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War orphans

A Western New York program helps kids be kids again


In late summer, you drive along Waterport's winding country roads past fields of tall corn swaying in the breeze. Kids hang out on the small bridge spanning LakeAlice while several men lazily cast their fishing lines nearby. The town's peaceful, nobody's in a hurry, and there doesn't seem to be much trouble of any kind. It's about as far from a war zone as can be imagined.

But tucked back slightly from a country road not far from LakeAlice is an octagonal building that's the headquarters for the Project Life, which helps orphaned children from former war zones. They've survived the horrors of war in countries like Afghanistan, Bosnia, and Chechnya.

Some of them have lived for years in bombed-out basements or refugee camps; their parents have been murdered; massacres have occurred in their villages. For three months each summer, Project Life* brings orphans to Waterport to give them a break from that life. As Linda Redfield, the executive director, says, "We let kids be kids again."

Project Life is part of World Life Institute, whose mission is to improve and enrich life. The program got its start in 1992, when MuhyiShakoor, the Chair of Counselor Education at SUNY Brockport and vice president of WLI, traveled to Croatia for a conference. While there, he witnessed some of the atrocities perpetrated by Serbian troops on the people of Croatia and Bosnia.

Shakoor's voice, which is normally soft and measured, becomes even softer and fills with pain as he speaks about what he saw there. "Refugees were fleeing across Croatia into Zagreb, about 800,000 refugees," he says. "People were arriving by bus or on foot carrying their few possessions. They brought the smell of war and the fear and pain of it. Some had fled from a village where half of the residents had been slaughtered. Some had lost children, some had been beaten, boy children had been castrated, girls were being raped. I was seeing the results of war just by being there."

He returned to the US, he says, "in a state of shock," unable to speak for monthsabout what he'd seen. When he did speak about it, people often simply walked away, feeling there was no hope.

Despite the horrors and a continuing war, Shakoor returned to Croatia and went to Bosnia, where his wife, Linda Redfield, joined him. As they toured cities that had been attacked, people told them their stories. "They wanted the world to know," says Shakoor. After visiting schools, some of which had been bombed or shot up, they decided they needed to do something to help the children. Back in the US, Shakoor and Redfield met with others from WLI. "We all talked about it and came up with the idea to bring the kids here," says Shakoor.

From the beginning, the program had clear guidelines about who they would accept and what they would offer. "We define an orphan as having at least one parent lost," says Redfield. "They must have an extended family. We do not take children from orphanages, because we feel it would be too cruel to take them out of that institution, place them in a family environment for a time, and then return them to that institution." They also don't take children from countries where wars are continuing. Project Life doesn't pick the children, relying instead on teachers or social workers in refugee camps to make the selections.

The program's founders decided that children would live with host families near Waterport and attend daily classes at the organization's headquarters. There would be English and art classes, a daily recreational activity like swimming or soccer, and trips. The children would stay for three months: enough time for them to gain some knowledge of English and to rebuild their health and spirits but short enough so that overly-strong bonds didn't form between them and host families.

Despite the organizers' best intentions and an apparently workable program, it took several trips to Bosnia to gain the trust of a parent or relative, to say nothing of the government. "Their experience was that Americans would steal the orphans," says Redfield. "They wanted to know: 'What was specifically planned? Was it for fun or education?' We told them our goal is to educate them at least with English. They were glad that the program had specific goals. I'd tell them we want to help the children be good Bosnians, not Americans."

In 1997, the first group of orphans --- five boys from a small village outside of Sarajevo --- arrived. "That village had 70 percent of the men killed or wounded during the war," says Redfield.

Their arrival brought plenty of surprises for the program. "We were all a little naïve," says Deborah Wilson, assistant director of the program and a Waterport resident. "They were a little more hardened and toughened and reserved than we thought they would be. We thought they'd be shy. They kind of challenged us... were kind of aggressive. It came from their high anxiety about being in a totally different situation without any language skills, being alone. It was basically sink or swim."

Those boys seemed younger than their years, and that's been true for most of the orphans. The children in the program are between 8 and 12 years old, and most are physically smaller than their American peers. They also tend to act younger, enjoying toys meant for younger children. Wilson recalls that the two boys she hosted in 1977--- Almadin and Elvir, who were 11 and 12 --- enjoyed playing with her 3-year-old son's toys.

"We realized they'd missed out on normal childhood experiences," says Wilson. What they did experience was several years of shelling in Sarajevo, which left them with a fear of loud noises. Whenever there was a thunderstorm, the boys hid behind a chair or under a table.

In the US, where some parents won't let their children walk to the corner store unescorted, it's stunning to think that a parent or grandparent would let their child travel thousands of miles and stay with complete strangers for three months. "It's a real leap of faith," says Wilson. "We take it seriously that widows or grandparents are letting them go. It speaks volumes, because they obviously want more for their children. This program provides what they can't."

