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PRESEVO, Serbia — The plight of the refugees flooding this gritty border town hits a bit close to home — an unlikely kinship that has been spurring the locals into action.
The predominantly ethnic Albanian town of Presevo is the first port of call in Serbia for refugees who’ve crossed the border from Macedonia — an exodus that has stirred up still painful memories from the Kosovo war in the late 1990s.
“I was a refugee,” local supermarket worker Driton Redzepi said. “We are Albanians.”
Deep-seated resentments remain between minority ethnic Albanians and Serbians here due to the 1998-1999 conflict. Serbia also has refused to recognize Kosovo’s 2008 declaration of independence, and tensions have intermittently boiled over in the region since then.
Redzepi, who is in his 20s, said he was forced to flee Presevo at the height of the war and was grateful to America for helping Kosovo at the time.
Now, he said, it’s his turn to help those in similarly horrific circumstances — which is why he spent 2,000 euros ($2,230) to fill a large van with water and juice for the mostly-Syrian masses now in his town.
He and two of his coworkers came down to hand out the drinks. When the migrants and refugees saw the truck, they raced to clamor for bottles of water and juice. Sweating under the 99 degree heat, the colleagues ripped through case after case of beverages — sometimes throwing them out the back door to outstretched hands.
“We've got to help people,” Redzepi explained. “You feel it in your heart.”
At various points of the day men jump out of cars, pop the trunks and hand out cases of water. Business owners stroll outside to hand out sweets. Not everyone is friendly to the new and exhausted arrivals from countries like Syria and Afghanistan — one local homeowner called the police on migrants who took a seat too close to his front yard.
Many locals though said that as ethnic Albanians — a minority which has suffered at the hands of Serbs — they could see themselves in the eyes of the refugees currently in the town.
Xhemaledin Jahiu — who lives in Switzerland but has his family in Presevo — was one of them. After seeing the hordes of migrants and refugees in the town on this visit home, he went to the store and bought 200 euros ($223) worth of water.
“I am helping them because we are Albanians — we had the same situation,” he said. “When we were at war we had the same situation.”
It took him less than 10 minutes to hand out the bottles from his sedan; they went quickly. Jahiu said it hurt his heart to see so many women and children were making the exodus through this Serbian town and beyond.
“I’ve been like these people,” he told NBC News, gesturing around him to the thousands of refugees sitting, sleeping and waiting around him in the street outside an immigration processing center. “I have children and I have to help."