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.
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.
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.
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