An Opening Provided in the Midst of Chaos – Update on the Afghan boys

In our previous blog, we wrote about how the arrival of the Afghan boys were delayed with no new arrival date by the crashing of the U.S. visa database. Well, we have an update with a happy ending.

After much anticipation and due diligence from Project Life’s family and friends, in the wake of an unexpected grand system crash, an opening was provided for the three travel weary young Afghan boys, who arrived safely in the U.S on August 5th. They were welcomed into the United States by some of our staff, volunteers and WIVB News 4 of Buffalo, NY.

Afghan boys arrival

US welcome by Chris Wilson and Project Life orphans

 

Their summer activities have begun…

ESL Classes have begun

Muhammad’s first day at school with host Samuel Robinson looking on

Some summer fun

Nasratullah and Iqbal jumping at Browns Berry Patch

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Please go to our calendar to see what we are doing over the summer program.

Maida Carter
PL Volunteer
http://www.projectlife-wli.org

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Afghans stranded by visa database crash

There’s lots of talk these days about whether electronic technology is a friend or a foe. Most of us couldn’t live for long without our cell phones or computers. Here at Project Life we love the fact that we can quickly and easily share pictures and send messages to orphans who have returned to their homes halfway around the world. We can save our hard-earned donation dollars by phoning via Skype and other internet based phone services instead of using our expensive land line.

This week we are getting a taste of the downside of our world’s dependence on high tech systems. On Tuesday, after months of preparing and planning, we were supposed to be welcoming three Afghan war orphans at the Buffalo airport. Instead, the orphans are stranded in Kabul with no idea when they will receive the visas that will permit them to board a plane and join us for the summer 2014 program.

Things were going so smoothly this year! The children passed their interviews and were approved to receive visas. We purchased air tickets, and American host families launched off in a flurry of activity, getting their homes ready to provide a warm welcome to the weary travelers. It all came to an abrupt halt at 5 o’clock Sunday morning. We received an anxious call from our volunteer in Kabul who was standing outside the U.S. Embassy. Very upset and perplexed, he reported that when he went to pick up the documents at the appointed time, staff sent him away, saying that “visas won’t be issued today. You should have checked the website before coming here.”

After a little online searching, we learned that there was a very big reason why the promised visas were not forthcoming. The U.S. State Department database that handles visa and passport applications worldwide had CRASHED. The whole system was taken offline a few days prior to that 5 a.m. call from Kabul. Now, several days later, the Embassy’s website still opens at a page where you are told that “The Department of State Bureau of Consular Affairs is currently experiencing technical problems with our visa system. We are operating at a significantly reduced capacity and will be until we clear the document backlog.” The problem is affecting hundreds of thousands of applications around the world.

At the moment we have no idea how long the delay will be. While two Caucasus orphans have already enjoyed two weeks in western New York, three very needy Afghan children are just hoping they won’t lose the opportunity to come here this summer. This includes Nasrat who visited us last season and is just recovering from a serious eye disease. He needs to be seen soon by his ophthalmologist here in the U.S. And the two new boys, Iqbal and Mohammed, both suffer from health problems, poor living conditions, and the loss of parents and other close family members. They desperately need a break from their difficult situations. We know they will thrive in the healing environment of Project Life.

This is one of those things that are completely out of our control. We saw news reports indicating that once embassies get back online, they will give higher priority to certain kinds of visa applications (adoptions, for example). In order to ensure that our three applications get the urgent attention they deserve, we have engaged Senator Chuck Schumer’s office in contacting staff in Kabul to push things along for us.

Delving deeper into news stories I learned that the State Department database has been plagued with problems for months. It actually crashed just after being shut down for maintenance a couple of weeks ago. I couldn’t help noticing that the system that crashed was developed by the technology giant Oracle. The CEO of Oracle has been publicly criticized for receiving more that $75 million a year in a combination of salary and stock options, much more than the CEO’s of other large companies. I also noted that the federal government has plans to do much more business with the corporation in the coming years.

