Helping my Kosovar relatives was a full-time job

By Shengul Bajrami, 15, University HS
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When I was growing up, every time I passed a wishing well, I’d ask my mom for a quarter. I figured since it was more money, it would work better than a penny. I would toss it in, saying, "I wish Uncle Qemo would come."

Oh, he will, he will, my mom assured me. One day, we’ll figure out a way for Uncle Qemo and his family to immigrate to America.

When my mom told me stories about my uncle, I’d picture James Dean. I imagined him walking by the beach all cool, with a jacket over his shoulder and a cigarette hanging off his lip.

My mom told me he was such a great dancer, the whole town wanted to dance with him. That was before it started getting bad in Kosovo. That was before the Serbs forbade ethnic Albanians to listen to music or speak their language, and they stopped having parties.

Things were so bad that I wondered if they’d ever make it out alive. As I wrote in my last article in June, we lost contact with my uncle and his children when NATO started bombing Kosovo, and the Serbs became more violent towards ethnic Albanians. Fearing for their lives, my uncle and his family left their homes and tried to get out of Kosovo, along with thousands of others. To make matters worse, my uncle was dying of lung cancer.

Finally we found my uncle’s family

You can imagine our relief when my aunt Shirley, who was working as a NATO translator, found my uncle’s family in an Albanian refugee camp. My aunt’s e-mail read: "They are all here except for Alten… They don’t know where she is… Qemo is still breathing."

She said they were all skinny as toothpicks, still wearing the pajamas in which they had fled. My uncle was so weak, they had carried him in a wheelbarrow through the rain. Aunt Shirley managed to find him a proper bed and medical care.

My whole family was overjoyed, but we also knew time was running out. My uncle was very sick and we had to work quickly if we were to bring him alive to the United States. Our whole lives revolved around the phone. The telephone, the fax and my uncle’s cell phone were constantly ringing as my mom tried to find a way to bring Uncle Qemo, his wife and seven children to America. The U.S. Immigration Service was only accepting refugees from Macedonia. We needed a congressional sponsor to bring them from Albania.

We were waiting, frantically waiting. My mom tried day and night to find a sympathetic politician. She finally found a Congressman willing to help—Earl Pomeroy of North Dakota. We were so excited as my mom made the flight arrangements and final plans—they were coming in two days.

The next day my dad picked me up at the mall. On the way home, he told me that my uncle had passed away. When we got home, my mom, uncle, aunt and grandma were sitting there, staring ahead. My grandma was mumbling. The room felt so cold, suffocating like a tiny tunnel.

We flew my uncle here in a coffin. In a way, I finally got my wish. At the funeral, I thought, God, I never thought I’d be this close to him. He’s so close and I can’t talk to him. I can’t see him and he can’t see me.

And my mom, who is always the strong one, crumbled. In the Muslim tradition, the relatives toss three handfuls of dirt on the coffin. My mom could barely grip the soft earth, she was shaking so much. We helped her walk back to the car but she couldn’t walk. She fell on her knees in the grass, weeping. I sat down next to her, but I couldn’t think of anything to say.

We met my cousins at the airport

Losing my uncle made me want to meet my cousins even more. About a week after the funeral, we went to meet my cousins’ flight, holding "Thank you Congressman Pomeroy" signs and American flags. My heart was pounding. I was looking hard, hoping to recognize them based on the photos they had sent. I wanted to be the first to spot them, and I was. I recognized Jaman, 16, from the tape my Uncle Frank brought back from his visit to Kosovo. I never before felt so much excitement, relief and happiness at the same time. My cousins and I jumped on each other, hugging and smothering each other with kisses.

They’re all so beautiful and handsome: Turkan, 23; Valbona, 21; Mynever, 18; Jaman,16; Zejnep,10; Orhan, 8 and their mom Azize. I kept thinking that my uncle was going to come along behind them. I imagined him smiling and crying from happiness as we hugged him. But the hallway was empty where all the people had gotten off the plane.

