Sunday, July 27, 2008

My Little Boy Is Growing Up Fast

The filing cabinets in my office are filled with photos of children I have met on my many journalism assignments around the world. But if you look closely, you will notice one boy has clearly captured my heart above all of the rest. His name is Hadji. I first met him in Slovene Village on a chilly November night in 2002. His blond Shirley Temple curls and freckled face stood out in Liz’s singing class even though he was so small that he could barely see over the desk.

In 2005 Hadji and I were reunited. Then, he was still living with his family in Slovene Village. I cannot explain why I am so attached to Hadji. Perhaps his angelic face reminds me that war often strips all innocence from children. His tough boy attitude three years ago told me life in Slovene Village had clearly robbed him of this innocence. I remember sobbing as I left Slovene for the last time that summer; partially because my heart ached for him to somehow have a better life but also because I never thought I would see him again.

I should know by now that “never” doesn’t always mean never. Burim, Liz’s Kosovo director, knows I have a special attachment to Hadji. Liz knew Hadji’s family had moved out of Slovene. Before I arrived, Burim made it his mission to find Hadji so I could see my special little boy again. As fate would have it, Hadji’s mother now works at the school where the Muscatine and Kosovo choirs rehearse. On Monday I saw Hadji for the first time since our arrival here.

Growing Up Fast
Hadji ran as fast as he could up the school’s path as soon as he saw me and jumped in my arms. Jon Fasanelli-Cawelti sketched the reunion while Aimee Wedeking captured the moment with my camera. Hadji is much taller now, but his blond hair and signature freckles remain. With the help of a translator, I learned Hadji is now 11. He is in fourth grade and he loves to play soccer. More importantly, he and his family no longer live in Slovene Village. They live in a house in town that is owned by an uncle.

I wasn’t expecting to see Hadji until late Monday afternoon, so I had already made plans for lunch. But as soon as his mother saw me at the school, she went home and brought Hadji to see me. When I mentioned that I needed to go to lunch and would return to see Hadji later in the afternoon, his mother said I could take him with me. This will come as a surprise to those who know me well, but I didn’t hesitate. I immediately took him with me to Oita, one of our group’s favorite places to eat here in Gjakove.

Hadji and I joined a large group of adults and youth from our group under Oita’s outdoor awning. It wasn’t until I got to the restaurant that I realized no one would be able to interpret for me. Together we figured out through a bit of creative mime that Hadji wanted a cheese pizza and coke for lunch. Hadji passed the time drawing in my notebook with a pen donated by Jon. I couldn’t stop smiling.

Hadji held my hand as we walked back to the school. Keith Porter met us at the school with the bag full of toys I had brought for Hadji. My bag of gifts included a framed photo for Hadji’s family. It is the photo Keith took of me holding Hadji in 2005. In that photo, Hadji is holding the photo I took of him the night I fell in love with him in 2002.

Before I could even ask Hadji’s mother found a chair, sat us down, and handed Hadji the newest framed photo. Keith graciously repeated his photographic magic. It will be the next framed photo in my office.

Goodbye Tears
Today (Friday) was my last chance to see Hadji. He came back to the school to get his big green eyes checked by Dr. Korpi. They are a perfect 20/20. He and I then made each other friendship bracelets and he drew me a colorful picture of his neighborhood. To him it is probably just another drawing. To me, it is a masterpiece. Close to the end of our time together, Hadji and I walked to a nearby store. I let him pick out a treat. He picked a “Pop-Kek,” the local equivalent of a Ding-Dong. He then led me to the toy section. Like a proud mother, I let him pick out something. He chose a fire truck set complete with firemen and trees. He was so proud carrying the bag back to the school to show his mother.

I knew saying goodbye would be hard. I had been dreading it from the moment I saw him today. His mother has already asked me to take him home with me, just as she did in 2005 and in 2002. It’s not practical. I know it and she knows it too.

I told Hadji to stay in school and to learn English. Then I sat quietly with him for about 5 minutes before the van came to take me to where I am staying. Hadji gave me a huge hug and told me “thanks” in English. I told him I loved him and that I would miss him. There were tears in both of our eyes as we looked at each other one last time.

I cried silently all the way back to the house. As soon as I walked in I got a call from one of Liz’s volunteers. She was with Hadji and he was sobbing. He wanted to see again. I am crying as I finish this article. I feel so badly that he is upset and yet I feel a tremendous sense of pride all at the same time. His tears tell me I have made a difference in his life. It may be years before he realizes what a difference he has made in mine. After all, Hadji will always be my special little boy.

Until next time...Kristin McHugh-Johnston