Kosovo refugees in Albania embrace Baptist relief workers as ‘dear fr
DALLAS (BP)--Days after returning to the United States from Albania, Texas Baptist relief volunteers said the stench of squalid refugee camps remained in their nostrils. But the look in the Kosovars’ eyes was what burned indelibly into their memories.
“The physical suffering was obvious, but what we saw in the faces of the people stayed with me,” said Dick Jenkins from Legacy Drive Baptist Church in Plano.
“What you saw was the hurt in their eyes -- the pain of being yanked away from what they knew in everyday life, the pain of being separated from family, the pain of these clean people being put into the midst of this filth.”
John Bullock, Texas Baptist Men director of children and youth missions and ministries, served hundreds of miles away at another refugee camp, but he had the same impression.
“There was such a sense of shock and lostness in the people’s eyes. We would watch the people as they would get off the bus, and they didn’t know what they were doing or where they would go. That haunts me,” Bullock said.
Jenkins and Bullock were among the dozen TBM volunteers who spent a week digging latrines and building relationships with refugees from Kosovo. Another team is slated to go to Albania in mid-May, according to Jim Furgerson, TBM executive director.
Texas Baptists responded to a request from the coordinator of refugee response for the Albanian Evangelical Association. Working in cooperation with the Southern Baptist Convention’s International Mission Board, the Texas Baptist volunteers left Dallas April 14, planning to set up refugee camps in Korca and train Albanian Christians in their operation.
The volunteers expected to purify water, distribute food and provide medical aid for refugees in one city. But once on the field, both the nature and scope of their mission changed.
Jenkins served in Korca with Robert and Brad Mann from Fielder Road Baptist Church in Arlington and David Carpenter from Waco, a former Albania-based Cooperative Services International worker who is now with the All Peoples organization.
The volunteers worked primarily at the “sports palace,” an athletic facility that was operating as a ministry center for refugees. When the group arrived, about 150 Kosovars were sheltered there. By the time they left, the number had grown to more than 1,000.
Jenkins initially tried “playing carpenter” by building examining tables, waiting room benches and I-V poles for Doctors Without Borders, the non-governmental organization that was providing health care to the refugees in Korca.
But the whirring of his circular saw was like a magnet drawing refugees, he recounted. A couple of the Kosovars told Jenkins they were carpenters by trade, and he turned the task over to them.
“They had nothing else to do there, and they are a very industrious, energetic people,” Jenkins said. “It gave them purpose.”
After Robert Mann, a pediatrician, discovered that others were available to meet immediate health-care needs in the refugee center, he started going into private residences where local families had taken refugees into their homes.
“I was like a country doctor making house calls,” he said. “I would go into a home or apartment to see one person, and people would just start streaming in, bringing others.”
Mann treated cases of exposure, kidney infections, respiratory ailments and skin conditions, as well as caring for people with chronic conditions who had been forced to leave their prescription medicines behind when they fled Kosovo.
He also treated a child who sustained severe burns when her family’s home was burned. It was not the only evidence of atrocities the volunteers encountered.
“One woman came to a refugee camp hysterical,” Jenkins recalled. “Her baby had been taken away from her, beheaded right in front of her, and then its body handed back to her.”
Although the Albanians tried to meet the needs of refugees, their numbers were too great to be absorbed by the impoverished people, the Texans noted. The makeshift shelters were inadequate to meet the needs of the refugees.
Lacking any other facilities, the Kosovars were forced to use floor gratings in the sports palace showers as latrines until the Texas Baptists helped to build more sanitary facilities for them.
Brad Mann accepted the “down and dirty” duty of cleaning out the showers and building latrines, his father said. The Albanians found it hard to believe that Americans voluntarily would take on that kind of unseemly job.
“We would tell people that when Christ comes to live in your heart, you have love for other people,” Mann said.
In Ereske, south of Korca, a sanitation and personal hygiene system was developed for about 500 refugees who were sheltered in a gymnasium. Working in the team were Larry Blanchard from First Baptist Church of Lindale, Cotton Bridges from First Baptist Church of Plano and Joe Ragan, a student at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth.
Ragan wrote in his journal about one extended family of 33 people, living in a 12--by-16-foot room, their sleeping mats lining all four walls with only a narrow footpath through the room’s center. The family had been forced at gunpoint to leave their home in Pristina with only the clothing on their backs.
Ragan visited with the oldest of five children, Gazmend Gashi. He was a fourth-year civil engineering student who learned English primarily by watching television. One of his sisters was studying to be a pharmacist.
“Their desire is to return to Pristina someday, but the future looks doubtful. My prayer is that the seeds that were planted will bear fruit, and with fruit comes hope for tomorrow,” Ragan wrote.
Gary Smith of Midway Road Baptist Church in Dallas led a five-man team working near the Yugoslavian border in Shkoder, northwest of the capital city of Tirana.
“After a couple of days of serving food at the sports palace, a need for toilet facilities was identified at an old tobacco factory which was being turned into a refugee camp,” Smith said.
Bullock worked in Shkoder with Smith, Dick Hurst from First Baptist Church of Tyler, Dan Hogan from Calvary Baptist Church of Texas City, and J.T. Carpenter of Waco, who formerly served with his family in Albania.
Bullock noted all of the Christians with whom they worked had been believers five years or less. Virtually all of them had become followers of Christ as a result of the “Jesus” film project that the Carpenter family helped to coordinate in remote villages, in conjunction with Campus Crusade, TBM, IMB and other evangelicals.
Each of the teams working at the different sites in Albania reported miraculous answers to prayer.
“There was one time we ran out of lumber. We gathered some of the people from Kosovo around and prayed with them. About the time we finished, this Armenian guy pulled up with a truckload of lumber. He wouldn’t even let us pay him,” Bullock recalled. The refugees, most of them Muslim, wept openly.
They also wept when the Texas Baptists said their final goodbyes. As is their custom, the Albanian Kosovars kissed the Americans. But instead of one polite buzz on each cheek, they kissed the Texans -- whom they had only known for a few days -- twice on each cheek.
“That’s the sign of a dear friend,” Bullock explained. “I won’t forget that.”