Features

From cook to caregiver

International

Issue: "The first straw," Aug. 28, 1999

Like many Americans who watched the suffering of Kosovo refugees on the nightly news, Pren Nreca was shocked and angered by what he saw. But Mr. Nreca also had a personal stake in those images. His father had come to the United States from Kosovo 28 years ago, and the family had heard a report that a relative had been shot and killed by Serb troops.

Mr. Nreca, a chain-smoking, fast-talking, Cadillac-driving short-order cook from inner-city Detroit, felt he couldn't simply ignore it.

When he heard that members of the Kosovo Liberation Army were coming to raise money and sign up recruits at his church, St. Paul's Catholic, he decided he would join up.

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His brother talked him out of it. "He said, 'Look, you're a cook. You don't have any military experience. Those Serbs are all seven feet tall; they're experienced; they're killers; you won't last a week against them,'" said Mr. Nreca. "I gave that idea up, but I still felt I had to do something."

A TV ad appealing for funds to help the Albanian refugees gave him an opportunity. But when relief workers learned that he spoke Albanian, they wanted more than his money. Mr. Nreca ended up traveling to Albania in June, working as an interpreter in a refugee camp. His language skills made him a key player in daily operations. He also assumed the unassigned role of big brother to any refugee in need. Day or night he was out in the camp making sure refugees got clothes, hygiene kits, or medical attention.

When camps in Albania began to close and the refugees returned to Kosovo, Mr. Nreca joined a food distribution project and began working to rebuild homes. In the small village of Marmel, just outside Gjakova, he also reunited with his father's family. The report of his relative's death turned out to be true. The rest of his family's hometown, however, had been spared.

Mr. Nreca says the experience has made him think about changing his own life. "I live near a rough area in Detroit," he said. "I had seen a lot of bad stuff back home, and I didn't feel like there was much I could do about it. But here I've been able to do something good. I'm amazed at how much people appreciate anything I do for them."

Now he is thinking about leaving his short-order cook days behind. He wants to work in service projects or to manage his own restaurant.

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