Kosovar children seek life in U.S.

Craig Gustafson

Staff Reporter
Ethnic Albanians living in war-torn Kosovo have been learning the fragility of life for nearly two decades.
That’s why two mothers journeyed thousands of miles into a foreign land with a vastly different culture and language for their last chance to save their children’s lives.
Beginning in their homeland of Kosovo, the journey of the two women, their young sons and a translator ended at the Fairview-University Medical Center.
Five-year-old Arben Neziri and 15-month-old Shendrit Ahmeti came to the University for heart surgery. Both children suffered from congenital heart defects, a condition that made living until adulthood improbable.
The earlier the defect is fixed, the better. For some Kosovar children like Arben, who have lived with the defect for years, suffering from respiratory problems such as hypertension becomes part of a daily routine.
Developed nations like the United States can correct the defect, but war has left Kosovo with scant medical personnel and resources.
University surgeon Cynthia Herrington successfully performed the operations in late December and both children are recovering well.
Arben and Shendrit became the 65th and 66th children brought to the United States for medical treatment by Samaritan’s Purse, an organization helping victims of war, poverty and natural disasters around the world. The organization’s goal is to aid more th
an 100 Kosovar children before finishing their program.
Samaritan’s Purse paid for the group’s traveling expenses. The University did its part by donating use of its facilities and surgeons’ time.
Translator Kreshnik Kurtishi, a 16-year-old boy who speaks seven languages and is accompanying the families throughout their stay, said 18 different machines were hooked up to Shendrit during his heart surgery. Kurtishi said he doubted many Kosovar hospit
als even had 18 machines in the entire building.
A time of need
Ethnic cleansing by Serbian soldiers put Arben and Shendrit in their state of need.
In June 1998, Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic slowly advanced Serbian soldiers into Kosovo in response to the province’s attempts at independence.
“Serbs could kill a man in the middle of the road and you couldn’t do anything about it,” Kurtishi said.
He said soldiers raped, massacred and burned his friend’s mother.
By November, thousands of ethnic Albanians fled or were forced from the country after Milosevic ordered the bombing and burning of villages.
The attacks leveled hospitals across the province. Medical supplies and personnel were also lost. Children with heart defects like Arben and Shendrit were left with nowhere to turn.
Hajrije Neziri, Arben’s mother, said Serbian soldiers forced her family from their home. When NATO forces escorted them back four months later, she found her entire village decimated.
Her family, like many others, now lives in an abandoned apartment with few belongings and only the barest of necessities.
The bloody conflict between Serbs and ethnic Albanians, however, was a problem long before NATO stepped into the fray in March 1999.
Kurtishi said the Serb-controlled government mirrored the apartheid regime in South Africa where a white elite dominated large numbers of blacks. In Kosovo, the Serb minority ruled over ethnic Albanians who constitute 90 percent of the small country’s pop
ulation.
“Albanians didn’t have any rights,” said Emrane Ahmeti, Shendrit’s mother. “It was like living in a foreign country, even though it was our land.”
Schools were closed to ethnic Albanians, the only available jobs were low-paying and all television programs were in Serbian.
Emrane said the situation has finally calmed down.
From Kosovo to Minneapolis
The ethnic Albanians almost had their traveling party reduced to five before they even left.
Shendrit and his mother made their way to Pristina to obtain a medical visa for passage out of the country. Upon departure from their village, the mother and son had to pass through a dangerous Serbian checkpoint to reach the capital.
Kurtishi said the Serbs “can kill you right there” for no reason at all.
Arriving safely in Pristina, the group drove through the only road leading in and out of Kosovo.
They then boarded a plane with a damaged wing and headed for Amsterdam, Holland.
“We thought we were going to crash,” Kurtishi said.
Their two-day journey ended in Minneapolis via Boston.
Their stay
Fairview-University Medical Center nurses placed phonetic spellings of common phrases like “Mommy’s coming” and “hush-hush” in the Albanian language next to each child’s bed in order to be able to soothe them with familiar sounds during the
ir hospital stay.
The five Kosovars now reside in Eagan, Minn., with Glenn and Judy Nylander. The couple volunteered through their local church to host the families during their seven-week stay.
With the heart surgeries successfully completed, the families have a chance to experience a little American culture while the children recover.
The children spent a day at the Mall of America. Arben said the indoor amusement park Camp Snoopy was the best part of his trip.
Kurtishi attended a Minnesota Timberwolves basketball game. “An NBA game. … In Kosovo you only see that in a dream,” he said.
While playing with his toys Wednesday afternoon in the Nylander living room, Arben Neziri sang a poem he made up that rhymes in his native tongue. Loosely translated:
“I am Arben and I’m in America. I will go get my heart healthy and the doctors I thank very much for my health; they worked well. Now I’m sad to go to Kosovo. My mom comes to send me to the airplane. Bring me to Kosovo. There where I was born and there is
where I’ll live.”

Craig Gustafson covers the Medical School and welcomes
comments at [email protected] He can also be reached at (612) 627-4070 x3233.