Making a difference in the lives of orphans from Kosovo

July 2003
Making a difference in the lives of orphans from Kosovo

Once again, the Youth Peace Initiative of the Jerrahi Order of America completed a noble task in visiting the orphans of Kosovo, who continue to suffer from the outcome of war. Fifteen young people of different ethnic backgrounds, aged fourteen to twenty, and from various places such as San Francisco, New York, Brazil and even distant Turkey, spent a year preparing for a two-week field trip to Kosovo.

In so doing, they were building relationships among themselves while creating a project that would bring positive changes to the lives of children in a far-off land.

The project was initiated by Shaykh Tosun Bayrak of the Jerrahi Order of America. When he was asked the reason for such a trip, he explained, "All children are our children and every suffering child is our child. We have a responsibility to make them feel better." He continued, "And we must bring hope where there is none. Last year we went to Bosnia, this year to Kosovo, next year perhaps we will go where we are needed. Our mission is to do good and bring positive changes."

The preparations for the trip took a long time; The youth met every week to learn Albanian and Turkish phrases as well as something about the culture and the traditions of Kosovo in order to be able to communicate better. Fundraising activities continued throughout the year. The teenagers sold meat pies every week, held garage sales, and solicited individual donations.

"I don’t know what Kosovo is like. I've never been there before," said 14-year-old Hasan Oswald, although like the other members of the group, he was eager to find out more about that part of the world before his trip.

"We want to make a difference and teach Kosovo orphans some English language and computer skills," said Anna Holland.

The trip began on June 24, 2003 with a flight to Istanbul, from which the group then took a bus to Prizren, Kosovo. The 24-hour bus ride was the group's first confrontation with some of Kosovo's rough post-war realities. First of all, the bus was incredibly uncomfortable, since there were no toilets or air conditioning. Moreover, the seats were overcrowded with Kosovars who regularly made the trip, some of whom had to sit in the aisle for lack of space. (Due to the economic collapse after the war, many such people made their living by traveling to Istanbul to buy goods and returning home to sell them; often their goods were taken away by dishonest customs agents.) To make things even more uncomfortable, some of these "regulars" reacted negatively to the American youth, who remained extremely polite but nevertheless felt uncomfortable at the circumstances. The signs of post-war trauma were visible on the faces of the people. This was the first confrontation that the Jerrahi Youth Peace Initiative faced: reality as it was and not as they would have liked it to be.

After arriving in Prizren, the group met with several friendly volunteers of the IRC-Prizren Youth Center of Kosovo, whose building had unfortunately been closed down by the local government a few months previously. Despite the inconvenience of their not having any working space, they immediately opened new doors of friendship and greeted the JYPI warmly.

"We discovered shortly that we couldn’t teach these kids much," said Jalany Scury. "Most of them spoke English and every day there were periods of no electricity so we couldn't teach them computer skills either."

What the Jerrahi teenagers could do, however, was provide hope and friendship to some of the needy children they met. They could build friendships across the cultural gap and open new avenues to understanding that there is another, better world beyond the suffering that war brings. The JYPI team offered their new friends a bit of relief from their post-war trauma and promoted mentoring and leadership. At the very least, they helped to create a single beautiful day, several times over, in the lives of many orphans.

The JYPI and the IRC-Prizren Youth Center of Kosovo began their daily visits to orphaned children at the Prizren Red Cross Center.

"At first, the children didn’t want to open up," said John Frager, "but later on they couldn’t stop telling us their stories. I guess they wanted to be heard."

"They also liked to have their pictures taken," said Alia Lowenthal. "They would pose and wanted to look beautiful in the pictures. I took so many pictures of them, and they always smiled at me."

The doors of friendship and communication opened between the American youth and the orphaned children of Kosovo, who were very happy to have someone listen to their stories.

The children of Krusha e Vogel, a village in which during the war all the males had been systematically killed, prepared a song, poetry and dance program for the JYPI visit. They also made a traditional layered pie called "fli," laced with honey and cheese, and served it to the guests despite the fact that they didn’t have enough to eat for themselves. The JYPI team refused to eat alone, insisting instead on sharing their bites with their hosts. On this beautiful day, the smiles of the children who were playing and singing with volunteer clowns brought sunshine to the eyes of their mothers.

Over one hundred orphaned children in the village of Savrova brought the JYPI group directly to the cemetery to show them the graves of their parents. Later they shared endless stories and were grateful for all the gifts that JYPI team brought them as a donation.

Over 350 orphaned children from all the surrounding villages gathered for a picnic near Vernica Lake. The children all began the outdoor activities by taking responsibility for cleaning up the environment. They collected the trash that had been carelessly thrown around the beautiful lake and piled it up to let the green grass and flowers breathe the fresh air. The JYPI team was dumbfounded to find drug needles thrown on the grass. Several syringes were removed by the supervisors of IRC-Prizren Youth Center who later shared their concern about the overuse of drugs in Kosovo.

Day after day, the Jerrahi Youth Peace Initiative traveled throughout Kosovo to meet with different groups of children and orphans. They also visited a quadriplegic boy in Prishtina, Valon Osmani, who had fallen and broken his neck during the war. As a result of this visit, the team researched and found a Shriners Hospital in Philadelphia and applied on behalf of Valon, so that he might be accepted for treatment. That same day, Kosovo’s President Ibrahim Rugova accepted the JYPI team at his headquarters, where the youth asked the President to help reopen the IRC-Prizren Youth Center that had been closed by the local authorities.

At various times, the JYPI team visited all the youth centers from Prishtina to the city of Gjakova and Peje, where they spent hours building relationships and exchanging the experiences in their lives and school. Day after day, the Jerrahi Youth Peace Initiative offered their time and sympathy to orphaned children of all ages, applying art therapy and games, storytelling, singing and dancing.

“We visited children of Roma, Turkish and Bosnian minorities and they were all so amazing. They are dealing with their tragedy somehow” Said Jennette Morgan. “We sang and danced and didn’t really want to separate from each other.”

The JYPI also visited the center for blind women and shared their stories with them, not turning their backs even on their last day to a call from the "Hader" Organization to visit 175 mentally disabled children. The sounds of the song, "We Will Survive," from the JYPI team brought smiles to some of the mentally disabled children who were lying on the laps of their mothers or sitting in empty chairs waiting and waiting for nothing.

"We thought we came to change their lives, but they changed ours," Sarah Gordon added.

One hundred twenty homeless children of Prizren, aged four to ten, who had been continuously following the JYPI team during their visit, cried on their last day when they embarked on the bus to leave Kosovo. Everyone cried at this separation and no one wanted this trip to end so fast.

The JYPI team left Kosovo with tears and a thousand follow-up questions about every detail of these children’s lives, their co-existence, their future and love.

"It was this humanitarian trip to the war-torn region of Kosovo that inspired so much love, fervor and excitement about working together with the orphans," said Raihan Faroqui with tears in his eyes. "This trip to Kosovo showed me how playing with an orphan on the other side of the world can change all of our attitudes towards life. This experience instilled in me a new belief that anyone can change the world and bring a small ray of light to the needy."