Staff writer

SAKAI, Osaka Pref. — The smiles on their children’s faces were reward enough for Smailj Gjakolaj and his wife after their long journey to Japan.

The ethnic Albanian couple, who arrived here earlier this month after fleeing Yugoslavia’s war-torn Kosovo province, had not heard their children’s laughter for months.

Gjakolaj, 34, his wife, Remzia, 29, and their three children are believed to be the first Kosovar refugees to come to Japan. They are staying with the family of Remzia’s brother, Ramo Dellovac, and his Japanese wife, Tomoko.

“For now, I am anxious if we will be granted refugee status (by the Japanese government),” Gjakolaj, who intends to submit applications for refugee status next week, said in an interview with The Japan Times.

Gjakolaj and his family are currently staying under a family visit visa, which is limited to 90 days. “Over the last two weeks, we were happy to see the children playing and being happy. I hope this will continue,” said Gjakolaj, who fled his hometown near the provincial capital of Pristina to Bosnia via the Yugoslav Republic of Montenegro at the end of December.

On their way to Bosnia, where Gjakolaj had previously worked as a baker, the passports of his wife and three children were seized and destroyed by a Serbian soldier, he said through interpretation by his Albanian brother-in-law.

Only Gjakolaj’s passport was safe, as it was hidden in one of the children’s clothes, he added.

After arriving in Bosnia in January, Gjakolaj said he asked the Bosnian government to accept them as refugees, but never received a reply.

Moving from place to place, his family had difficulty finding food and warm clothes. They sometimes had to spend the night in train stations.

In dire straits, he made a phone call to Dellovac at the beginning of April. Dellovac and Tomoko said they first tried to send money and clothes through the Japanese Embassy in Sarajevo but were told that it was uncertain whether a parcel would reach Gjakolaj under the circumstances.

The couple then asked the Foreign Ministry to help them bring the Gjakolaj family to Japan. Initially, they were told the ministry could only help the family if they were already in Japan and would take the case as one for future consideration, according to Tomoko.

But Dellovac and Tomoko persisted, and the family visit visa was granted to Gjakolaj with travel certificates issued for Remzia and the children.

“Even while on the airplane to Japan, I could not believe that we were granted the visa,” Remzia said.

She said she was happy that two of the children, Blerta, 11, and Besim, 8, can begin attending a local elementary school next week. Five-year-old Besnik is waiting to be accepted at a local kindergarten. “The children are getting used to life in Japan much faster than we parents,” she added.

Even if refugee status is granted, Gjakolaj does not have a clear idea of what they will do in Japan. He speaks neither Japanese nor English, although he is willing to learn Japanese.

He said he would like to work in a bakery where he could put his 20 years of experience as a baker to use. In Kosovo, he ran his own bakery, but Serbian soldiers interrupted his work often and took bread without paying.

He could not ask them to pay because he was afraid that he might be beaten up or even killed if he did so, he said.

He was forced to close the business in October when he could no longer obtain flour for bread. “Although we have no house to go back to, we would like to go back if peace is restored and security for daily lives is assured,” Gjakolaj said, adding that he did not know when that would be.

He is also worried about the safety and whereabouts of his parents and other family members he left behind.

In Kosovo they had lived with Gjakolaj’s parents and his three brothers. His father told him to leave Kosovo first because he had small children. Now he doesn’t know if they are still alive.

Remzia recalled the most terrifying experience in their village. “One day in November, Serbian soldiers ordered all 2,500 villagers to come to a school by 3 p.m. or else they would kill us. We were separated into groups of men, women and children,” she said.

“We were squeezed into classrooms and were forced to stay there two nights without any water or food. They were investigating if any of us were members of the separatist ethnic Albanian Kosovo Liberation Army or if we knew any KLA members.

“After we were released, the village was a total mess. Houses had been searched and Serbian soldiers had taken anything they wanted from the houses. Some houses were burned down and all the chickens eaten,” she said.

Dellovac said he also is worried about his mother and his sister’s family, all of whom are in a refugee camp in Albania. He has been trying to bring them to Japan for the last two months.

Even if they are allowed to come to Japan, he is unsure how he will finance their plane tickets after having to borrow money to pay for the Gjakolajs’ travel expenses.

Earlier this week, local citizens’ groups and lawyers formed a support group for Gjakolaj’s bid for refugee status. The group also plans to raise money for them.

“As well as our status as refugees, we hope the Japanese government helps as many refugees in Europe as possible,” Remzia said.

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