By TOM FIELDS-MEYER Bruce Frankel Patrick Rogers
May 24, 1999 12:00 PM

His name is Amerikan, and with his birth on May 6 near Fort Dix, N.J., where refugees from Kosovo began arriving this month, the healthy baby boy has become a symbol of hope and deliverance. “We feel safe here,” says the infant’s father, Naim Karaliju, 28, a farmer who says he and his pregnant wife, Lebibe, 21, had only minutes to pack before Serb soldiers forced them to board a bus and leave. The Karalijus hope to return home. But for now they are the lucky ones; thousands more remain in camps in the Balkans, in the care of international relief agencies. PEOPLE visited the camps to talk to Americans who are there to help.

A caring woman reunites families

After 3-year-old Fjolla Arifi ran down a muddy path at the Radusa refugee camp and into her father’s outstretched arms—two weeks after becoming separated from her parents at the Macedonian border—her father, Ilaz, proclaimed, “Even in conditions like this, people can find joy.” Thanks, that is, to strangers like Melissa Ward.

A Kansas City, Mo., native, Ward, 36, heads CARE’s tracing program in Skopje, Macedonia, which has helped reunite the Arifis and about 50 other families since April. Heartbreakingly, 555 children, elderly and handicapped remain apart from their loved ones there. “I want to get them all together with their families yesterday,” says Ward. Until then, “I won’t be satisfied.”

Ward, who holds a degree in Buddhist and Western psychology, found her calling in the early ’90s, developing AIDS education programs in Thailand, then helping refugees return from that country to Cambodia. Threatened with arrest in Bosnia by Serb police only last year, she didn’t hesitate to return to the area. Her only explanation: “International work is addictive.”

His business now: saving lives

In the tiny Albanian hamlet of Zogaj, just across the border from Kosovo, Terry Heselius walks among scores of refugees pausing in their trek from their embattled homeland. He offers food to a young woman, nine months pregnant, who is sitting on the ground with her two young children, her blank expression bespeaking the trauma of her desperate flight. “I pray regularly that my heart never gets so tough that I can’t cry when I see that,” says Heselius, 66.

For six years, Heselius—an ex-businessman who has run some 23 international companies—has brought aid to Kosovo’s ethnic Albanians. Directing the regional operations of the Christian charity Mercy Corps International, founded by Pat Boone and funded in part by the U.S. Agency for International Development (U.S. AID), he ran a network that distributed food and supplies to 170,000 people until March 24, when NATO bombing began and he was among the last Americans to flee the province.

Heselius, who with wife Nell, 66, has four adult children, spent 33 years overseas developing corporations and setting up computer systems from Vietnam to Ethiopia. Then in 1993 he answered an ad to direct Mercy Corps’ Kosovo operation. Now he is running a Senokos, Macedonia, camp for 8,000 refugees. “In the end,” says Heselius, a born-again Christian, “it comes down to this: How can you be effective in someone else’s life?”

A new life, a new purpose

Four years ago, Stuart McNeil decided he had had enough of the corporate life as a sales director for the Hilton hotel in his hometown, State College, Pa. “I was 31 at the time, and everyone was saying, ‘You’re crazy, you have a good job,’ ” he says. But McNeil was serious. He joined the Peace Corps and went to Albania, where he was later hired by Catholic Relief Services in Tirana in 1997. Even though he has been in the country long enough to begin learning its language—and to become engaged to his Albanian language teacher, Sona Hoxhaj, 23—McNeil, like everyone else, was taken by surprise by the sudden throngs of Kosovar refugees. “One day a camp will call up and ask for food for 500 refugees,” he says, “and the next day there’s 1,500 at the camp.”

A new doctor gets down to work

While studying medicine at Stanford, Sheri Fink dated a man who knew little about Hitler’s campaign of genocide. Fink, who is Jewish, decided to promote awareness of that chapter in history by volunteering at the Holocaust Center of Northern California. Learning that several ethnic groups in the Balkans are targets of persecution today, she worked to publicize their plight. “It would have been hypocritical,” she says, “not to be paying attention to other people being killed for their religion.”