Families wanting to be hosts undergo background checks, provide references, and must live within a comfortable drive of the organization's headquarters so the children can attend daily classes. Project Life pays all expenses to get the children here. And although hosts provide food and clothing, Project Life often receives donations to cover those costs, and the donations are passed on to the hosts.*

Taking in an orphan would present a challenge to any family. Taking in one who has survived a war, doesn't speak English, and has experienced some of the worst that life can offer is way beyond challenging. And yet the program has not only been able to find host families (although there's always a need for more), but the families say they get more out of the program than do the children they're helping.

Albion residents Alana and BilalHuzair have helped with the program since its inception, Alana teaching music and Bilal coaching a bit of soccer. They live in a smallish apartment and have five children of their own, and an assortment of cousins and friends are always dropping by unannounced. But this year they decided to take in Sabir and Jaan, two Afghan boys, despite space already being at a premium.

"There was a need to help with kids in the program," says Alana, matter-of-factly. "We figured, we have five of our own; two more can't be much more difficult."

The two --- Sabir and Jaan, both 10 --- are from small villages, and both lost their fathers in the war with the Russians when they were 7. Bilal wasn't sure why or how their fathers were killed but said that they were poor farmers. Although the boys didn't know each other before coming to the US, they have become best friends.

They fit in well with the Huzair family, playing with the younger children and learning about computers and cell phones from the older ones. Like any children their age, they want to learn about video games, too. But, says Bilal, "We try to keep them away from junk." Dinner at the Huzairs' is best described as organized chaos as seven kids jockey for places at the table, arms making lightning quick strikes at a large bowl of rice. As predicted, a cousin or two wanders in and squeezes in as another plate is brought out.

Although they speak only a few words of English, Sabir and Jaan are able to communicate by pointing and sign language, and they quickly learned the most important of parental words: "no." The family has learned some new words, too. The Huzairs took the children to a county fair this summer, and after going on a ride, Sabir and Jaan shouted "zabardust." It's the Afghan word for "exquisitely excellent," says Bilal, and it quickly became the family's favorite expression of delight.

While Sabir and Jaan are being given a break from the trauma of living in a post-war country and are learning some English, they and their extended families are quietly doing some teaching of their own. "My kids learned to share everything," says Bilal. "These guys have no sense of ownership. There's no such thing as 'mine.' When we saw the kids [in Afghanistan], we learned how little we need to survive. We really don't need many possessions."

"The struggle of working for this item or that things isn't nearly as important as the joy of family," says Alana. Another Waterport resident, Patricia Nureddin, who has hosted Bosnian boys, made a trip to Bosnia. "That trip changed my way of looking at things," she says. "It made me even more generous, more patient because of the generosity they showed me."

The program clearly has a profound effect on all those involved. The children who come into it have faced a litany of horrors: a father killed in a shoot-out in a government office, a mother killed in a bus bombing, both parents killed when their house was shelled, a father killed while kneeling to pray, living in the basement of a bombed-out house for four years. The change after just a few weeks is remarkable. Children who were reticent or angry when they first arrived blossom. They laugh and scream during games --- and, yes, argue loudly, too --- and break into huge grins when praised or hugged. They are, after all, children.

"We feel the program is the healing," says Redfield. "The program succeeds because we look to the psychological needs of the kids and not the material. The material things aren't going to last. When a child of war sees all these people --- churches, host families --- 30 people intensively focused on helping kids get better during these three months, it speaks volumes to the child. Before, they only had a grandmother or mother. Now all these people are showing their love and treating him like a person."

A key part of the program and a key part of building trust is keeping the promise to return the orphans to their families. It's also the most difficult part of the program. Knowing that they're going back to a parent or family that loves them eases the pain of parting.

"I was sending him home to his mother," says Carla Wahls of Batavia, who has hosted a number of children. "It doesn't matter where that is. You have to be with your mother. This is the most important bond in life."

Redfield, who has been seeing children leave for seven years, knows the difficulty of letting them go. "Your heart breaks when you have to part," she says, "yet at the same time, it's a wonderful feeling that you've made a positive change in that child's life."

Redfield and most host families keep in contact with the children by e-mail or letters, and she has seen many of them on her visits to their countries. All of the children who have been through the program --- 80 so far --- are doing well in their home countries, she says. All are safe and in good health. Most are in school; some have used skills learned in the program to help their villages or camps, and six have returned to the US as students.

All serve as unofficial ambassadors for the program, and they help convince other families to allow their children to participate. The staff plans to expand the scope of the program from serving war orphans to serving orphans from natural disasters as well. They hope to bring children orphaned by Hurricane Katrina as well as those orphaned by the tsunami in Sri Lanka last December.

The program requires a lot of people doing a lot of work, all of it for free. It can be overwhelming for the host families, the children, and the staff, yet there's clearly something special about the program and those involved, a sense of a higher purpose. Asked why she does this work, Redfield says, "I just want to dedicate my life to doing as much good as I can." Zabardust.

Project Life has asked that children be identified by their first names only and that their villages be unnamed. You can reach representatives of the program at Project Life, 13302 Stillwater Road, Waterport14571; 585-682-0730. On the internet, go to the website of the program's parent organization,; click on "Project Life."

* The original version of this article incorrectly called the program the "World Orphans Rehabilitation Program." That's the subtitle of the Project Life program. In addition, the original article incorrectly stated that host families pay to bring children here.