People of faith tend to have the attitude that things happen for a reason, even if it’s one that can’t be discerned immediately. The ancient Greek word oracle may be defined as “an authoritative or wise expression or answer,” or “a person giving wise or authoritative decisions or opinions.” There is very little we can do except wait in hopeful expectation that the visa logjam will be cleared in time for the boys to travel this summer. Right now, the reason or purpose for this frustrating delay eludes us. We feel it would require the wisdom of an oracle to explain it.

 

Nasrat's eye condition makes him shield eyes with brim of cap and squint into camera

Nasrat’s eye condition makes him shield eyes with brim of cap and squint into camera on arrival last summer

After two months here he was well on his way to good health but needs more medical attention

After two months here he was well on his way to good health but needs more medical attention

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

For more information about the database crash, visit:
http://rt.com/usa/176892-us-visa-ccd-crashed/

http://www.pcadvisor.co.uk/news/enterprise/3534079/almost-200000-people-may-have-been-affected-by-us-visa-system-crash/

http://www.computerworld.com/s/article/9249958/State_Dept._database_crash_leads_to_passport_visa_delays

 

Deborah Wilson, Deputy Director
Project Life War Orphans
http://projectlife-wli.org

 

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We will fly till our last flight to serve humanity

Every once in a while someone—an individual or an organization—catches the Project Life “bug”.

For those of us who have been living and breathing the program for years, it is a pleasant surprise to find that someone else “gets” the program on a deeper level.  Grasping the meaning of the program can cause people to make life-changing decisions.

Project Life has been built over the years by a large family of volunteers.  They act as hosts, teachers, drivers, coaches, tour guides, shoulders to cry on, and yes, even cooks and bottle washers.  Many volunteers who were with us at our beginnings in 1997 have passed their sense of commitment and dedication down to their own children, who are forming a renewed base of supporters in our local community.

The common thread among us all is that we realize that being involved with the orphans helps us as much as it helps them.  We have come to see that the process of working with these children can transform our own lives.

In spring 2013 we were delighted to welcome The Voice Gavel Club into the Project Life fold.  This remarkable group of high school students is not from our region.  They hail from the Toronto area.  Last year they devoted their Humanitarian Leadership activities to raising funds for Project Life at a classy, action-packed, and very articulately presented gala covered in last April’s blog posting.

But it wasn’t until last month, when15 Gavel Club members and their chaperones made the trip from north of Toronto to our program center in western New York, that the “aha!” moment actually occurred.  They had decided to organize a Gala Event for us once again this April. The group of affluent young people could have spent the day shopping at the mall or hanging out with their friends.  Instead, they visited Project Life to gain inspiration in their fundraising efforts.  By the end of that day their thoughts and feelings about the program had been transformed into deeper personal commitment.

They shared their reflections at the next Gavel Club meeting.  Some were inspired to change their own lives.  One young man said he was moved to try to taste the suffering of war orphans by sleeping on the floor instead of in his comfortable bed.  A young woman expressed her shame at being an “entitled” member of her own family, who shower her with gifts and special foods.  Now she hopes to spend more time working on behalf of those in need.

Others were inspired to speak of what Gavel Club members could do as a group. One young woman saw how she could apply what she had learned about the lives of war orphans in Project Life directly to the goal of presenting a successful event.  She speaks movingly of how she came to believe that each member “Must be like a falcon.  We must soar farther.”

The Voice is a public speaking club, and their very affecting and heartfelt speeches which reflect on the visit were captured on video.  Their own pictures and words say it best. 

Please take a few moments to listen and watch at: http://www.thevoicegavelclub.com/#!reflection-project-life/c1lj3.

With such beautiful feelings and images echoing in my thoughts, I urge all who read this to help make this year’s Gala event a truly soaring success.  Please help the Gavel Club falcons fly higher and farther by ordering tickets at http://www.thevoicegavelclub.com/

If you can’t make it on Saturday, April 26, please make a donation or offer your support via this website.

