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Kosovo’s independence comes amid uncertainty

PRIZREN, Kosovo (JTA) – On a forlorn road dotted with half-built houses, Ines Quono reflects on her struggle in a land so remote to most Americans it might as well be Oz.

But instead of a yellow brick road, there is crumbling, mud-drenched pavement piled high with garbage.

“The only thing that works in Kosovo is the banks; we all have to borrow money to do something – anything,” says Quono, 28.

Quono is among the last Jews of Kosovo, a southern province of Serbia about half the size of New Jersey that declared independence Sunday.

Unemployment in Kosovo hovers at 50 percent and the average wage is $350 a month. “We all worry how we will get by,” says Quono, a university student, wife and mother of a toddler.

The future of Quono and her family is uncertain, as they decide whether their destiny is in Israel or in southeastern Europe, where their roots go back to the 15th-century Spanish Inquisition, when thousands of Sephardic Jews fled to the Balkans.

There are some 50 Jews left in Kosovo. Belonging to three families, or clans, they all live in the city of Prizren, a rare gem of ancient architecture amid a landscape devastated by war, poverty and Communist-era concrete.

The United Nations took over the administration of Kosovo in 1999 after a brutal conflict between Kosovo Albanians seeking independence and Serbian troops controlled by strongman Slobodan Milosevic.

Ethnic Albanians account for 90 percent of Kosovo’s population of 2.2 million. The Albanians are Muslim, but largely secular.

Corruption, criminality and a lack of foreign investment have marked life in Kosovo over the last nine years, during which final-status negotiations between a now democratic Serbia and Kosovo’s ethnic Albanian leaders failed.

On Sunday, Kosovo’s prime minister declared independence with support from the United States and most of the European Union – and with fierce opposition from Serbia, whose position is backed by Russia.

Distressed by a war they watched from the sidelines and facing an uncertain future, the Jews of Prizren are gloomy. When the war started, the other Jews in Kosovo – the 50 living in the capital city of Pristina – fled to Serbia, where they spoke the language and felt a part of the culture. But those in Prizren, where Jews speak Albanian and Turkish – there is a large Turkish population there – stayed.

Now, with Kosovo having broken away from Serbia, those like Votim Demiri, Quono’s father, who made a decent living under communism, find it hard to leave the homes they built, despite fears of growing tensions with their neighbors.

“There was not anti-Semitism in the past, but with the Saudi charities here now we are seeing a Wahabi influence for the first time,” Demiri said, referring to the fundamentalist Islamic ideology Saudi Arabian clerics have tried to export, with little success, in the Balkans. “I think the newspapers these days are not portraying Jews in such a positive light.”

The greatest concern for Jews here, however, is the concern shared by all Kosovars: feeding their families. In this regard, they are both at an advantage and a disadvantage.

They are helped by the American Joint Jewish Distribution Committee, which provides them with social services, hosts celebrations on Jewish holidays and tries to help with employment.

On the negative side, Jews are outsiders in a quasi-state controlled by ethnic Albanians who mete out the few jobs there are to friends and family, said Robert Djerassi, the JDC official responsible for the organization’s activities in Kosovo.

“Ninety percent of Jews in Prizren are jobless,” he said.

Earlier this month, the JDC held a brainstorming session on job opportunities with 25 Prizren Jews aged 40 and under.

“I said, ‘If you can think of a shop or service, like giving English lessons, I find some capital to get you started,'” Djerassi told JTA.

“They tried to explain to me why it cannot happen; they are very pessimistic.”

There are also obstacles in connecting Prizren’s Jews to other Jews in the region.

“My idea is to make them part of something bigger, to bring them to events in Skopje or Belgrade. But the small children, 15 and under, they don’t speak Serbian and that’s a problem,” Djerassi said.

“Our spiritual life, like our economic life, is a disaster,” Demiri said, pointing to his rotting roof. His children, it seems, are preparing for an eventual move to Israel.

Quono’s sister, Teuta Demiri, 22, recently spent a year at a kibbutz, where she studied Hebrew. A bank teller in Prizren, Teuta is thinking about aliyah but is not confident she can find work in Israel. Her brother is studying Hebrew and also is nervous about his job prospects.

“I have been thinking for eight years whether to go or not to go to Israel,” their father, Votim Demiri said.

He shows off a 20-year-old picture of his mother talking to Simon Peres in Ashdod, Israel, where she moved after World War II while her children opted to build a socialist state in the heart of Europe. But they always knew about their Jewish roots.

Religion, however, was far from their lives.

Demiri is from a generation of Jews who fondly recall life in Yugoslavia, of which Kosovo was a part.

A former textile factory director, Demiri has been mostly out of work for the last two decades, and his prospects of employment are dim. What he does have is a beautiful, 19th-century, three-story home, albeit one he cannot afford to maintain.

For some of Prizren’s Jews, aliyah is complicated by more than employment worries.

Ulvi Zhalta, 59, looks decades older than his cousin Demiri, 62, due to such health problems as heart disease and an eye clouded by blindness.

Like nearly all Jews who stayed in Prizren after World War II, Zhalta’s mother married a non-Jew, in her case an ethnic Albanian.

“She was buried in a Muslim cemetery. There are no Jewish cemeteries here, but she was registered as a member of the Jewish community in Belgrade,” he said.

Zhalta said he applied for permission to immigrate to Israel in 2000, but has not yet received permission from the Jewish Agency for Israel. He suspects his mother’s Jewish identity is the source of the delay.

In response to queries on Zhalta’s case, an Israeli representative of the Jewish Agency said the details of individual applications are private.

“Everyone in my family wants to go to Israel,” Zhalta said as the lights went off in his cousin’s living room during one of the daily power outages that have gone on for so long in Kosovo that few can remember life without them.

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