By JAMES BROOKEKosovars changing Canadian prairie
May 16, 2000
LETHBRIDGE, Alberta -- Here in Canada's big sky country, midway between Medicine Hat and the Continental Divide, Blerina Hoxha sat in her apartment and recalled the day one year ago, back in the Balkans, when she stood in the rain at a tent camp, running her finger down a list. Next to her family's name was written "Canada."
"We didn't know anything about Canada," said Miss Hoxha, 19, an Albanian refugee. "We didn't ask to go to Canada."
She was speaking in her family's new home here. One year after their arrival last May, she speaks enough English to interview for a sales job at a dress shop, a step up from her job at a McDonald's restaurant.
Her brother Gezim, 14, bicycles on Saturday mornings to the library, where he cruises the Internet. In speaking with friends, he often ends sentences with a Canadian "eh." For spending money, he rises six days a week at 5 a.m. to deliver 47 copies of The Lethbridge Herald around their suburban neighborhood.
One year after more than a million Kosovo Albanians fled the Serbian province, North America is proving to be the world's most welcoming region for refugees who want to become immigrants. With the weather warming and security said to be improving in Kosovo, Western European nations and Australia are pushing, in some cases forcing, 250,000 refugees to return to their devastated homeland. Germany, with 170,000 Kosovar refugees, has said it will deport those who refuse a $1,000 incentive to return.
But in Canada and the United States, three-quarters of the Kosovars who came last year have stayed. Today, almost all are eligible for residency status. Canada, with about one-tenth the population of the United States, took in half as many refugees, 7,200, as the United States, which accepted 14,300.
Canada's welcome, although a tradition, reflects a federal policy of rejuvenating an aging population with immigrants. One in 7 citizens is foreign born. Last year, Canada took in 173,011 immigrants, 75 percent of the government goal.
"I was surprised we were so welcomed," Rexhep Hoxha, with lines in his face deeper than his 46 years, said in Albanian as his daughter Blerina translated. A former curtain inspector in a Yugoslav factory, Mr. Hoxha recalled, "People waited for us at the airport as if we were important people."
Leo Siemens, a semiretired Mennonite pastor, was at the airport that day with a "Welcome to Canada" banner. The Hoxhas' "sponsor," Mr. Siemens said he also remembered their arrival. "There was fear in their eyes," he said. "They did not know what was going to happen. They did not speak any English."
In this railroad city of 70,000 people, the six Kosovar families here are part of a changing, more cosmopolitan face of Canadian prairie cities. Although 1,000 Lethbridge residents were born in the United States, historically one of Alberta's largest sources of immigrants, 500 other residents were born in China. At the small mosque here, the faithful include people born in Pakistan and Iran.
"We have refugees from Sudan, Bosnia, China, Latvia, Afghanistan -- quite a diverse population," said Jodie Gallais, settlement counselor for Immigration Services, a government-financed agency. "They get money for food, money for rent, money for bus passes. For the Kosovars, the churches had apartments ready for them. They were giving them dishes, driving them places."
In this small city, where the August Whoop-Up Days rodeo is the social highlight of the summer, the Kosovar immigrants seem to be finding a niche.
Blerina Hoxha is becoming accustomed to a flat, enormous landscape in which speeding pickups send up dust trails visible for miles around. Before fleeing Kosovo, she said, the farthest she had traveled was the 30-mile trip from her village to Pristina, the Kosovo capital. "The police stopped the bus five or 10 times," she said.
Relatives who visited their village after the war said the Serbs had burned 400 of the 500 houses, including the Hoxhas' house.
"If I go back, I have to start from the beginning, I have to start building a house," said Mr. Hoxha, who is learning English. "Here it is a good country. No crime. There is freedom."
His wife, Makfire, said her ambition was to have their older son, Luzlim, 22, move here after graduating next year from engineering school in Tirana, Albania. With Gezim translating, she said: "Kosovo -- only to visit. Not to live."
Gezim, a computer buff, inspected a visitor's laptop and scrolled through an article about plans by Australia, Britain, France, Germany, Norway and Switzerland to start deporting Kosovo refugees in the summer. Gezim, who has plans to go to college in Calgary, said, "We were lucky."