UH graduate to help Kosovar refugees

Babette Hughes sets aside time to aid victims of ethnic cleansing in Albania

By Teresa Tingle
Daily Cougar Staff

Water is available twice a day, and only to those who wait for it until it's turned on. Guards drive around with loaded guns to keep watch on the population. There is little entertainment — no books or television. It seems that everyone is ill and hungry, and medicine and food are scarce.

The place is a Kosovar refugee camp, temporary home to hundreds of thousands of ethnic Albanians who were driven out of their homeland this spring. Similar conditions exist in all the camps, which must deal with the masses of people suddenly forced to leave their homes.

In spite of the peace agreement reached last week, the Kosovar refugees will not return home for months — possibly years — and when they do, they'll find much of their region a bombed-out wasteland.

The task of helping these refugees rebuild their lives is daunting. It involves more than returning them to Kosovo. It means rebuilding an entire culture.

Babette Hughes, a recent UH graduate, is one of the volunteers from all over the world who are going to Albania to help the Kosovar refugees. She is volunteering for the Balkan Sunflower, an organization based in Germany and solely initiated through the Internet by Wam Kat, a volunteer peace activist who has been keeping an online diary about conditions in the refugee camps.

The Balkan Sunflower's goal is to send groups of volunteers into the refugee camps to bring humanitarian relief. Necessities like shelter and toilets are first on the list of volunteer projects; then they will work to instill a sense of community and normality in the refugees' lives.

The United Nations high commissioner for refugees estimates that at least 780,000 people have fled Kosovo. Neighboring countries like Albania and Macedonia have felt the effects of this crisis the most, as thousands of refugees streamed over their borders.

Hughes, 22, has volunteered to go to Albania for a minimum of four weeks in July to set programs in action for the refugees. Her special interest is in children.

"We want to set up some sort of foundation in the camps," she said. "We will teach English, start clubs, arts and crafts, organized sports — anything to bring back somewhat of a normal life. (The children) just sit around all day because they have nothing."

Hughes graduated last semester with a bachelor's degree in psychology. Volunteering is nothing new to her: She has volunteered for the AIDS Foundation of Houston, Planned Parenthood and the Kolter Elementary School's Special Ed Classroom.

Recently, she taught a class in Spanish at Fort Bend County’s Smith Elementary School, talking to students about stress management and communication. She will begin graduate school in the fall for a master's in social work and hopes to someday become a social worker.

Until then, Hughes said she had free time on her hands.

"I wasn't even looking to this," she explained. "I was on the Internet one day, and the (Balkan Sunflower) Web page popped up. It just spoke to me. I filled out the application two minutes later, and now I'm on my way."

But Hughes said she believes her aspirations to help people have their roots in her Jewish ancestry.

"When I was little, I asked my mother about the Holocaust. I asked her why they didn't do anything to help when our relatives were being killed," Hughes said.

Her mother told her no one helped the victims of the Holocaust because they didn't know what was happening to them. "So ever since I was 7, I decided if this ever happened again, I would do everything in my power to help those suffering," Hughes said.

In Albania, Hughes will mainly be working with children at the campsites. Her goal is to raise $10,000 for the refugees and take as many toys as possible with her. She said she intends to raise the money by soliciting through the media, personal contacts and private organizations.

She said she has already sent out more than 350 e-mails to toy manufacturers asking for donations, and many have responded.

But she said the biggest obstacle now is getting the toys to the camps. The only planes allowed to enter Albania's Tirana Airport are under strict NATO control. She fears loading and unloading 50 cases of toys will be difficult and make her an easy target for crime.

She said the ideal situation would be for someone to donate a plane that would fly her and the toys to Germany. From there, a truck could safely transport her to the Albanian camps.

All volunteers must pay for their own travel and living expenses and take responsibility for all their fund-raising. Once they arrive at the camps, volunteers will design their own classes based on their knowledge and provide their own materials for the classes.

"I want to do something with movement and music. I just want to get the kids happy and help them forget — if even for a short time — what's been going on," Hughes said.

The Balkan Sunflower is also moving volunteers into Kosovo to set up groundwork for shelter and food before refugees actually begin returning home, Hughes said.

In the meantime, volunteers like Hughes are working toward a common goal: to aid in relief of the devastation the refugees are experiencing.

"Just knowing that I'm helping in some way — having a sense of accomplishment in raising the money and the giving of myself — that's the ultimate goal," Hughes said.

For more information on the Balkan Sunflower, visit www.ddh.nl/org/balkansunflower or contact Hughes at (713) 298-5274.

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