SKOPJE, Macedonia, March 19 (JTA) Cantor Joseph Malovany has performed Jewish liturgical music in synagogues and concert halls all over the world.
But the audience he faced here recently was something new.
The bearded, Israeli-born cantor of New York’s elegant Fifth Avenue Synagogue sang Jewish prayers and Hebrew love songs for some of the most disadvantaged children in Europe Roma, or Gypsy, refugees from embattled Kosovo, who are only going to school thanks to Jewish humanitarian aid.
“They are really wonderful kids,” said Malovany, who sang for half a dozen crowded classrooms and had the children clapping and singing along with him. The children also sang for Malovany one sang a haunting song in the Roma language, detailing every step of the refugee experience.
The kids are studying as part of a special six-month, $29,500 program financed by Jewish organizations in partnership with the International Rescue Committee as part of broader non-sectarian aid projects in the region.
This project is one of many nonsectarian aid projects carried out by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee and other Jewish organizations in the Balkans in the wake of last year’s Kosovo conflict and the massive migrations of refugees.
The children were discovered by the outreach team of a community health clinic set up last summer by the IRC, with substantial financial assistance from the JDC, in one of Skopje’s poorest neighborhoods.
“When the team surveyed the needs of Roma refugee families, it found that nearly 200 children aged 7 to 15 were not attending school and that even some of the older kids could not read or write,” said Yechiel Bar Chaim, the JDC representative for the former Yugoslavia.
In partnership with the IRC, the JDC and other Jewish aid organizations set up intensive classes in basic subjects at a local school. The aim is to enable the children to enroll in regular school next year.
“All the pupils participating in this project receive special school kits, basic clothing and a pair of shoes so that their abject poverty does not prevent them from receiving an education,” Bar Chaim said.
Jewish organizations were highly active in relief projects for the hundreds of thousands of Kosovo Albanians who fled to neighboring Macedonia and Albania during the NATO bombing.
These people have returned home. In Macedonia, the JDC mainly targets projects for the thousands of Roma refugees who currently remain.
“They are among the most miserable people in Europe today,” said one Jewish aid worker. “They cannot go back home to face the anger of Kosovar Albanians. They cannot be assimilated into Macedonian Albanian society, as relations between Roma and Albanians are extremely tense. Not knowing the Macedonian language, they have also no place in Slavic Macedonian society.”
The 200-member Macedonian Jewish community formed an aid organization, Dobre Volje, or Good Will, aimed at funneling aid to refugees. Working in coordination with the JDC, it is financed by the American Jewish Committee, Belgian Jews, the Swiss Jewish Fund for Kosovar Refugees and Britain’s World Jewish Relief.
In Kosovo, meanwhile, the JDC is administering a number of high-profile aid projects focused primarily on education.
The JDC is coordinating efforts to refurbish more than two dozen primary schools that were destroyed during the conflict. It provided shoes and schoolbags to thousands of pupils and also donated high-speed copying machines to reproduce scarce textbooks and teaching materials.
In partnership with ORT, the JDC has also launched vocational training projects. “What happened in Kosovo reminds us of what happened in the Holocaust,” said Eli Eliezri, the JDC’s representative in Kosovo.
Moreover, he said, “Kosovo is a Muslim country it is a symbol that Jews are coming to a Muslim country to help.”