 

Deborah Wilson, Deputy Director
Project Life War Orphans
http://projectlife-wli.org

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Conference in North Caucasus celebrates 15 years of friendship

Six Project Life volunteers traveled to the Caucasus in May to celebrate 15 years of humanitarian collaboration. The American Caucasus Conference (ACC) was a chance to re-unite orphans who had attended Project Life over the years with voluntary staff from the Waterport program. The conference was co-sponsored by the Foundation for Assistance to Formerly Displaced People, the Nazran-based agency that works to select needy orphans.

Housing conditions in the Nazran area

Housing conditions in the Nazran area

Tour of housing conditions in the Nazran area

Tour of housing conditions in the Nazran area

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“The purpose was to celebrate 15 years of cross-cultural cooperation and programs. We wanted to assemble the orphans all in one place to see what Project Life meant to them and how they are doing now. We also wanted to send a message of hope and harmony to the people of the North Caucasus who continue to suffer,” said Project Life Director Linda Redfield.

Volunteers in Ingushetia and Chechnya were able to contact almost all of the orphans who had been to the States since 1998 and invite them to attend. Meanwhile, U.S. volunteers visited families who had hosted orphans over the years to videotape their recollections. “It was a reminder of the deeply meaningful relationships that were formed and which in some cases continue to this day via the internet,” said Redfield.

The conference was held in meeting rooms in the Hotel Nazran on May 21. Twenty-five orphans who had attended Project Life over the years 1998 to 2012 were present along with their families to re-unite with Project Life personnel. Orphans ranging in age from their mid-twenties down to 12 reminisced and paid tribute to Project Life. Many of their family members also spoke about the enduring value of the experience.

ACC speakers flanked by orphans in Nazran, Ingushetia

ACC speakers flanked by orphans in Nazran, Ingushetia


One of the highlights of the day was a collection of photos gathered from all the years of the program that hung on the wall of the conference room. Volunteers had selected the images so that each orphan was represented in at least one. Albion N.Y. photographer and host dad Idris Salih reprinted the original small images into an 8 x 10 format. Orphans and their families enjoyed many moments gathered around the display, recalling their trip to the U.S.

In the Nazran area, Project Life’s delegation followed a jam-packed schedule that included a VIP type welcome at the airport, a visit to the Memorial Museum, and programs at the University English Club and a public school. There was a visit to the studio of the artist who painted The Road to Life, a painting depicting refugees fleeing the mountains in previous decades, and an open-air folkloric dance performance. The whole group was enveloped in the hospitality of the Caucasus, enjoying many wonderful meals with orphans’ families and local dignitaries.

After the official conference the group proceeded to neighboring Grozny, Chechnya, to catch up with even more children and their families.

Deborah Wilson, Deputy Director
Project Life War Orphans
http://projectlife-wli.org

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Youth Serving Youth Fundraiser

Project Life extends many thanks to The Voice Gavel Club of Markham, Ontario for organizing the very successful Youth Serving Youth fundraiser Saturday, April 6. Proceeds have now topped $23,000!

The event was a combination dinner, art auction, and fashion show held at the Markham Hilton, north of Toronto. About 220 people enjoyed a four-course meal, auction of paintings and sculpture, and an “ethnic fusion” show featuring clothing by contemporary Canadian designers.

Gavel Club members, all high school students in the Markham area, hosted and emceed the entire event with enthusiasm and dedication. Arriving guests were ushered into a reception area to enjoy wonderful hors d’oeuvres and juices. During this time, Project Life volunteers were interviewed by local media and had a chance to speak to Gavel
Club members and their parents about the orphans program.

View of banquet hall

View of banquet hall

From there the action moved into a large, beautifully decorated banquet hall. The lights went down and Gavel Club members gave heartfelt, passionate speeches about the plight of world orphans. Project Life Director Linda Redfield Shakoor and WLI Canada VP Chris Wilson spoke about Project Life’s mission and its work with orphans of war, while a PowerPoint slide show played on two large screens.

Linda speaking at podium

Linda speaking at podium

Seated at the VIP table were the Mayor of Markham, Frank Scarpitti, Regional Councillor Joe Li, and a representative from Member of Parliament Jim Karygiannis’ office. All of them spoke from the podium and commended the young people for their remarkable effort on behalf of children of war.

