Sneakers for Mirjeta

During my visit to a refugee camp in Macedonia with a group of 16 American Jews last week, a waif-like girl wearing a dusty black-and-red parka stood on her toes to peer into my notebook.

She was painfully thin, had big black eyes, short black hair and a huge smile. Instinctively, I drew a smile face in my notebook and showed it to her. She took my notebook and pen and began to draw a body on the smile face. With a few strokes of the pen, she drew the figure of me, complete with a camera bag and yarmulke.

I indicated that she sign the picture with her name and age. Mirjeta Bajrami, 14, she wrote.

It was the perfect way to meet across the language barrier that separated us. Mirjeta, like all the Kosovar refugees, spoke Albanian, but she also understood quite a bit of English. Where did she learn it? In school, she told me, and also from her favorite bands, Back Street Boys and Spice Girls.

She told me she was from the village of Seva Reca, a name I knew because it had been the scene of a massacre of ethnic Albanian civilians by Serb forces in March. Draw me a picture of the house where you lived, I asked, handing Mirjeta my notebook. She drew a small farmhouse with the roof ablaze and surrounded by soldiers.

My group spent 10 hours that day at Stankovich 1 refugee camp, part of our mission to bring supplies and words of support to ethnic Albanians who had fled the tragic war in Kosovo. We visited with a troupe of amazing Israeli youth volunteers who run an athletic, crafts and music program for the refugee children among the 30,000 souls in the crowded and fetid tent camp. “Our job is to make children smile,” said the head of the program, Azi Rahim. “Nobody else does that.” Our American group brought 32 huge duffel bags stuffed with shoes and toys for the children.

Mirjeta spent the day playing with her friends, but on regular intervals, she would seek me out to draw in my notebook and give me additional details about her life. Her father had died three years earlier in a car accident, leaving her mother with five children. They fled their village with Mirjeta’s aunt and her family after the Serbian assault in March and arrived at the Macedonian border with only the clothes on their backs.

At one point, I asked if I could see Mirjeta’s tent. With a skip in her step, she led me down a dusty road past row after row of army tents, pitched one right next to the other. The stench from overflowing latrines fouled the air. In the doorways of the tents, adults sat, looking bored and hopeless. And there were long lines of people everywhere, at the water faucets, at the hospital, at the mess hall and at the government tents where refugees could register for asylum with different countries.

We arrived at Mirjeta’s tent, a space no bigger than the modest living and dining room in my Manhattan apartment. Inside lived 10 people — Mirjeta’s mother and her five children, her aunt and uncle and their two children. Her mother was not in, but her aunt greeted me and beckoned me to enter. The place was immaculate, with blankets covering the dirt floor and clothes and blankets piled neatly around the perimeter. In one corner were the family’s rations for the day: a few tins of meat, some bread and a bunch of bananas. The aunt bent down, retrieved a can of juice and offered me a drink. Even in such crushing poverty, these people retained their essential human dignity.

On our way back to the children’s program, Mirjeta asked me a question. “Tomorrow?” Yes, I reassured her. My group planned to return to the camp a second day, and I would see her again. She pointed to her feet and, for the first time, I noticed that she was wearing bedroom slippers. “Shoes?” It was the first time all day she asked me for anything. I asked her to take off her slipper. I rubbed the dirt from the sole and uncovered the size: 37. I said I would get her shoes.

When we returned to the children’s area, I marched right to the tent of the Israelis who ran the program. It was there, earlier in the day, that my group deposited our duffel bags of gifts. I started to open them to find the right pair of shoes for Mirjeta, when an Israeli asked what I was doing. “Shoes for a friend,” I said. “You can’t do that,” he told me politely. “You’ll start a riot. You give one, you’ve got to give them all.” He said that the camp officials had a system for dispensing gifts and that those who need shoes would get them.

That night, back in my hotel room in the nearby city of Skopje, I couldn’t sleep. I had shoes. I had a bed. I had electricity and running water. The child that I chose (or had chosen me) to be a symbol of the suffering of the Kosovars had become my conscience. I got out of bed and stuffed anything of value I had into my pillow case: my Dartmouth sweat shirt, three cans of tuna, my towel, my rain poncho, my flashlight. In the bag, I put my business card, circling my phone number in the vain hope that someday Mirjeta would have an opportunity to call me.

When I got off the bus at the refugee camp in the morning, I swung the pillowcase over my shoulder and nonchalantly walked past the barbed wire and Macedonian border guards. Mirjeta and a small band of children were waiting at the gate. I handed her the bag and said, “Tent!” She ran off to bring the goods to her family. I went straightaway to the Israelis’ tent. Luckily, no one was there. I unzipped one of the duffel bags and knocked it over so that shoes began to spill out. I bent down ostensibly to clean them up, furiously looking for a size-37 girl’s shoes. But the sizes on the shoes were American, 4’s, 5’s and 6’s. There was no one to ask. I picked up a pair of black suede sneakers that looked like they would fit and snuck them out in a bag, feeling like a smuggler, convinced that everyone’s eyes were on me and my contraband. After a few tense moments, I spotted Mirjeta. She circled around, took the bag and again ran off.

The leader of our group suddenly announced that we were leaving the camp to visit the Kosovo border, just eight miles away. We were told to board the bus. I, of course, wasn’t the only one in our group who had formed a friendship with the refugee children. Others hugged and kissed new friends they made and surreptitiously gave them gifts and business cards. Several of the children started crying, making us wonder if we did the right thing by befriending them. “Maybe we got their hopes up,” we wondered out loud. I stared blankly out the window as our bus began to pull away from the camp. Suddenly, I saw a girl running toward the bus; she was waving, smiling and throwing kisses. It was Mirjeta, and on her feet were the black suede sneakers. I blew her a kiss.

That afternoon, we started on the long drive from the Macedonian capital to Salonika, Greece, where we would catch the flight back to the States. At one point, there was a thunderstorm and lightning and the skies opened up with torrents of rain. Everyone on the bus fell silent. No one had to say it. Our minds all went back to the refugee camp where we knew that the dirt roads were turning muddy and the adults and children were all huddling in their tents, waiting for a brighter day.

Back home in New York, I can’t get Mirjeta out of my head. In the newspapers, there are reports that the refugee camps are slowly being cleared. The Kosovars are being granted asylum in Germany, Austria, Spain and other European countries. Some 450 arrived in the United States for processing at Fort Dix, N.J. I scan the newspaper and television photos for Mirjeta’s face. I know that there is a system for getting the refugees out, but, as I did with the shoes, I don’t want to trust her fate to the system.

The day after I returned, I called Jessica Pearl, the ever-capable information officer for the refugee camp we visited. I wanted to find out if I could sponsor Mirjeta and her family. Pearl put me in touch with Roger Winter of the U.S. Committee for Refugees, in Washington, who told me that only family members could be official sponsors, but that if Mirjeta’s family applied for asylum in America, I could help settle them once t
hey are here. I developed my pictures and sent a copy of Mirjeta’s photo to Pearl, who said she would try to locate the girl and tell her to make sure her family applies. Pearl’s task is, literally, finding one in 30,000.

I’ve spoken about Mirjeta’s plight to my family, to my classes at Columbia and to the members of my Manhattan congregation, Ramath Orah. When I tell the story of one child, the story of the faraway Kosovo comes alive for them. They ask, “How can I help?” I pray first for Mirjeta’s safety and second that she contacts me when she is settled, either here or in Europe or, at the end of this terrible war, back at her home in Kosovo. I want to hear from her; I’ve found a lot of people who are willing to help.

Ari L. Goldman wrote this account for The New York Jewish Week.