POSTED July 23, 2000
FERIZAJ, Yugoslavia — He arrived in the world to great fanfare, delivered from war and named for his new country.
Fourteen months later, Baby Amerikan is back home, in this heavily policed farming village about 20 miles south of Pristina. His father is out of work. His mother is seven months pregnant. And there is no more space in the four-room house that the toddling Kosovar shares with 14 relatives.
“Things here are not very good. Not very good at all,” said his mother, Lebibe Karaliju, 22, balancing the child on her hip as a dozen family members gathered barefoot in the den and told the story of Kosovo’s most heralded refugee. “We don’t have work here. We don’t have a home.”
When the first flight of ethnic Albanians landed at New Jersey’s McGuire Air Force Base in May 1999, Lebibe Karaliju was already in labor. She’d told doctors in the Macedonian refugee camp that she was seven months pregnant. She was really nine.
“I was terrified that I was going to deliver in the streets,” she said.
The next day she gave birth. Lebibe and Naim Karaliju, 28, called their first born Amerikan, an Albanian spelling, in honor of the land that lifted them from their war-ravaged home.
President Clinton welcomed the tiny U.S. citizen in a letter that spoke of the “bright opportunities” ahead. Strangers sent gifts. Scores of cameras and reporters chronicled his release from the hospital. The picture of the infant clutching a red, white and blue flag ran on front pages across the country, a symbol of America’s largesse, and a promise for a better life.
The dream didn’t last long for Baby Amerikan’s family.
Shortly after moving to Dallas, where a cousin promised to help settle the Karalijus and 25 other relatives, Naim gave an interview to the New York Post in August, complaining that their social services agency wasn’t taking care of them. Agency officials countered that in addition to free rent and food money, the family had income from Naim’s construction job, his mother’s hotel housekeeping work, and government assistance checks for his father.
Still, officials from United Parcel Service dropped by their apartment the next day, offering jobs for both Naim and his cousin. Naim quit his construction job and worked the night shift at UPS for several months in Texas.
But the seed money from the refugee agency was running out. Naim’s 64-year-old mother, Xheurie, didn’t have the energy to continue working as a maid. They knew no English, felt homesick, and worried that they would be evicted from their apartment.
Xheurie Karaliju had left three daughters behind, including one who was pregnant and hiding in the mountains. “I needed to see how they were,” she said.
Bits of news started coming back from Kosovo. The Serbs had fled the village. Naim’s house had survived. Americans had taken over the region, setting up a giant military base nearby. They’d even built a Burger King.
So the five Karalijus chose to leave their air-conditioned, two-bedroom, two-bath apartment with a kitchen full of appliances, and flew home.
Naim’s house was still standing, but that was all.
“It was completely destroyed,” said Lebibe. Serbs had ransacked the interior, then moved a tank into the first floor to hide it from NATO bombers.
Xheurie found her three daughters were safe and her daughter had delivered a healthy girl. But her husband’s brother and his wife were so not lucky.
Xheurie’s husband told this part, the 68-year-old patriarch in a navy beret and trim mustache, wearing a dusty sports coat and vest.
“When we saw them burning houses and shooting, we just left,” said Vehbi Karaliju. “Unfortunately my brother did not. He wanted to wait for his daughter who lived nearby.
Karaliju, speaking through an interpreter, recounted what people told him happened next.
“They came in this part of the town. Soldiers started shooting and burning houses. My brother lived two doors down from my house. So they kicked them out. They directed them to go to Macedonia. They just pulled them out of the convoy of people and just shot them. Serb police did that.”
Vehbi Karaliju rolled another cigarette, pinching stringy yellow tobacco leaves with his sun-burnished fingers. Above him hung a picture from Texas; in it, he is smiling, under a 10-gallon hat.
Widespread terror came relatively late to Ferizaj, according to a report on the village by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). Until the bombing began March 24, 1999, ethnic Albanians, who accounted for more than 80 percent of the community of 57,000 people, filled the streets in daytime. But after dark, only Serb bars remained open. Brutal police interrogations and bloody reprisals occurred, the report stated, but in isolation.
After the NATO campaign began, Serb army, police, paramilitaries and armed civilians looted and burned Albanian-owned houses, and began forcing Albanians onto buses and trains bound for the Macedonian border, OSCE reported. The violence reached its peak in early April after NATO bombs hit the army barracks, killing 12 Yugoslav soldiers. Officers rolled through town, shooting, beating and evicting.
Today, the town has a frontier feel, with squat U.S. Humvees rolling through dusty streets, children hawking cartons of cigarettes. The sidewalks bustle with young men and women outside stores that sell Levis jeans, Nike sportswear and Nokia cell phones. There is much rebuilding.
But all of this seemed as out of reach for Lebibe and Naim Karaliju as the Dallas kitchen she still dreams about.
“Can I go back to America again?” Lebibe asked.
She asked whether she could obtain a U.S. passport for her son, because it will make travel easier for him should trouble return. She asked whether someone could take her husband – who before the war had farmed his land and harvested firewood – to see officials with KFOR, the NATO mission in Kosovo. The best jobs, she said, are with foreigners.
“I thought life would be better if I came back,” said Naim, a tall and gaunt man. “I thought at least I’d have a job in the community. If I thought I would [be without] a job for this long, I would never have come back. I thought, Americans are here. Better job opportunities. And I’ll be home.”
Maybe, he said, the fuss about his son’s birth in the United States caused him to become too optimistic. “I was totally imagining things: I would find a job. Be able to provide for my family. I’d rebuild my house.
“I didn’t rebuild anything. I haven’t worked at anything since I got here. Pretty disappointing.”
And there are added worries about his son. “It’s very sad when you cannot feed him properly. I feel bad.”