Mayor Scarpitti at podium

Mayor Scarpitti at podium

Markham is an ethnically diverse city of 310,000 just north of Metro Toronto. Almost all the Gavel Club members are of Chinese heritage, so parts of the presentations were interpreted into Chinese for the benefit of the dinner guests.

Once the formal presentations were completed, it was time to shift gears. Guests were treated to a multimedia extravaganza—music, lights, and a rainbow of fabrics—starting with traditional Chinese dresses, and moving on to the most up-to-date styles for today’s youth by three Canadian designers. All of the young models had dedicated many nights rehearsing to get the show ready. The modeling school gave all services to the Gavel Club free of charge.

Traditional Chinese garments/fashion show

Traditional Chinese garments/fashion show

Finale of fashion show

Finale of fashion show

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

After a lovely meal the final item on the agenda was an art auction. Gavel Club President Bruce Wu outdid himself as auctioneer, egging guests on to increase their bids for the sake of the cause.

Club President Bruce Wu auctioning art works

Club President Bruce Wu auctioning art works

Project Life voluntary staff were left almost speechless by the inspired way that Gavel Club members spoke on behalf of world orphans. “I’m a veteran public speaker,” Chris Wilson said. “But these young people were really a hard act to follow!”

Media links (Markham Chinese community news): Bruce’s speech, the Mayor’s speech
and Fashion Show and Auction.

Click here to find out more about Gavel Clubs

Deborah Wilson
Assistant Director, Project Life
http://projectlife-wli.org

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The American-Caucasus Conference and Fundraiser

Project Life, in collaboration with the Foundation for Assistance to Formerly Displaced People, has organized The American-Caucasus Conference which will be held in the Northern Caucasus from May 21st – May 23rd of 2013.

International representatives of World Life Institute will reunite with children who visited the United States for two month periods from 1998-2012 in Project Life’s War Orphans Rehabilitation program. Community and social workers, teachers, government staff and friends are invited to come in the spirit of building trust across continents.

The conference will focus on the research and experiences of professors, representatives from humanitarian organizations, students and volunteers who are passionate about the history, culture and current reality of the Northern Caucasus. Special attention will be focused on humanitarian efforts in the region, specifically pertaining to peace, hope and future endeavors. A main objective of The American-Caucasus Conference is to provide citizens of the Northern Caucasus with the opportunity to present compelling material and ideas which will be internationally recognized.  Click here to view the American-Caucasus Conference brochure.

The Youth Serving Youth-The Voice Gavel Club of Markham Ontario, Canada will hold its first charity fundraiser in support of Project Life on Saturday April 6th 2013. The event will include an art auction featuring pieces by famed Italian American artist Lorenzo Ghiglieri, four course dining, several informational presentations and more. See attached brochure for more details and how to become a sponsor. Sponsorship Request.

Thank you,

Project Life Team
http://projectlife-wli.org

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Bighearted D.C. group gives grand welcome to orphans

Special thanks go to Washington based volunteer Natkai Akbar and her neighbors and friends for giving the orphans two days of marvelous activities in the nation’s capital.  Natkai’s group injected new excitement into Project Life with their generosity, enthusiasm and selfless spirit!

Natkai moved to the U.S. from Afghanistan when she was a child, and is currently a graduate student. Her background gives her a special interest in war orphans. She joined Project Life several times during D.C. area picnics and canoe rides in previous years.

But in summer 2011 she took her interest to a whole new level. Natkai and her neighbors and friends washed so many cars that they were able to fully sponsor two fun-filled days for the Project Life visitors.

DC Trip

Natkai Akbar, far right middle row, along with friends and neighbors at a water park with Project Life orphans and volunteers summer 2012

The first day, the group invited Project Life to join them at the Washington National Aquarium for an enjoyable two hour tour. After this the group was treated to lunch at the nearby Ronald Reagan building. And that wasn’t all! Somehow Natkai’s group had managed to conceal the fact that they were carrying backpacks which they presented to the orphans, chock full of toys, school supplies, and personal items.

