140 Kosovar refugees leave Israel for home

JERUSALEM — Never in his wildest dreams did Astrid Kuci believe he would fall in love with Israel.

In fact, the Kosovar Albanian hardly knew anything about the Jewish state.

"I used to know that you are a country in the Middle East which is constantly in a state of war with its neighbors. I used to think of you in terms of a large military camp."

Ironically, it was war — in his native Kosovo — that brought 24-year-old Kuci to Israel. He was among the 217 Kosovo refugees who received temporary shelter in Israel, starting in mid-April.

On Wednesday, 145 of them returned home.

"I was lucky twice during the war. Once that my home in Pristina was not destroyed, and then that I had the opportunity to get to know Israel," Kuci said.

Linda Bajraktari, 21, agreed.

"I'm very elated that we are going back. I'm also very happy that we came here and more than a bit sad to be leaving," said Bajraktari, who arrived on April 12 together with her family.

"The welcome we received here was wonderful and something that we did not expect. The people we have met here have been absolutely great," she said.

Israel's Kosovo refugee aid project was launched at Passover on the initiative of Sallai Meridor, chairman of the Jewish Agency.

The agency also sent to the refugee camps in Albania and Macedonia an airlift of 12 planes loaded with humanitarian aid.

Following the successful absorption of refugees from Bosnia seven years ago, the government decided to take in Kosovo refugees as well.

A first group of refugees landed in Kibbutz Ma'agan Michael on April 12. On May 26, another group came to Kibbutz Kramim.

Along with the Kosovar Albanians, Israel also absorbed 274 Jews from elsewhere in Serbia. Most of them have returned home; 95 made aliyah.

Seventy-two of the Kosovars — six families — are still in Israel. They are planning to remain for the full six months granted them by the government. They are expected to go home in October.

During the Kosovars' stay in Israel, two children were born.

Kuci came here with his family. During their stay, his brother fell in love with an Israeli army officer.

Kuci reserved his love for the country itself.

"I traveled from place to place, from Eilat to Tiberias, from Haifa to Jerusalem. I just could not get enough. I had never imagined that the country was so beautiful, the people so nice."

During their stay, the refugees worked on the kibbutzim and went on tours hosted by the Jewish Agency.

Some learned Hebrew in the kibbutzim; extra classes were given to the children.

Initially, the plane bringing the Kosovars home was scheduled to leave Monday for Skopje, Macedonia. But the plane needed to fly over Egyptian air space and Egypt refused permission.

"I am very excited to return home, but I am also very sad. I will miss Israel," said Kuci, who then offered a comment that would be music to the ears of those Israelis who have grown weary of the decades of tensions with their Arab neighbors:

"For the first time in my life, I felt peace."

Before leaving Israel, each of the Kosovars was given financial aid to ease their return home. Every adult received $200, every youth $100 and each infant $30.

The aid came from public contributions made at the beginning of the temporary resettlement effort.