How a stranger from Sedona saved a family of refugees

AN ARIZONA WOMAN SAW AN IMAGE ON A TV SCREEN AND KNEW SHE HAD TO HELP. NOW A REFUGEE FAMILY HAS A NEW HOME AND A NEW LIFE.

Dianna M. Náñez , The Republic | azcentral.com

Lulzim Dulaku was 8 when the message about his papa arrived at his home in the village of Opterusha, Kosovo.

Lulzim was the only son to his parents, doted on by his two sisters. The skinny-legged boy was already better at soccer than most of his older friends and for as many hours as his mother would allow, he would kick a ball around the dirt fields of his village.

His father, Destan Dulaku, was a guest worker, an Albanian Kosovar migrant in Switzerland who left each day before sunrise to work the train lines, building a transit system for people who spoke a language he could barely understand.

Destan’s paychecks would travel the 1,800 miles over the icy Swiss Alps and across the sloping hills of Kosovo. The money was enough to feed his family, more than he could make in his home country, yet never enough to grow into savings. Soon he’d be home again, playing with his kids, wrapping his arms around his wife.

A lifetime has passed since those days in the village when Lulzim waited for his father to return. When he closes his eyes today, his eyelashes touch wrinkles deep on his skin, lines that seem to trace his 51 years. He leaves his eyes shut, as if the darkness might numb the old memory of his mother’s face. The long-ago message that had traveled a distance his father could not.

Lulzim Dulaku holds a photo of his mother and a copy of a photo of his family.
(Photo: Dianna M. Nañez/The Republic)

There had been an accident in Switzerland. Destan was working on the railroad. He died from a head injury after being hit by a train.

“I was a boy without a father,” Lulzim would say years later as he opened his soft-blue eyes.

For days after the message arrived, village neighbors came to pay their respects to the petite woman who wore a scarf to cover her hair like all the Muslim women from her village did.

Hilkije Dulaku buried her husband in the small cemetery on a hill not far from the house they had shared. Lulzim believes his mother made a silent promise to her husband as she stood on the patches of grass and dirt, praying as the earth covered his grave.

Hilkije never remarried. She took on work that most Kosovo women did not. She cared for her children and became father and mother. She thought she would grow old enough to one day see her son and daughters have children of their own, and one day she’d be buried on the hill in a grave next to her husband.

Then, war came to Kosovo. The Dulakus fled their home, traveling by night to escape armed soldiers massacring people by the thousands and waiting in makeshift camps where they watched their children go hungry. They were refugees with nowhere to go, no place to call home, until a stranger, a woman sitting six thousand miles away in Arizona, watching the humanitarian crisis unfold on the news, spotted them.

A PROMISE TO A STRANGER

On a Sunday in 1999, Joan Shannon was in her warm Sedona living room, tuned into CNN Headline News.

She watched as a crowd of refugees crossed the Kosovo border, images of human suffering amid the conflict in Kosovo that had been playing out on American media for months.

RELATED: Where do Arizona refugees come from?

NATO estimated that fighting between Serbian military and police forces and Albanian forces drove 1.5 million people, about 90 percent of the population of Kosovo, from their homes. There were 225,000 Kosovar men reported missing and at least 5,000 Kosovars being executed.

“I saw this man carrying a boy, and I think I’m going to help them.”

JOAN SHANNON

The news clip was short. In a few seconds Joan had focused on something she couldn’t shake. One man. He was carrying a child and walking with an older woman. Joan stood for a minute thinking, then she called to her husband.

“I saw this man carrying a boy, and I think I’m going to help them,” she said.

Joan’s husband stared at her for a moment, just to see if she was serious.

“How are you going to do that?” he asked. “You don’t know who they are, you don’t know where they are.”

“Yeah, I know, I just got this feeling,’” she said. “I got this feeling that this is what I ought to do.”

Joan made a promise to a refugee in Kosovo, a promise she still remembers almost 20 years later. She didn’t know the man’s name was Lulzim Dulaku or that the older woman was his mother. Or that her promise that day would forever change the family’s life.

