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Jews give shelter to victims of Serb onslaught.

Clearly exhausted and slightly overwhelmed by TV cameras and a large array of gifts, 112 Kosovan refugees sat down in Israel to their first proper meal in two weeks, eating plates of steaming hot chicken, rice and salads.

Later, they made free calls to relatives all over the Balkans on mobile phones distributed to each family.

Two weeks ago, the Ramadans gathered up some clothes, piled into their old car and headed for the Macedonian border as Serbian tanks rolled into Pristina.

Sheheed, the family's 18-year-old daughter, said that during the family's week-long journey without food, they saw 13 people die of hunger along the roadsides.

"We were afraid. We were terrified. We were simply forced out by the Serbian army," she recalled as tears ran from her blue eyes.

When she, her parents and two siblings crossed the border, it was to a refugee camp near Skopje, Macedonia. They stayed in a tent close to a field hospital set up by the Israeli army for ethnic Albanian refugees. There, they were given the option of a temporary home in Israel.

On Monday, the Ramadans and 16 other families arrived to a festive greeting tinged by the solemnity of preparations for Holocaust Remembrance Day, which began at sundown.

"You are arriving on a special day for the Jews of Israel," said Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, greeting the refugees at Ben Gurion airport. "As Jews we have a special sensitivity for the suffering of others. We feel a responsibility to help."

The group was then taken to a nature retreat next to the Maagan Michael kibbutz, or collective farm, about 20 miles north of Tel Aviv on the Israeli coast. The retreat is next to an Arab village with a mosque where the refugees, most of whom are Muslims, can pray.

Israeli children bearing gift baskets of cookies and potato chips, and roses for the women, greeted the tired group. Albanian translators showed them to the dining hall and a large playroom filled with stuffed animals, puzzles and toys.

Each family will be housed in a white stucco, one-bedroom cottage with a bathroom and shower. Soap, diapers, kettles, coffee and milk were provided for each family. They will also receive a monthly payment from the government.

On Sunday, they will begin six-months of Hebrew classes, accompanied by guided trips around Israel and lessons on the country, whose founders included refugees from the Second World War.

Mr Netanyahu said the group would be welcome to stay in Israel if they chose to do so. Thirty Bosnian Muslims who sought refuge here in 1993 have remained.

During his greeting, Mr Netanyahu singled out Llamia Jaka, the daughter of Dervish and Servet Kurkut, a Kosovan couple that hid Jews during the Holocaust.

"Today we are closing a circle, by granting shelter to the daughter of those who saved Jews," he said. Ms Jaka and her husband were among the refugees; her two children were on their way from Budapest.

"Just as my parents helped the Jews, now we're seeing here a connection," she said as she carried a small bag to her room. "I am very sorry for all I left back in Pristina. I think it's going to be very hard, maybe we'll have to stay here because the Balkans just aren't stable."
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Author:Kraft, Dina
Publication:The Birmingham Post (England)
Date:Apr 14, 1999
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