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A Refugee from Kosovo - 2002-04-18

English Feature #7-34037 Broadcast August 28, 2000

Last year fourteen thousand Albanian refugees from Kosovo entered the United States. One of them was a young journalist, Ylber Bajraktari. He tells his story today on New American Voices.

Twenty-two-year-old Ylber Bajraktari arrived in the United States last July with no money, no relatives, and no idea what he would do here. He had visited the United States once before, but this time it was different.

"It's different when you come here as a tourist, and it's totally different when you come as a refugee. Because simply, what does refugee mean? To me refugee means someone who owns nothing, who has nothing, and who is worth nothing, regardless of his experience, regardless of how smart he or she is, and regardless of his background. You don't even actually have a name, you don't even have an identity."

At the time of the NATO bombing of Yugoslavia last year, Ylber Bajraktari was working for an independent Albanian-language newspaper in the capital, Pristina. He had also recently been hired by an American television network, ABC news, as its local contact, or, as he says, "man-in-the-field". This automatically made him suspect to the Serb authorities. So along with thousands of other Kosovars he fled, first to Macedonia. Then he qualified for a special program that was set up for refugees from Kosovo to come to the United States.

Arriving in Washington, Ylber Bajraktari slowly started building a new life. He located a friend from ABC news, who gave him a place to stay for a few months.

"Of course at the same time there was a refugee agency that was supervising my case and supervising my transition to Washington. The agency was called the Ethiopian Community Development Council. Obviously they had certain criteria that they had to meet based on their contract with the U.S. government. They offered financial support for me, which was very modest - let's put it this way, I had to fight to get $200 a month, and $200 in Washington, D.C. when you have no apartment, no food - it's not that helpful."

But refugees from Kosovo received some special consideration.

"The good thing was that the U.S. government was very generous when they set up the whole package for the Kosovar refugees. Because for one thing I didn't have to deal with the legal issues at all, my refugee status was admitted while I was in Macedonia, my political asylum was already accepted, so that was taken care of, very good. And then also the U.S. government offered three months health insurance for free for the Kosovars, a sort of social security program, which was again a very good thing to do, and they also offered food stamps for three months…"

Within three months Ylber Bajraktari had a job - first with the U.S. Institute of Peace, and then, after passing a test, with the Albanian service of the Voice of America. But his goal was somewhat different.

"I didn't come with expectations, because I knew that if I come with certain expectations I might get disappointed. So I just came open-minded and I thought whatever life offers to me I'll be more than willing to take it. I had only one objective that I set up before I moved to the United States, and that was that I was definitely going to an American university. And I worked excessively on that, and I finally achieved it after six months."

Mr. Bajraktari is now enrolled as a student in the international studies program at American University. He received a scholarship from the university, but to cover living expenses he continues to work for VOA. He expects to graduate in three and a half years. His experiences since coming to the United States last year have confirmed his opinion about this country.

"I think if there's one country in the entire world where you can build your life out of nothing in about 6 months, then it's only the United States of America. And that's what I appreciate the most."

There are, however, aspects of life in the United States that required some adjustment on his part.

"I think this has more to do with clashes between Europeans and Americans. I think the Europeans are very lazy and the Americans are very hard-working, not to say workaholic. Although I used to work hard in Kosovo, but it was nothing compared to how I work right now in the United States. So maybe that was a bit of an adjustment. Also the diversity. I mean, there's a big cultural, religious and racial diversity in the United States, and even if I didn't have any prejudice, I had to get adjusted to it."

But for all his appreciation of America, Mr. Bajraktari is determined to go back to Kosovo.

"Before I used to say I'm going to go back to Kosova once I graduate, the day after that I'm gonna go back. Now I'm saying the day I graduate, that same afternoon I'm going back to Kosova. Basically, I want to gain as much experience as possible and apply it to building a real democratic society, a real civil society that will be open to everyone and that will offer opportunities as America offered to me."

Next week on New American Voices -- an immigrant from Japan finds true love on the Internet.