True to her commitment, Fink, now 30, went off to the Balkans the day after she became a doctor on March 29. There, she administered first aid to refugees in Macedonia. “There is group fear and mass hysteria,” she said above the din of refugees crowding against the steel barriers outside a makeshift clinic at a border crossing. “Everybody is crushed together, and people are fainting, dropping like flies.”

After spending a month gathering information about human rights abuses for the Boston-based Physicians for Human Rights, Fink returned to the U.S. on May 2. If her parents, attorney Herschel Fink, 58, and charity worker Annette, 56, of West Bloomfield, Mich., had their way, she would stay here. But Sheri may return to the Balkans, this time to research a book on doctors and war. “She weighs 95 pounds,” says Susannah Sirkin, deputy director of Physicians for Human Rights, “but she’s all energy.”

‘You can’t cry over every case’

When she used to race motorcycles in her 20s, Chalon Lee learned to react quickly to trouble. “In a lot of dangerous situations,” she says, “survival is having a reflex action sorted out ahead of time so you know how you’re going to respond.”

Since then, Lee, 44, has honed those reflexes, aiding civilians in violence-afflicted countries from Rwanda to Bosnia. Now heading the U.S. aid group World Vision in Tirana, she is responsible for getting food and supplies to thousands of refugees. “You can’t cry over every case you see,” she says. “Otherwise you can’t help the people.”

Born in Louisiana and raised in Atlanta, Lee, a licensed pilot and accomplished equestrian, signed on as a Peace Corps volunteer in 1982, working in Zaire and Chad before joining World Vision, where she ran a livestock program in Northern Mali as the country was rocked by a coup. “I didn’t plan it,” she says of her career. “I just got in the pattern of working in conflict situations.”

A life of helping leads to the Balkans

When she was 14, Kim Maynard made a list of things she wanted to do with her life: Climb mountains; jump out of an airplane; ride a train like a hobo; run, a marathon. Then she set about achieving each one. “She checked them all off,” says her mother, Priscilla.

But there was one to-do item she couldn’t check off and move on from: making a difference in the world. So Maynard, 41, has spent 22 years working in disaster relief in such places as Tajikistan and Somalia and now heads the U.S. government’s Disaster Assistance Response Team for Kosovar refugees in Macedonia.

Poking her head into a tent shared by several families at a sprawling camp near Skopje, she asks about conditions. “We have enough food and blankets,” replies exhausted refugee Hysen Llazani, 41, “but we need showers and more clothes.” Relying on such conversations, Maynard and her team of 10 assess conditions in the camps, recommend funding and give daily updates to U.S. AID in Washington.

As a Quaker who once spent three months living on the streets on the West Coast to better understand the plight of the homeless, Maynard believes in being a good listener. “You need to know what’s going on in people’s hearts,” she says. “Otherwise it just becomes a job.” Raised in the Seattle suburb of Bellevue by Priscilla, 77, an artist, and eye surgeon Bob Maynard, 73, Kim has always welcomed a challenge. In 1982 she became the first female member of Montana’s elite Smokejumper forest-fire-fighting team. “She’s pretty unflappable,” says fellow jumper Kevin Lee, 41.

Indeed, just moments before her marriage to diplomat Al Charters, 42, last September in Issaquah, Wash., bride and groom parachuted from a plane as guests watched from the ground. Charters is currently stationed in Tirana, where Maynard sees him whenever she can. “My philosophy is that you become a better person from experience,” she says.

Tom Fields-Meyer, Bruce Frankel and Patrick Rogers

Nina Biddle, Liz Corcoran, Joanne Fowler and Pete Norman in the Balkans, Alexandra Hardy in Los Angeles, Tim Roche in Orlando, Matt Birkbeck at Fort Dix and Phyllis Karas in Boston

Advertisement