The Dulaku family arrived in Arizona nearly 20 years ago after a Sedona woman saw them on CNN and decided she had to help. (Photo: Nick Oza/The Republic)

ESCAPING FROM THE WAR

Hilkije Dulaku was born in 1936, two decades after Serbia regained control of Kosovo from the Turks. She grew up during World War II and watched as her native Kosovo was absorbed into the Yugoslav federation.

Hilkije and Destan already had two daughters by 1965 when Lulzim was born. He was raised to understand that for Kosovo Albanians, it is tradition that the son care for his parents when they are too old to care for themselves.

Lulzim’s father was dead more than a decade when future Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic first fueled anger among Kosovo Serbs. The Serbian minority was protesting alleged discrimination and marginalization by Albanians, who far outnumbered Kosovo’s Serbian population.

Two years later, Milosevic stripped Kosovo of its constitutional autonomy. The move spurred Albanian protests across the country.

By then, Lulzim, so good at soccer, was playing professionally with other Albanians in the First League of Kosovo. He refused to play for Yugoslavia under Milosevic. He was earning enough money to care for his mother and his own growing family. But their peace would be short-lived.

In the early 1990s, neighboring Slovenia, Croatia and Bosnia broke away from Yugoslavia and declared their independence. Lulzim watched the news as war broke out across the region.

One day, special forces police came to his soccer game and told the team to stop playing. Any male old enough to fight was at risk of being killed, especially a former soccer star who had refused to pay for the Yugoslav league.

Lulzim gathered his family and fled. They took their tractor and what they could fit in a car. Before he left, he tried to brand the image of his home into his mind.

He knew what was going to happen, knew as he fled his village. He knew they would burn his home. Lulzim didn’t tell his mother. But she read the pain in his eyes.

They found their way to a refugee camp. There was no food. Lulzim’s family lived under a plastic tarp. Eventually, they heard Albania was taking refugees. If you could get a bus to the border you would be allowed to leave Kosovo. It was raining so hard the earth was mud when they walked to the bus. Lulzim carried his youngest son in his arms.

The Albanian refugee camp was flooded with families. People, young and old, were sick. They got word that an uncle back in Kosovo had been murdered. Lulzim’s children were slowly starving.

“I had to lie,” he would say years later. “I had to tell them soon we getting food.”

A FACE IN A CROWD

Destan Dulaku, 30, who is named after his grandfather, lives and works in Sedona after attending college at Arizona State University. (Nick Oza/The Republic)

For months Joan Shannon had been making calls to embassies, the U.S. State Department, ambassadors and refugee agencies. The first call was to CNN, the source of the news clip.

One person after another ignored her. Finally, a secretary took pity and referred Joan to the video department. Joan talked a man named Frank Hyland into reviewing hours of footage of Kosovo refugees.

“If it wasn’t for him finding that tape, none of this would’ve happened. I think that family had a guardian angel looking out for them.”

JOAN SHANNON

‘’It was definitely a needle in a haystack,’’ Hyland would tell The Arizona Republic in 1999. ‘’Frankly, I didn’t think she’d find them. They’re in the middle of nowhere. She’s in Arizona.”

He’d almost given up when he spotted the man and his family.

“If it wasn’t for him finding that tape,” she would say years later. “None of this would’ve happened. I think that family had a guardian angel looking out for them.”

Joan sent the tape to a computer store that captured the image of Lulzim, his youngest son and his mother. She called Albania’s largest newspaper and asked to speak with someone who spoke English. She got Lufti Dervishi.

“He thought I was crazy,” Joan would recall.

He wasn’t alone. When Joan told people what she was doing, their reactions were similar. How could she help Kosovo refugees? How would she find this one family? How would she get them here, even if she did find them?

Even now, on a December day nearly 20 years since those calls, Joan can remember her mantra.

“I said, ‘Yes, there was a lot of refugees who need help. But you could make a difference in this one family’s life, you could change the lives of this one family. Wouldn’t you want to do that if you could?’ ” she said.

‘IT’S MY PICTURE, MY FAMILY’

When the Red Cross came to the refugee camp with food, hundreds of famished people would line up for a piece of bread. Lulzim’s youngest son, Albunit, fell ill. Lulzim knew he had to take his boy to a doctor in the city.

“I see the first picture on the front, it’s my picture, my family. Some woman in the United States was looking for me.”

