation’s associate planning director. Typical was the family of Bobbie and Steven Black and their four children, who decided on a few hours notice to make room in their five-bedroom home for a Kosovo family of five, consisting of a mother, son and three daughters. The son, 17-year old Besnik “Nick” Vlashi, spoke in halting English of his home village partially burned and plundered by the Serbian militia at the beginning of the NATO airstrikes. Besnik said they took refuge with relatives and in camps in neighboring Macedonia before they were airlifted to New York and continued on to Los Angeles. His father, like most men of military age, stayed behind in Macedonia “to protect the homeland,” Besnik said. To prepare for her guests, Bobbie Black converted her home into a “college-like dorm” and raced to the butcher and the local discount supermarket for supplies. On the agenda for the newcomers were visits to McDonald’s — “They have never been to one,” marveled Black’s daughter — a baseball game and the new “Star Wars” movie. Asked by reporters why she took in the refugees, Black, a music teacher, said quietly, “It was the right thing to do.” Her 17-year-old daughter, Katie, added, “We talked about the Holocaust at home and wondered how we might help someone else if the opportunity arose.” Eventually, a total of 70-80 Kosovar refugees are to arrive in Los Angeles, and “the figures go up every day,” said federation President John Fishel. It is uncertain how long the refugees will stay in their hosts’ homes, but thanks to their relationship to Hajrush Vlashi, his kin are eligible to remain in the United States as immigrants. Those who stay will receive assistance from the Jewish federation for permanent resettlement, while others have indicated that they want to go back home after the fighting ends and if conditions allow. Hajrush Vlashi expressed his appreciation for the Jewish help but hesitated when asked if he had also turned to local Muslim organizations. “There was no time,” he said. “Now we have all the help we need.”