Those were the words that welcomed weary Kosovar Albanians airlifted out of Macedonia to Fort Dix, New Jersey in 1999. I remember May 6, 1999 when the first plane carrying 453 Kosovar refugees arrived on a nearby McGuire Airbase as if it was yesterday.
These Muslim refugees were greeted warmly and compassionately not only by us—the civil servants from the Federal Office of Refugee Resettlement—but also by Christine Todd Whitman, the Governor of New Jersey at the time. Governor Chris Christie has conveniently forgotten that his predecessor, a fellow Republican, and the people of his state welcomed the Muslim refugees in peril with open arms and hearts. The First Lady, Hilary Rodham Clinton, also came to Fort Dix to personally welcome arriving refugees, as did Donna Shalala, the then Secretary of Health and Human Services.
Young Albanian Americans took off from work and school to volunteer and provide interpretation services during the three months of Operation Provide Refuge. Local, Albanian speaking Imam came to the Refugee Village–as we called the camp–every Friday to lead the refugees in a jummah prayer saying “God is compassionate. God is merciful.” They were not alone. Fifty nine percent of Americans felt the airlifts were the right thing to do and a further 22 percent hoped more would be done.
Were there suspicions of infiltrators? Of course! Many of the families that arrived in Fort Dix had sons and husbands fighting in the Kosovar Liberation Army. There were fears that Milosevic sympathizers might have followed them to the United States. Those fears were short-lived. We trusted the national security agencies to do their job to protect the country as well as we did ours to protect and alleviate the suffering of the Muslim refugees. It all worked out in the end: some 3,000 Kosovars found safe haven in the U.S.. Refugees spent just a couple of weeks at Fort Dix before they were resettled in local communities. After fighting ended in Kosovo, most returned home but others stayed on to attend university, gain professional experience or simply enjoy peace. I remember them all fondly.
Three years prior to Operation Provide Refuge, there was Operation Pacific Haven during which some 7,000 Iraqi Kurds arrived at Anderson Air Force Base on Guam. There they were screened, processed for asylum, and assigned sponsors in an effort that involved more than a thousand American soldiers and civilians. Almost all of the evacuees ended up Stateside within seven months. The Kurds were mostly Muslim. Even though in both cases the screening was done in a much shorter time that it takes to vet refugees coming from overseas refugee camps, none proved to be terrorists ready to launch attacks on Americans who welcomed with opened arms. Both groups proved to be valuable additions to the multicultural and multi-religious American society. There are thriving communities of Kosovars and Iraqi Kurds in many cities in the United States.
Call me naïve, but I hope that when the Syrians arrive in America they too will see the sign: مرحبا بك في امريكا marhabaan bik fi ‘amrika (Welcom to America!) despite the fear-mongering attempts to stop their resettlement.