By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
He had heard his whole family was dead -- slaughtered by Serbs.
A few days later, in late April, he heard a radio report from Fort Dix, New Jersey, where the first planeloads of Kosovar refugees were waiting to be resettled. Driving back to his Carrollton home after a day of construction work, Shaban Murseli listened closely to the story of Baby Amerikan -- the first Kosovar refugee child born on American soil. He quickly realized that this infant was his cousin. Most of his family, 32 of them, everyone except for the aunt and uncle who raised him, had escaped, were alive, and were in the United States.
Murseli raced home to make contact with his relatives, whom he hadn't seen for 22 years. After being passed from one government agency to the next, he was finally given the phone numbers of four Dallas charities that could help him bring his family here. He called the first one on the list, Refugee Services of North Texas. That's when his troubles began.
A week earlier, as NATO cluster bombs were falling over the Balkans and hundreds of thousands of Kosovars were fleeing the war zone, Refugee Services director Chip Corcoran was also on the move. Since the allies had cut a deal with Macedonia, 20,000 ethnic Albanians from Kosovo were going to need new homes in the United States right away. Corcoran headed into Dallas' Albanian community -- about 1,000 people strong -- to get some names.
He attended a Sunday-evening meeting at the Albanian community center-cum-mosque, located in a strip mall in Carrollton. The 30 or so men who assembled, every one of them a restaurant owner, had been receiving calls from distraught relatives overseas relaying tales of rape, torture, arson, and other mayhem. "We're here to help," said Corcoran. He's been through similar situations before, with Bosnians, Croats, Somalis, Vietnamese, and just about every other ethnicity that has fled a violent homeland. But with the Kosovars, never before were so many coming so quickly.
He passed out forms where the Albanians could sign up to "sponsor" their displaced relatives. As the names of refugees began flowing into his office over the next few days, more than 150 of them, he passed them on to New York-based Church World Services. The organization serves as the middleman between Refugee Services and the U.S. State Department, which starts the resettlement process rolling by passing down a grant of $740 for every refugee in America. By the time this money trickles into the refugees' hands, not much is left.
Ruzhdie Krasniqi, owner of Primavera's in Plano, attended the meeting and listened to Corcoran explain how refugee resettlement works. Several days later he received a call from Corcoran, who asked him to sponsor four Kosovars in Fort Dix, friends of Krasniqi's brother, who had given his name to the government. Surprisingly, Krasniqi declined. He understood the rules.
He could still help these four people he had never heard of, providing both his money and his time. But so long as he didn't sign on to be a sponsor, his assistance would be in addition to rather than in place of what Refugee Services had to give. Refugees without sponsors become "free cases," meaning that the resettlement agency shoulders responsibility for basic services -- setting them up with health care, food stamps, clothes, and furniture; enrolling the kids in school; finding adults jobs; and providing "safe, sanitary, and decent" housing for at least a month. When the agency signs up a sponsor for a refugee family, however, the sponsor agrees to take care of those needs. The agency then ends up having to hand over less of its government cash, which is the same regardless of sponsorship.
"Basically," Krasniqi decided, "if you're the sponsor, you're fucked." That's what others who have worked with Refugee Services of North Texas have concluded.
The agency's critics -- among them refugees, sponsors, volunteers, and former Refugee Services board members -- claim that the nonprofit is poorly managed and fiscally inept, leaving more and more refugees severely short-changed when it comes to basic services and financial assistance. They say that the agency misleads refugees and sponsors and withholds available funds as it covers up its incompetence. Refugee Services counters that it exceeds government expectations despite its low level of funding.
With the recent wave of Kosovars landing in Dallas, the battle between Refugee Services and its critics is heating up and tearing through the local Albanian community. The newly arrived émigrés, meanwhile, are unknowingly stepping into the crossfire of an American charity system mired in politics, bureaucracy, and personal battles.
According to Corcoran, when Murseli came in May to the run-down East Dallas house that serves as Refugee Services' headquarters to discuss his 32 relatives, "Shaban was frantic. He was crazy. And understandably so." Twenty-four were already at Fort Dix. The remaining eight, still in Macedonia waiting for paperwork to be processed, would be coming a few weeks after the first wave of relatives. Eventually he signed on the dotted line for them all, essentially allowing Refugee Services to delegate to him, a single construction worker, the responsibility for providing the basic services the government mandates -- from apartments and furniture to jobs and English classes. But Murseli says he understood the document differently.