LULZIM DULAKU

The hospital gave his son shots and pills. On the way back to the camp, Lulzim stopped by a vendor’s stand. He asked the man to spare a newspaper, promised to share it at the refugee camp. The vendor handed him one.

“I see the first picture on the front, it’s my picture, my family,’’ Lulzim would say nearly 20 years later, his eyes growing big like he was seeing it again for the first time. “Some woman in the United States was looking for me.”

The Albanian story included instructions for the man in the photo to contact the newspaper. A woman wanted to help this man and his family. Lulzim put the newspaper down and looked at his son. He looked at the paper again. It was still there, the photo of his family in a crowd of refugees fleeing Kosovo. Lulzim called the newspaper’s office and said: I’m the man in the photo.

He was connected with Dervishi, the English-speaking reporter who had been communicating with Joan. Dervishi was skeptical at first, but eventually told Lulzim the American woman wanted to help. She had been looking for him for weeks. He told Lulzim to come see him as soon as possible. They made plans for him to visit the next day. Lulzim clutched the newspaper like it might disappear.

When he arrived at the camp, he handed it to his family. He watched them. They saw what he saw. Lulzim laughed. He hadn’t lost his mind.

TO SAFETY IN AMERICA

From left, Joan Shannon, 12-year-old Margione, father Lulzim, 4-year-old Albunit, 14-year-old Destan; mother Elmije, 10-year-old Ardian and grandmother Vikije were photographed in 1999 in Sedona.

(The Republic)

On a warm May day in 1999, Joan Shannon’s phone rang. It was the newspaperman from Albania. He asked if she wanted to speak with the man she’d been looking for.

“God, I’ve been praying,” she said.

Dervishi translated for the two strangers.

“Would you like to come to live in the United States of America?” she asked.

Lulzim answered yes before he had the chance to think about all the impossibilities. Joan asked for his bank account number so she could send him money. That question brought Lulzim back to reality.

“I don’t have a bank account,” he said. “I can’t even give you a tent number.”

Lulzim started asking questions: Do you know I have four children? Do you know I have my wife and my mother? Do you know I have no money?

Two days passed before Lulzim returned to see Dervishi. When he arrived, the newspaperman had $400 for him, money Joan sent all the way from Sedona.

“It was like $4 million,” he said. He bought food for everyone in the camp.

RELATED: Migrant kids’ 2,500-mile trek leads to Arizona schools

Several weeks passed before Lulzim and his family were given an appointment with U.S. Embassy officials. He’d never been in such a fancy building. They interviewed his family. He explained that he was a former soccer star.

“If I go back they will kill me,” he said.

Finally, in September, Lulzim and his family boarded a plane.

It was late when they arrived at the airport in Phoenix. They waited at the gate. But no one came. Lulzim remembers his mom crying.

“We’re lost,” she said. “We have no one. We will never get home.”

Lulzim tried to calm her. He told her that in America, you can call the police for help. He found an airline official. He showed her Joan’s phone number. Joan was surprised by the call. She hadn’t expected them so soon. She wasn’t ready for them.

She found them a place to stay. She called everyone she knew in Sedona. Churches, friends, business owners, strangers all volunteered to help the refugee family from Kosovo. Newspapers in Sedona and Phoenix ran the story of the family from Kosovo and the stranger who brought them to Arizona.

The Dulakus were safe, but Lulzim had to face a future in a place where he didn’t know the language or the people.

MAKING A HOME

Ardian Dulaku, 26, (front) and his brother Destan Dulaku, 30, live in Sedona with their parents.

(Nick Oza/The Republic)

Eighteen years later, the Dulakus still live in Sedona.

On a hot August day last summer, Destan and Ardian — Ardi for short — are sitting on the bleachers of the Sedona school where they first learned English and played soccer.

At 13, Destan was the oldest of the four Dulaku children when they arrived in Sedona. Lulzim had named his first son after his father. Destan and Ardi still remember the plane trip.

“We had our first soda and they fed us,” Ardi says, laughing.

“Everyone treated us like family.”

ARDI DULAKU

The brothers finish each other’s sentences as they tell stories about their grandmother and their father and what is was like to live as children through war. Ardi rests his head in his hands, remembering the soldiers who pointed guns. They linger on the stories about their grandma.

