New Brunswick

Refugee plans stir memories of Kosovo arrivals in 1999

As aid groups and multi-cultural organizations prepare for the influx of Syrian refugees in the province, it's bringing back a lot of memories of the last time there was such an influx into the community.

Base Gagetown was arrival site for hundreds from Eastern Europe

Samire Ismaili arrived at Base Gagetown in 1999 from Kosovo. (CBC)

As aid groups and multi-cultural organizations prepare for the influx of Syrian refugees in the province, it's bringing back a lot of memories of the last time there was such an influx into New Brunswick.

The last large wave of refugees arrived in 1999, escaping the turmoil in Eastern Europe.

"My first memories? I'm safe," recalled Samire Ismaili, who arrived at Base Gagetown that spring, when she was 20.

It gets better, and welcome. You're not alone.- Samire Ismaili, 1999 Kosovo refugee

Her family had been ordered to get out of their home in Kosovo.

"We were just told to leave. Pack nothing. Just what you had, what you were wearing. That's it," she said.

Ismaili and her family arrived in a no-man's land where they joined thousands of other refugees, sleeping on the ground for days in the rain before arriving at an overcrowded camp in Macedonia.

"Very emotional. I could see myself walking with what we had. Long walks," her memories coming back in spoken fragments. "Cold. It was so chilly. Frightened. I remember I could see their fear in their faces. I could see that."

'The best shower of my life'

Eventually, they were part of a thousand refugees who found a temporary haven at Base Gagetown, where the first thing she remembers about Canada was having a hot shower.

"The shower that I had there, was the best shower of my life," she said.

Groups such as the Red Cross and YMCA helped settle those refugees into the community. Now, they are waiting word on what they need to do this time.

Sandra Romo will work with Syrian refugees at the YMCA newcomer program. (CBC)
At the YMCA, Sandra Romo works at the newcomer program, helping people find and keep a job. That can mean doing anything from help writing a resume, to negotiating the cultural differences in job seeking.

"Just seeing a client come in, and from being really shy and scared, and not knowing what to do, to say, 'OK, I called this employer. I got an interview' … so small successes like that," she explained.

Ismaili will be volunteering when the refugees arrive, to tell people the words she desperately wanted to hear in 1999: "It gets better, and welcome. You're not alone."

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