The next day everyone traveled to Virginia and spent the full day at a water park. Again lunch, snacks and bags of goodies were provided. The group spent a lovely day along with Natkai, her friends and some relatives too.

Written By: Deborah Wilson
Assistant Director, Project Life
http://projectlife-wli.org

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The Simple Gifts

By Dena Adler

Travel opens us up to discovery of the great diversity of this universe.   While that diversity may encompass the worlds of technology or architecture, this summer during Project Life what touched me most was the simple gifts we share among hosts and guests.  On one activity day a group of adolescents from local schools, the four children from Ingushetia and Chechnya, and young volunteers and adults in the program representing various cultures and religions sat in a circle.  Before us, in the center, we had collected a variety of breads from around the world.

The naan had been freshly made that morning by a teen from Afghanistan hosted here within Project Life.   He could not attend, but his sister brought the warm bread to share; to taste his naan is a rich sensory experience in itself.  In an exercise asking, “What is something you have never done before?” a teen from Albion, NY stated, “I have never made bread before.” Those words showed such gratitude, respect and appreciation.  May the simple gift of bread show us how alike we are; may the breaking of bread bring us together.

The young orphans traveling to the U.S., so far away from their homes, take a big risk at an early age.  While we sometimes sense the courage within them, my heart opens when they allow themselves to shed tears that all can see.   My family lives very close to the airport and as a result we have been delighted over the past several years to host the weary children for their first night and morning in America.  It begins with trepidation as two lapping dogs jump to greet them; they are quickly faced with a new experience as dogs tend to be street animals in their country.

Watching young Linda grow: One of the dearest experiences for me this summer was watching how young Linda grew.  For much of her first 24 hours here, she cried.  With little language between us, it was touch, coloring and homemade “blini” that seemed to bring some rest to her sad and anxious little soul.   As the summer went on, she forged relationships and threw herself into the program activities, eventually showing her spunky and adventurous personality.  In our goodbyes at the airport, she shed many tears, as deep and sorrowful as when she first arrived.   She had deeply connected with her friends here at Project Life.

During the previous week Linda had shared parts of her life story out loud, speaking in Russian so that she could be descriptive and clear.  It was so valuable to have a translator share her words to best represent what was in Linda’s heart.   During that session, Linda told us that even if we did not think that she understood us, she did.   To me, that is a powerful statement that symbolizes the simple essence of our shared humanity.

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War Orphans Program Needs Financial Support

Since launching this blog Project Life volunteers have been deeply touched to receive messages from organizations all over the world seeking support for desperately needy children and families.  We are always in the process of fund raising for our own activities.   Project Life,  very regrettably, is not able to support or make donations to any other programs or projects, no matter how worthy they are.

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Returning to Chechnya

Welcome to our brand new blog! In it, we’ll be featuring stories about the 14th annual Project Life War Orphans Program!

I just returned from Chechnya in mid-May where I visited with orphans from last summer’s program as well as orphans we served in 1998 and 1999!

I’d like to focus on one boy by the name of Halim, who came in summer 2009 with three other Chechen orphans. He came to us at age 10 full of sweetness. I didn’t have the privilege of meeting him prior to his coming to the U.S. I only knew that he came from an extremely impoverished family and that he had lost his father.

Every Friday during the program at our school, World Life Institute Education Center (WLIEC) in Waterport, N.Y., we have home phone call day. I stood close by on one of the first phone calls as Halim choked up and tears filled his eyes when he heard his mother’s voice. The phone call, while offering some level of comfort of everything that was familiar, also turned into a painful recollection of poverty, loss, and anxiety. Here was carefree play, enough of every kind of food, strawberries (it was early July), acres of fruit trees, free ice cream, and play equipment nearby, no soldiers ….peace. I could hear an anxious adult voice at a higher pitch than usual. It was typical for some mothers to “worry” their children with their stresses although far away. His little body shook and his voice went several octaves higher. He couldn’t help himself from breaking down in tears. He hung up the phone and anxiously stayed nearby as the others made their phone calls.