Even though we had never met, it seems like my cousins and I have known each other for a long time. I started to tell a story about the time I fell during a ballet performance when I was six, and my cousin Jaman finished the story for me. Who would’ve thought? I have such a strong connection with them. It’s like you’ve waited all your life to meet your favorite movie star, and when you do, he or she says, "You’re my hero."

I owe it all to my uncle because he valued family so much. Jaman told me that my uncle’s most prized possession was a glass case containing wine glasses with the names of his brothers and sisters inscribed on them. Uncle Qemo would hold each glass and tell a story about the person whose name was on it.

We still don’t really know what happened to my cousin Alten during the 35 days it took for them to reach the refugee camp. I can’t quite get a straight answer from my cousins, and I don’t want to insult them by asking nosy questions. At times like that, I wish my uncle was there so I could ask him what happened.

Jaman tells me what it was like in the war in Kosovo

Sometimes I turn to my cousin Jaman. I feel very close to him, maybe because we’re close in age, maybe because he looks just like his dad. He has told me a lot about their journey to Albania. He described girls wandering with torn clothes. There were young children, separated from their families, crying until strangers took them along. There were body parts in the fields next to the road. There were fresh trenches in the fields, waiting for bodies to be buried there. It was horrifying to hear about it, and especially to think that my youngest cousins, Zejnep and Orhan, had to see such things.

One day, he told me, before the bombing started, he went to buy bread. As he walked home, he heard a loud car engine. He ducked into an abandoned shack. Through a crack, he watched as a jeep full of Serbian soldiers drove down the street, looking into each house. Whenever they saw movement they would fire.

They looked into the shack where Jaman was hiding. Just as they were about to leave, a man came through the back door and screamed, "What are you doing in here?" The soldiers fired their weapons, and Jaman hit the floor, hoping he wouldn’t get hit. Suddenly he felt a terrible pain on his head. He started crying because he thought he had been shot. He called good-bye to his father, and screamed for help but no one could hear him. Then he touched his head, looking for the bullet hole, but found only tears and sweat. A piece of wood, shaken loose by the gunfire, had fallen on his head.

I just sat in silence after he told me this story. I felt like I had been there too, grabbing my head, dodging bullets and saying goodbye to his father.

There have been so many losses

I don’t know how my cousins have managed to cope with such tragedy. As we say in my family, only God knows. They have lost just about everything this year—their country, their home, their way of life. But none of it compares to the loss of their father. When I asked to photograph them with a favorite object, all of them chose something related to their dad.

Once they were here, my mom swung into action to help them start their lives all over again. Here they were, still in shock from everything they have been through, and they didn’t speak English. They had never had to deal with papers or pay bills before.

My mom found a refugee service to help them with money. She got the Red Cross to supply vouchers for clothes and furniture, kind of like gift certificates. There were lots of other details—legal papers, finding an apartment, getting furniture, school enrollment, bus passes, vaccinations… It was hard on my mom and me too. I was helping my mom so much, I had no time for myself. My mom knows how I feel and says things like, "Don’t worry, God sees what we’re doing."

This year has been the most draining time of my life. But it’s all worth it when we go to a restaurant and the hostess asks "How many?" and the answer is "24."

My family knows how to party

Before my aunt Shirley returned to Kosovo, we went out to a Korean barbecue place. It was 11 p.m. and the place was closed, but they put us in a big room in the back and we partied! We sang karaoke and blasted Ricky Martin and Limp Bizkit on the stereo. I like going places in a big crowd, even if it does iron out the wallet.

For us, the biggest holiday of the year is New Year’s Eve. We always have tons of presents and a huge party. I asked my mom how we’re going to afford New Year’s Eve this year. She laughed.

I’ve waited all my life to meet my uncle and his family. It shattered me when he died, but now, through his children, I’m finding out I can get to know him a little, after all. The other day, when we went to their apartment, my mom was crying because some of my cousins are so grown up. I never got to play with you, I never got to rock you to sleep, she told them. But we had photos of you, we had letters, they said. Our dad told us stories about you. I’m just happy that now we’ll get to have so much more.