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Behind the Headlines: Jewish Groups Help Prepare Kosovars to Rebuild Their Lives

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As NATO’s air war against Yugoslavia ends, the American Jewish community’s overseas relief agency is taking “a longer look” at providing aid to Kosovar refugees in Albania and Maccdonia.

Together with the World ORT Union, a Jewish international training and education agency, the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee has developed a program to give the refugees training they can use after their return home.

“We feel one of the best things we can give them is the semi-professional skills with which they can do repair work” in their home communities and “perhaps their own homes,” said Michael Schneider, executive vice president of the JDC.

The New York-based rescue and relief agency is also enhancing its emergency assistance by opening full-service facilities at sites in Albania and Macedonia offering training, education and medical care.

Since fighting intensified between the Serbian-controlled Yugoslav army and Kosovar Albanian rebels in March 1998 — and NATO forces began bombing in an effort to end Serbian aggression in March 1999 — nearly 1 million refugees have fled the Kosovo region of Yugoslavia.

Of those refugees, some 400,000 arrived in Albania and 247,000 in Macedonia. Most are gathered in refugee camps, but some have been taken in to private homes.

From the earliest days of the refugee crisis, the JDC has provided emergency supplies, such as food, health care, mattresses, roofing materials, toys and children’s activity kits to refugees in the camps.

In May, the JDC opened a full-service center in Elbasan, Albania, and within weeks it will open a medical clinic in Chair, Macedonia, which the agency has leased in partnership with the International Rescue Committee.

Through these activities, the JDC can “plant a Jewish flag next to the Saudi Arabian flag, the Turkish flag, the French and Italian flags,” said Schneider in a telephone interview with JTA.

“It is our way to show that we know how to treat others when they suffer what we once suffered.”

Through an emergency “mailbox” appeal, the JDC has collected $3.25 million for Kosovar relief. In addition, the JDC, together with a coalition of 42 Jewish organizations, has raised about $550,000 — from one newspaper advertisement.

“The Jewish community is responding in a very generous way,” William Recant, JDC’s director of special programs, said in a telephone interview days after he returned from the region.

The JDC works in conjunction with the United Jewish Communities, the organization formed by the merger of the Council of Jewish Federations and the United Jewish Appeal.

Through its own special funding appeal, the UJC has raised $1 million for the relief activities of the JDC and the Jewish Agency for Israel, which has provided emergency relief packages and has helped evacuate Yugoslav Jews and Kosovar Albanians to safe havens in Israel and Budapest.

American Jewish groups and local Jewish communities have rallied to action, raising funds, collecting basic supplies such as towels and toothbrushes for refugees, and sending missions to refugee camps.

The American Jewish Committee, for example, has raised $1.1 million for Kosovar relief. In turn, the AJCommittee has donated funds for education and recreational programs for children, who account for roughly half of the refugee population. The group is also supporting the work of other international relief agencies, including a recent gift of $100,000 to Catholic Relief Services.

Much of the $850,000 raised by the American Jewish World Service, a nonsectarian relief agency, was used to provide emergency shelter, food, water and sanitation facilities for Kosovar refugees. Now the group is determining how additional funds will be used for their resettlement.

On June 8, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees said that if peace is secured, 400,000 to 500,000 Kosovar Albanians could return home by the end of September, according to a Reuters report.

Recant said JDC’s activities to date have focused on temporary emergency measures, which include the new facilities.

“Everything is being set up with knowledge that the refugees should go home, and we hope they will go home quickly.”

Recant said, in the meantime, the JDC’s refugee camp in Elbasan will provide for the needs of all the refugees in the area.

Housed in a unused factory, it will offer housing for at least 1,000 people – – the first 150 of whom have already arrived — as well as programs for host families, an education component for children, two health clinics and the vocational training JDC is providing through ORT.

The training program will focus on the field of construction: teaching refugees how to rebuild homes, repair roofs and electricity, and make bricks.

Recant said the JDC is reserving funds to continue the programs when the refugees return to Kosovo.

A special envoy to the Balkans from the UNHCR estimated that up to 50 percent of the houses in Kosovo are damaged or destroyed, according to the recent news report.

Recant said the JDC has signed a lease for a clinic in Chair, Macedonia, together with the IRC, a leading nonsectarian refugee relief and rescue organization.

Planned as a “full-service” facility, the clinic will serve both Kosovar refugees as well as host families and residents of Chair, a poor neighborhood with a majority Albanian population in the Macedonian capital of Skopje.

The urgency of the refugee situation has forced the JDC to work quickly.

“The whole center in Elbasan was put up in past three weeks,” Recant said.

The lease for the clinic in Macedonia was signed on May 30, and Recant said it should be open by mid-June.

Maintaining positive relations with municipalities and governments is crucial to the success of relief efforts.

Schneider explained that the JDC chose Elbasan as the site of its refugee center because the mayor of the town gave his full cooperation to the project, including the offer to help with the financing for preparing the physical facility.

Recant said one of the ancillary results of the fighting in Yugoslavia has been the devastation of local economies in the surrounding countries.

In Macedonia, he said for example, the major trade routes through Serbia into Hungary and Bulgaria have been closed.

For this reason, the JDC has from the beginning of its work in the Balkans taken as an imperative the need to purchase emergency goods and services locally whenever possible as part of its work with local communities.

Presently, the JDC has four staff people working in Albania, including a doctor and a social worker. In addition JDC is working with Israeli medical personnel.

Wherever possible, however, the JDC tries to enlist the services of Albanian nationals and Kosovar refugees in support positions: as teachers, nurses, secretary and drivers.

In Macedonia, this philosophy takes on a deeper significance.

With JDC’s assistance, Jews in Skopje received the advice of the Jewish community of Sarajevo in forming La Benevoleneija, a nonsectarian aid society.

During the Bosnian civil war from 1992 to 1995, the group served as a key conduit of aid to J??? and non-Jews alike: it ran a clinic, pharmacies, a post office and a soup kitchen throughout the conflict.

La Benevolencija is now an independently registered Macedonian organization, Recant said.

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