Soon enough Halim and the other children rallied to enjoy a trip to Washington, meeting and playing with new friends, learning English, engaging in therapeutic art activities and of course a little computer interaction! He left with the other children two and a half months later with new skills, and a childhood restored. As always the departures were a mixture of excitement to reunite with family and sadness to leave behind many new found friends and experiences.

As part of our volunteer effort, we travel back to the war-damaged areas of the world to visit with the families of the children served in our program and to select new children for the following year. I had the great privilege once again to embark on this journey that would bring this and more before and after stories together. After a 12 hour flight half way around the world to Moscow and then three hours on a regional air carrier (traveling in what seemed like a flying washing machine), my fellow traveler and Project Life supporter Mirjam, and I touched down on terra firma in the Caucasus region of Russia.

I didn’t expect to be met by any orphan in the small airport. I caught my breath, as we saw a now eleven year old Halim, seven months later, jumping up and down and holding 5 of the biggest red roses I have seen.

Muslim jumping up and down with 5 huge red roses

Halim and his mother meeting us at the airport.

Last fall after Halim returned to Chechnya from our program his mom said during a telephone call from our office, “We live in a shelter. There is no money for toys for any children. Before my son left for America he would dream about even having a ball to play with.” As she spoke an image came before my eyes of his days kicking a soccer ball here at a local park. Such an ordinary experience to us was something extraordinary for him. “When he came back from America he felt like SUPERMAN,” she continued. “At age 10, he feels like he has done something very important in his life. He has completely changed. I am happy and he is happy.”

After leaving the airport I watched him through our car window walking home as we drove into the dusty, economically deprived republic. He walked slowly but I could feel his contentment. That evening we were driven to a refugee village. He greeted us on the long bumpy road on his bike. I thought we were going to his shelter. But much to my amazement, Halim announced that he was moving into a new home! He took us there and inside waiting for us was a feast. Before we could sit down Halim grabbed my arm pointing to some stairs and gave us a tour of an unfinished second floor- I think his future bedroom. Our driver rushed us through the meal. It was getting dark.

Without much translation that evening, I began to see how this unusual story was coming together. There was no electricity in the new house yet and that explained why we were being rushed through the meal. Soon it would be dark in the village which consists of as yet new, unoccupied homes. But Halim (and his mother) desperately wanted to show us their great fortune and honor us by serving a meal there.
I asked how his English was progressing. His mother happily announced that some Japanese visitors who spoke English came to Halim’s school. It is a rare occurrence in Chechnya. Halim was their translator!

I wanted to see the home where he currently lives. He showed me a picture of the shelter to which he would return that evening, awaiting the completion of the new house.

Muslim lives here above with his family

Halim lives in this small hut with his family.

Now in 2010, after his summer in America, Muslim proudly shows off his new home

Halim outside the house he will move into soon.

My mind tried to take in everything as I looked between the small hut and the beautifully arranged banquet in front of us. How could he have lived in this tiny shelter (shown above) all of his life with 5 older siblings? And on the practical side how could he and his mother come to the airport, walk home, prepare this feast, get it delivered, several more kilometers away somehow without a car, only to have not even 30 precious minutes with us?

I looked in a corner of the room near the door. I saw one of his suitcases from America, still packed so many months later! I understood now there was room for those new belongings in this new house. My throat was closing as I was trying to eat.

The feast prepared for us at nightfall

The beautiful feast that was spread for us at dusk in the new house.

It is not the first time that we have seen lives change after a child returns from America. Before my very eyes was a young boy who a year ago had not imagined how his life might change.

I asked him did he want to stay in Chechnya? Rarely do I ask that question of children who have returned home, fearing that I might have to disappoint them. But in this case I had a sense of what his answer would be. “Oh yes! I’m happy here” he said in perfect English. I handed him a new cap with a Superman logo. He threw his arms around me and gave me one last kiss and hug.

Linda Redfield Shakoor,
Director, Project Life

I look forward to receiving comments on this blog site!
Please visit again soon to hear many more stories from my recent trip to Chechnya.
(To protect identity of children and their families we do not use their real names)
Don’t forget to look at our new website!! www.projectlife-wli.org

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