It was on September 7, at gate C-11 of the Dayton, Ohio airport, that Melinda Maier of Lakeside, Kentucky learned her first word of Serbo-Croatian—the language of Bosnia-Herzegovina.
"Zdravo," she penned in large letters on posterboard: Serbo-Croatian for "hello," and she followed it with the sentence, "Maida Fazlifi, Welcome to America."
Maier, a mother of three, had been reading the newspaper earlier in the summer when an article about local families taking English-speaking, teenaged Bosnian students into their homes caught her attention. Project Shelter, as the group is now called in the southern Ohio and northern Kentucky area, has "adopted" 24 young Bosnian men and women, aged 16 to 20, who will finish their educations in the US. At her home, Maier and her husband Bob renovated their basement to make a bedroom for 16-year-old Fazlič. "It's kind of like expecting another baby," she says from amid the several television crews and the crowd of host families, most holding signs, flowers and balloons, all awaiting Continental flight 1253.
"We want to give these kids an opportunity to learn skills they can use to put their country back together again," says Robert Azzi, photojournalist and founder of what has become a national network committed to sheltering Bosnia's future leaders from the ravages of war.
Azzi's efforts began, he explains, when he and his daughter Iman watched the dedication of the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C. on television.
"She turned to me," Azzi says, "and asked me, 'Are they going to build a museum for the Muslims in Bosnia, too?' Coming from the mouth of a nine-year-old, a question like that becomes an imperative to act."
The Zagreb-based Women's Association of Bosnia-Herzegovina agreed to help Azzi locate non-refugee teenagers who would qualify for educational visas to the US. His first group of eight students arrived in 1993 in his own hometown of Exeter, New Hampshire and received national attention last year when "CBS Sunday Morning" aired their story. That broadcast inspired the formation of Cincinnati-based Project Shelter. To date, Azzi has arranged host families in half a dozen states, scholarships at private and public schools and free air transport from Continental Airlines for a total of 56 young Bosnians; at least 15 more will arrive by the end of the year.
"Many of [the host families] have never met anyone who is Muslim before," says Azzi. "We have Democrats, Republicans, Muslims, Catholics, Jews—a wonderful range of people helping out. The prospects for cultural learning are enormous on both sides, but the key is that both the kids and the families are committed to the multiculturalism and pluralism of Bosnia. These kids will all go back."
At Gate C-11, the young Bosnians of Project Shelter are the last to leave the plane. They file out to lights and cheers, a bit bewildered by all the attention.
"I don't want to talk about life in Sarajevo," says Arnela Smajilovič, 20, in response to a question. "You see the news. My cousin is dead; my brother is wounded; my father is wounded. If I could, I would go to college here." For the next year, however, she will finish high school on the east side of Cincinnati.
Project Shelter's founder, Rick Deerwester, who escorted the group from New York to Ohio, tells about one of the young Bosnian women, an aspiring opera singer. "I had met them all at customs, and as we were standing there, going through the lines, I heard, softly over the noise of the airport, this beautiful, operatic voice," he says. "She was singing 'America the Beautiful.'"
By the time the families of Project Shelter head home into the night, each richer by one new member, it is 4:00 a.m. Bosnian time. For the newly arrived students, one very long journey has ended, and another has begun.
Dick Doughty is Assistant Editor of Aramco World; Kevin Amorim is a reporter for theDayton Daily News.