Never in his wildest dreams did Astrid Kuci believe that he would fall in love with Israel. In fact, he hardly knew anything about Israel.
"I used to know that you are a country in the Middle East which is constantly in a state of war with its neighbors. I used to think of you in terms of a large military camp," he said.
Ironically, it was war -- in his native Kosovo -- that brought Kuci, 24, to Israel.
He had just two months to go before completing his dental studies at the University of Pristina when Serbian forces moved in last April and forced thousands of Kosovar Albanians out of the province.
Driven from his home, he worked with an Israeli medical team that had been dispatched to the Stenkovec refugee camp in Macedonia. He later found himself among the 217 Kosovo refugees who received temporary shelter in Israel.
When Israeli officials first issued the invitation, they had a difficult time finding any Kosovars willing to fly to the Jewish state. Germany and the United States were far more popular havens.
On Wednesday, 145 of the refugees were scheduled to return home -- all of them now enthusiastic friends of Israel.
"All that they told me in Stenkovec about Israel is true," said Kuci, as he was escorting a group of refugee children Tuesday aboard a bus making a farewell tour of Tel Aviv. "I was lucky twice during the war. Once, that my home in Pristina was not destroyed, and, then, that I had the opportunity to get to know Israel."
Israel's Kosovo refugee aid project was launched last Passover at the initiative of Sallai Meridor, chairman of the Jewish Agency for Israel. The agency was also responsible for sending to the refugee camps in Albania and Macedonia an airlift of 12 planes loaded with humanitarian aid.
Following the successful absorption of refugees from Bosnia seven years ago, the government decided to take in Kosovar refugees as well. A first group of refugees landed in Kibbutz Ma'agan Michael on April 12. On May 26, another group was absorbed at Kibbutz Kramim.
Along with the Kosovars, Israel also absorbed some 274 Jews from elsewhere in Serbia. Most of them have returned home, but some 95 made aliyah. A group of 40 young Serb Jews now stay at the youth villages of Hadassah Neurim and Ibim in the Negev.
Seventy-two of the Kosovars -- six families -- have not yet returned home. They are planning to remain for the full six months that were granted them by the government and are expected to go home in October.
During the Kosovars' stay in Israel, two children were born -- Kosovar "sabras," as native-born Israelis are called.
Kuci came here with his entire family -- his parents, a brother and sister. During their stay, his brother, Pritom, fell in love with an Israeli army officer. Astrid reserved his love for the country itself.
"I traveled from place to place, from Eilat to Tiberias, from Haifa to Jerusalem. I just could not get enough. I had never imagined that the country was so beautiful, the people so nice."
During their stay, the refugees worked on the kibbutzim and also went on cross-country tours hosted by the Jewish Agency. Some learned Hebrew in the kibbutzim; extra classes were given to the children.
Initially, the plane bringing the Kosovars home was scheduled to leave Monday for Skopje, Macedonia. But the plane needed to fly over Egyptian air space, and Egypt refused permission.
"An hour before we were to board the plane, we were notified that the flight was postponed for two days," said Astrid Kuci. "It was very, very disappointing. I so much wanted to go home."
To make up for the delay, Israeli officials gave the Kosovars a farewell trip to Tel Aviv on Tuesday.
"I am very excited to return home, but I am also very sad. I will miss Israel," said Kuci, who then offered a comment that would be music to the ears of those Israelis who have grown weary of the decades of tensions with their Arab neighbors: "For the first time in my life, I felt peace."
Kuci, who described Israel as his "second home," also found a second family during his stay.
When the first group of Kosovars arrived in Ma'agan Michael, the local newspaper in neighboring Zichron Ya'akov published an advertisement urging local people to contribute donations to the refugees.
Shelli and Avi Mautner of Zichron Ya'acov went to the kibbutz with a parcel of donations and began talking to the refugees. First, they met Pritom Kuci, then Astrid. They invited the young Kosovars home and have been in touch ever since.
"They are like family to us," said Avi Mautner.
Astrid Kuci echoed the sentiment. "They helped me; they comforted me at a time of distress. Without them, I would not have managed."
Before leaving Israel, each of the Kosovars was given financial aid to ease their return home. Every adult received $200, every youth $100 and each of the infants got $30.
The aid came from public contributions made at the beginning of the temporary resettlement effort.
Astrid Kuci, who radiates so much love toward Israelis, possesses a far different sentiment for his Serb neighbors in Kosovo.
"One day they were friends; the next day they turned enemies," he said. "No, I am not ready to receive them again as neighbors. Not now, at least. Perhaps in the future."
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