Njomza Kaja of Fort Lee is moved when she watches the latest news of Afghan refugees arriving in the United States after being forced to leave their relatives and belongings in a country now controlled by the Taliban.

It is the same when she hears about Syrian refugees now making a new life for themselves thousands of miles from their homeland in the United States after they fled war in their country.

Kaja can relate because in 1999 she was one of thousands of refugees who were flown to the United States after the start of the Kosovo War, which displaced 1.5 million people from their homes in southeastern Europe.

“It has been really emotional for me because we just live again, what they go through,’’ said Kaja, now an American citizen and a business owner. “I go through it with them, because I know what it takes and how it feels. And when I see babies, it’s really touching.”

Tens of thousands of Afghan refugees, who will temporarily live at military installations across the country, including Joint Base McGuire–Dix–Lakehurst, New Jersey, are likely to settle into the U.S. in coming months just like Kaja did more than 20 years ago. They will receive medical screenings and work authorization as their immigration documents are processed. Resettlement agencies will help them connect with family or help them find apartments and work.

Humanitarian visa

A State Department spokesperson said this week that the goal was to resettle the Afghan people as quickly as possible. But it’s still unknown how long they will be held in the various military bases. A report on the environmental impact of housing refugees at the military base in New Jersey noted that refugees could live at the base for a minimum of six months and for as long as a year.

Those arriving in the U.S. are Afghans who have applied for a humanitarian visa known as a Special Immigrant Visa (SIV), which are granted to those who have helped the U.S. military, as well as other vulnerable Afghans, according to officials.

“Individuals granted special immigrant status by the Department of Homeland Security and their families will receive resettlement benefits through our refugee program,’’ the State Department spokesman said. “Others will be provided initial relocation assistance through resettlement agencies.”

Alison Millan, deputy director of the International Rescue Committee in Elizabeth, whose organization has resettled 4,266 people in New Jersey over the past 20 years, said the group supports families as they rebuild their lives. She said their work includes securing and furnishing apartments, often in partnership with other organizations and volunteers. They also assist families in applying for public benefits such as food stamps and health insurance.

“Enrolling in employment services and English language training,’’ she added in an email statement. “Connecting with and navigating health care; enrolling children in school; applying for a Social Security card; offering cultural orientation; and identifying short and long term goals towards which families can progress.”

The agency also provides employment, education, case management and immigration legal services that refugee families may access for up to five years after arrival, she added.

A tale of terror, trial and triumph

Kaja was 6 1/2 months pregnant when widespread violence erupted in her home city of Pristina at the start of the Kosovo War in 1999. Within days, Serbian police were forcing residents who were ethnic Albanian, like Kaja, to leave their homes and board buses and trains to neighboring Macedonia.

Kaja, who said she feared hospitals would not take care of her when she went into labor, decided on her own to board one of the buses with her husband, Faton, her sister and brother-in-law and take refuge in a cousin’s house in Macedonia.

“At that moment everything was paralyzed, everything. Nothing functioned,’’ Kaja recently recalled. “So we weren’t safe to go outside. We didn’t have any food anymore in the house. And I was panicking because I was pregnant, so I didn’t know who’s going to help me to deliver my baby.”

Credit: (Senior Airman Brennen Lege/U.S. Air Force via AP)
Aug. 21, 2021: Evacuees board a U.S. Air Force C-17 at Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul, Afghanistan.

She said before she got on the bus a woman stopped her and asked if she would take her two children to Macedonia, and to not leave them until they got there. She agreed.

“She just wanted to save her kids,’’ Kaja recalled. “Because they were just like 13 or 15, something like that. And I took them and they were holding my hand the whole time.”

While on the bus ride to Macedonia, she said they were in constant fear. Rebels would stop the bus at different checkpoints and order some people off the vehicle.

“They just picked people, whoever they think that they should take, and then took them outside and killed them,’’ she recalled. “And then the bus continued. This is what we were seeing the whole way until we got to Macedonia. We were praying they do not pick our husbands.”

She said as they got closer to the border they saw hundreds of Albanians walking toward Macedonia, many carrying children. She said when they arrived at the border, her cousin, who lived in Macedonia took them to his house. They also dropped off the two children at an address their mother had given them.

Military flight to a new life

Weeks later, Kaja said she was told about some Albanians going to the U.S., so she applied to be considered. A few weeks later she and her husband boarded a plane to New York City. She carried only a backpack of belongings.

When they arrived at John F. Kennedy Airport after being flown in by the military, she said, they were released to her sister-in-law who lived in Queens. She said others in the plane who didn’t have family were sent to the military base in New Jersey.

She said several organizations donated clothing and baby items to her as she prepared for the arrival of her daughter.

“Thank God for people around us,’’ said Kaja, who arrived on May 27, 1999 and gave birth to her daughter in August of that year. “We had a lot of people … a lot of Americans, which I still don’t know who they are. They came to the door and they gave us clothes, food. It was amazing the hospitality we had from all people, which we didn’t even know.”

She said the first few months after her arrival she did not work but her husband found jobs as a handyman and in landscaping. She said less than a year later, she and her husband were both working and no longer receiving government help. They also were able to start paying back $2,800 they owed to the U.S. government for their one-way ticket from Macedonia to New York. Those who enter the country under the Refugee Admissions Program must pay back an interest-free travel loan.

She said during the past 20 years there have been some challenges, especially during the first few months getting used to a new country with different cultures and traditions. But she and her husband were able to secure green cards a few years after their arrival, and become citizens a few years after that.

“We appreciate every day that we are alive,’’ she said.

Her husband now works for Con Edison in New York and she is now the owner of skin-care business in Bergen County.

“I don’t know how it’s going to work for them,’’ Kaja said of the newly arrived Afghan refugees. “But with really hard work, they can achieve everything. This country gives you a lot of opportunity. Here you can become whatever you want.”

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