“She sacrificed everything for us,” Ardi says. “She left her home to be with us.”

The brothers say their grandmother is sick, but the family is caring for her.

Ardi and Destan have followed in their father’s footsteps working at a Sedona resort. Their younger brother is at community college and their sister is working on her graduate degree at Georgetown University. Destan went to college at Arizona State University where he met a young woman from Kosovo. They’re married now.

Ardi and Destan work together at SaltRock Southwest Kitchen in Sedona. Destan has been promoted from bartender to manager. Ardi has a steady stream of regulars who like to talk to the bartender with the slight accent.

The Dulaku children could have moved anywhere. They say Sedona is home.

“Sedona is like a village,” Destan says.

“Everyone treated us like family,” Ardi says.

“My dad finally owns his own house,” Destan says.

The boys live with their parents, sharing the bills on the family home.

A LAST PROMISE, A LAST JOURNEY

Lulzim has worked two jobs since he moved to the Arizona city known for its red rocks. He says he started bussing tables in restaurants. He learned to speak English. Today, he is a server at L’Auberge de Sedona and at Dahl and DiLuca.

“I’ve worked at L’Auberge for 18 years,” he says, standing taller than anyone else in the resort’s posh dining room, the seats draped in white, the windows overlooking the water rushing in Oak Creek Canyon.

“Lu was my first hire,” says the resort’s human resources director, Tina Littleman, smiling at the server she’s known for almost two decades. “He’s family.”

RELATED: Zana Alattar, finding purpose in helping Syrian refugees

Standing on a pathway that cuts through the resort, Lulzim laughs and points to what he calls the fancy “Beyonce” suites. Lulzim has won employee of the month more than once. He’s only stayed at the resort once, with his wife after an employee Christmas party. The room was a gift from his employer.

Lulzim has been offered promotions to manager. He kindly declines and says he loves being a server.

“I could never fire anyone,” he admits, his voice softening. “Not after the war. I can’t take someone’s job, their food away.”

Lulzim Dulaku, 51, traveled to Opterusha, Kosovo, to bury his mother.
(Photo: Lulzim Dulaku/Special for The Republic)

The Sedona sun cuts through the window of his living room as Lulzim slips his shoes off. It’s a cold January day and the clouds are heavy in the sky. Behind him, on the fireplace mantel are family photos. He picks up one of his mother.

Lulzim talks about the Albanian tradition that the son care for his parents when they are too old to care for themselves. He stares at the space in his house where his mother’s hospital bed was. He tries to hold back tears. It was sunny that September day last year, when his wife screamed. He ran.

He reached for his mother but she was already gone.

“It’s hard,” Lulzim says, wiping away tears. “Now, we have no mama.”

A few years after the Dulaku family arrived in Arizona, immigration officials told Lulzim they could apply for American citizenship. It was an easy choice for Lulzim. Not for his mother.

“She missed her village,” he says.

She sat Lulzim down and asked him to make her a promise. She told him that one day she would die. It wasn’t a conversation Lulzim wanted to have.

But Hilkije made her only son promise to bury her in the cemetery, the one not far from her old home, in a grave next to her husband.

So he made the journey once more. By October the nights are already chilly in Opterusha, Kosovo, a village in the shadow of mountains where before the fighting Serbs lived peacefully with their Albanian neighbors. Lulzim wore a heavy jacket as he stood in the patches of wild grass and dirt staring at the lopsided black-iron fencing that encases his father’s headstone.

He said he thought of all the promises his mother had kept. He pressed his hand onto the earthen mound in front of his mother’s steeple-shaped headstone, painted red and black, the colors of Albania’s flag. His mother’s grave borders his father’s.

“Hilkije Dulaku 1936–2016”

She was home.

MORE AZCENTRAL ON SOCIAL: Facebook | Twitter | Instagram | Pinterest

This article was originally published on azcentral.com. Read it here.

If you enjoyed this story, please hit the ❤ so it can be shared with more readers and visit azcentral.com for similar content.

One clap, two clap, three clap, forty?

By clapping more or less, you can signal to us which stories really stand out.