A classic tale of a life made good in America

By Tim Butcher
New York


A journalist's New York reunion with a refugee from Kosovo brings back memories of time spent together in the former war zone in the late 90s.

Gusts of icy wind hustled Fifth Avenue. The outdoor rink in Bryant Park, built over the underground stacks of the grand New York Public Library, was packed with skaters - around and around they went, the artful pirouetting, the amateur clowning.

And headgear of every design - mufflers, beanies, furs, ear-protectors - bobbed along sidewalks as New Yorkers took on the first full-blown blast of winter.

A long overdue reunion made me think of the nearby Statue of Liberty and its famously inscribed assurance, the one that captures the raison d'etre not just of this city but of the entire United States of America: "Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free."

In weather as cold as this, any arrivals in New York still have a lot more huddling to do, I thought, as I waited for Adam (not his real name), stamping my feet at a set of traffic lights.

We had not really seen each other for years.

Since 1999, our only encounters had been virtual, via email initially, later Facebook.

But our experience before that had been very real and very intense. We had gone to war together.

Adam is a Kosovar Albanian. I had met him in early 1998, long before Nato military planners had taken Kosovo in their sights, when the first violence broke out between the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA), and Yugoslav - that is to say Serbian - forces.

He was a final year medical student with enough English, nous and raw courage to make a fantastic gatekeeper for a foreign correspondent like me.

"Translator or fixer" does not do justice to the role played by Adam. Without him Kosovo would, for me, have remained closed.

We spent a lot of time together that summer.

Image caption,
Tim Butcher in Kosovo in 1998

He smuggled me into "liberated" territory, we set up camp in Malisevo - the KLA's capital - we met the group's Amazonian women fighters and, with Adam's skill, we dodged checkpoints to reach the ancient holy places of the Serbian Orthodox Church - reliquaries and monasteries manned by bear-like monks with black beards and blacker demeanours.

And when a year later I entered Kosovo with the first Nato ground forces, it was Adam who came to my rescue. His medical skills had seen him deep in the forests stitching up wounded Kosovars and his stories added richly to my understanding.

When the circus of world news moved on, I went with it, leaving Adam behind.

A few years later he, himself, left Kosovo and joined those streaming to New York in search of a new life.

When I spotted him on the other side of Fifth Avenue he was, no surprise, greyer and more portly. Before I could consider too closely what this might make me, we had hugged and made for the warmth of a coffee shop.

There then followed two tender hours of catching up and reminiscing.

"You remember when we were in Malisevo and we watched the first game of the World Cup in that Imam's house?" Adam prompted.

"Brazil were playing but I cannot remember who against," I half remembered.

"Come on, it was Scotland. I thought you were meant to be British." Adam's sharp memory had me blushing.

Eventually, we came around to the issue of how he came to leave his homeland.

"Things got complicated after you left," he said sipping his latte. "I was working with a friend and there was a situation that led to him being shot.

"They tried to kill him but failed. I took to carrying a gun for my own protection. I had to leave for my own security."

And how was it arriving in New York City?

"Well you would be amazed how many Kosovars were already here," he said, smiling.

"Almost all of the 'Italian family restaurants' you see are really owned by Albanians, so I could get plenty of work while I studied for my medical licence.

Image caption,
Adam, right, pictured in Kosovo

"It was difficult at first but who has an easy ride when they arrive in New York? It was worth it because finally my family was able to join me from Pristina.

"Now I work as a psychiatrist in the public health sector over in New Jersey.

"You know what they say about Americans? They are mad enough to keep us shrinks busy forever."

The conversation moved on to those intense days of war almost 15 years back and we did what any member of the journalist tribe does when gathering after many years apart - slagging off the louder mutual acquaintances and wondering what ever happened to the quiet ones.

But as we left the shop and Adam, without even blinking, paid the exorbitant $40 (£28) charge for parking his car in Manhattan for only two hours, I thought about the alchemical power of America.

The Adam I had first known had been a quiet, bookish student from the backwoods of the Balkans. Now he was a healthcare professional in one of the most advanced societies on the planet - quite some transformation for someone who simply "yearned to breathe free".

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