Celebrating 20 years of welcoming war orphans for summers in Orleans County

Photos by Tom Rivers: This photo shows supporters of Project Life gathered Sunday for a 20th anniversary party for the program. The program has welcomed 131 children, including three that have stayed longer term due to medical issues. Two of the children in the program are pictured in front center. Fauzia Aajan arrived in 2004. She graduated No. 7 in Lyndonville's high school class sin 2014. She is entering her final year at the University of Buffalo where she is majoring in early childhood education. Mohammad Meer is entering eighth grade in Albion. He plays on the soccer team and is vice president of the middle school student council. He has a life-threatening blood disorder that requires blood transfusions every three weeks.

By Tom Rivers, Editor Posted 17 August 2017 at 12:08 am

Project Life has embraced 131 children from Bosnia, Afghanistan, Chechnya and Sri Lanka

WATERPORT – It was 20 years ago when five boys from Bosnia arrived to spend the summer in Orleans County. The boys had all lost fathers to war.

They arrived shy and a little underweight. They left 10 weeks later, knowing English, more confident and with some added pounds from being so well fed.

The World Life Institute has run Project Life for 20 years, welcoming 131 children for summers of respite. The children have all lost parents to wars in Bosnia, Chechnya and Afghanistan. Project Life also welcomed orphans after the tsunami in Sri Lanka.

This photo from 1997 shows Amel Lipa of Bosnia, who was part of the first group of war orphans to come to Orleans County. The photo appeared in the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle and was displayed on Sunday during a 20th anniversary celebration for Project Life at the World Life Institute.

Project Life leaders have visited many of the children years later when they were adults. They also connect often through Facebook and social media.

The children are leaders in their communities, and they remain thankful for the chance to come to Orleans County, learning English, visiting Niagara Falls and other tourist sites, and spending time with local host families.

“We try to help them very intensely,” said Chris Wilson, international director for the World Life Institute. “We can feel proud in our own small way we’ve done something good. I personally don’t think it’s small. There is so much evil in the world that any good should be celebrated.”

Wilson was among the speakers during a celebration on Sunday at the World Life Institute on Stillwater Road in Waterport. The WLI building has been used for numerous art classes and other programming for the children the past two decades. There have been numerous intense soccer games also played in the backyard.

Chris Wilson

‘We can feel proud in our own small way we’ve done something good. I personally don’t think it’s small. There is so much evil in the world that any good should be celebrated.’ – Chris Wilson

Linda Redfield, the program’s director, thanked the community for welcoming the children the past 20 years. Community members have stepped up as host families, and volunteers. Numerous churches from different faiths also have supported the program, donating supplies, clothes, money and taking the kids on trips.

“Project Life has brought together Christians, Muslims, Jews and people from a variety of backgrounds,” Wlson said. “It’s been an interfaith enterprise.”

Wilson has visited Afghanistan, connecting with the children’s loved ones and the embassies, helping to work on the arrangements for the children to come to Waterport. He is amazed by the good-hearted people who have made the program a success.

“Through this small, beautiful program we’ve brought together people of different faiths and from across thousands of miles around the world – all here in Waterport, New York,” Wilson said.

A display at the World Life Institute includes the names of all 131 students in the WLI, as well as photos of them learning in the classroom and having fun on trips and with their host families.

Lisa Ryan of Albion hosted Adela from Bosnia in 1999 and remains in contact with her today.

“It was life-changing to reach someone from around the world,” Ryan said at Sunday’s 20th anniversary party.

Mickey Treat and his wife Diane of Hamlin hosted two girls from Chechnya. The experience brought the family together, and radically broadened their world view, Treat said.

“It was one of the best things we’ve ever done,” Treat said at the celebration.

The two girls have returned home. One is studying to become a lawyer, Treat said.

He praised Linda Redfield, who volunteers in leading the program.

“Thank you to Linda for your dedication,” Treat said. “She is a servant.”

Mickey Treat of Hamlin said he is thankful his family hosted two of the children in Project Life.

Chris Wilson and his wife Deborah also have served as host families several times. The first time in 1997 their son Samuel was only 3 and they welcomed two boys from Bosnia. Samuel would become an active volunteer in the program when he was older.

There were initial challenges with a language and cultural barrier, but Deborah said war orphans felt like family by the end of the summer. The differences seemed to melt away.

“They get over their homesickness, they relax and they enjoy their learning,” said Deborah, who is now the program’s assistant director.

She hears from some of the children through Facebook and they say the program has been a turning point for them. Their families also say their children returned much stronger and more confident. She hasn’t heard from all of the children because some of them do not have Internet access.

The Rev. Alan Dailey

‘It’s one of the best-kept secrets in Western New York.’ – The Rev. Alan Dailey

The Rev. Alan Dailey, interim executive director of Greater Rochester Community of Churches/Faith in Action Network, learned about Project Life during an event at Nazareth College. Dailey, former pastor of the Brockport Presbyterian Church, said Project Life has brought together many churches in a humanitarian mission.

The program deserves more acclaim, he said.

“It’s one of the best-kept secrets in Western New York,” he said.

Project Life last welcomed children to Orleans in 2014 when three orphans came from Afghanistan. Wilson and Redfield said WLI wants to welcome more children next year. They were close to having a group of kids from Afghanistan this summer but all the agreements didn’t come together in time from the US Embassy and the Afghan courts.

One of the Afghan boys from 2014 has stayed in Orleans County. Mohammad Meer was 12 three years ago. He is one of three of the 131 children who is staying long term due to serious medical issues.

He has a life-threatening blood disorder, thalassemia major, that requires blood transfusions every three weeks. Children with the disease cannot produce enough healthy red blood cells to provide their bodies with oxygen. They require regular blood transfusions and without advanced medical treatment they do not survive long.

With the transfusions and medication, Mohammad has excelled in sports and school, said Wilson who serves as Mohammad’s medical guardian.

Mohammad Meer has rebounded with his health since coming to Orleans County three years ago. He is active at Albion Central School, playing soccer and serving as vice president of the middle school student council.

Fauzia Aajan and her brother Sabir both have stayed in country for more than a decade after arriving with life-threatening illnesses.

Sabir struggled to get off the airplane when he arrived with a rare form of hemophilia. He would stay for medical treatments, and would later graduate from Lyndonville Central School. He earned a bachelor’s degree in political science at the University of Buffalo and is now pursuing a degree in nursing.

His younger sister Fauzia is entering her senior year at UB as an early childhood education major.

Wilson referred to the three as “our stars.” The siblings were young when they lost both of their parents.

Sabir and Fauzia arrived malnourished. Fauzia hadn’t been to school before and didn’t know her birthday.

“They both came here at very difficult times in their life,” Wilson said. “It’s fantastic how much they’ve grown and become beautiful young people who have enriched our lives.”

Linda Redfield serves as the program’s director. She thanked the many volunteers locally for embracing the Project Life children.

Redfield praised the local community members for opening their hearts to the children, who have all lost fathers.

“The program had a calming effect on the children,” Redfield said. “The community has poured kindness into them.”

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