Help Us Help Them.    

Arife’s Story

Every once in a while, one of our Gift of Life Children has a story that stands out from the rest. The story I would like to share with you today, is that of Arife Zejna, who is pictured with her father on the cover of this year’s journal.

In October of 2001, we heard of Arife’s desperate need for help from the German Field Hospital stationed in Kosovo,  part of the International Peace keeping forces. After receiving her medical records, and having her approved for surgery by Dr. Henry Issenberg at Montefiore Children’s Hospital, there was a change of command at the German Field Hospital. When we notified the new staff of Arife’s approval for surgery, they had no knowledge of Arife’s case or her whereabouts. It seemed as if this child had vanished. There was no record of her address, her parents names, or any way to contact them. For 4 months we and our internet partner,, pleaded with the field hospital to follow through and help find this little girl.

We finally found a sympathetic ear in Lt. Andreas Papke, of the German Army. After hearing Arife’s needs, Andreas took it upon himself to locate Arife so that she could receive the lifesaving surgery she needed. Andreas went driving out to the mountain region where it was believed that Arife lived. He went door to door asking for any knowledge of this sick little girl.   Finally, one lead led to another and he located the bare shack that Arife and her family called home.

At hearing the news of Arife’s impending surgery, her family wondered how it would ever work out.  Life in Kosovo is not as simple as it is here.  Mrs. Zejna is suffering from post war syndrome. Leaving her incapable of caring for her husband and her children. What atrocities she has endured to leave her in such a state, we can only imagine.   To make matters worse, her father is nearly blind, is physically frail, and has noone to leave Arife’s brother and sister with, were he to accompany Arife to the United States. Now we have to devise an appropriate letter of consent for treatment and we have to find a suitable escort for this little girl.

To help you understand how difficult this all is, you need to know, there is no one government in Kosovo. The country is under the guidance and care of the United Nations peace keeping forces.  This means that the country gets divided up like a game board, the U.S. has one sector, the British has one sector the Germans have another, and so on.  Obtaining a visa and passport under these circumstances can be almost impossible.  Once again, 7 year old Arife’s fate is dependant on total strangers.  Those strangers do not always cooperate with one another, especially when there is no money or special favors involved.

On our end, we prepare the necessary visa request letters, send them via Fed-Ex and E-mail to the German field hospital, and then we wait.  Over the next few months there are many emails between us and several officers at the field hospital.

In an effort to make this life saving mission a multi-national mission of mercy, an American soldier, Captain Cleary, agrees to escort Arife to New York.  Several fundraisers are held amongst the military posts to pay for two airfares to the United States and back.  Meanwhile Arife is getting weaker by the day.  She has a special place in her father’s heart, but he is afraid that this “potential miracle” may just not come in time.  Finally the day for departure  arrives.  The American Captain arrives at the airport with frail and sickly Arife, the airline authorities decide she must have a qualified doctor with her before they will allow her to travel with them.  Where will we find, in two hours, a doctor with passport, visa and willing to spend several days escorting Arife to the US?   It seems impossible– Lt. Papke remembers a woman at Samaritans Purse Hospital who has a brother who is an emergency room doctor at another hospital who also speaks English.  After several phone calls, its all set, Dr. Jeton quickly meets Arife and her family and then they are on their way to the US.

Here at home, Mario Picinich of the Rutherford Rotary club has made arrangements with his cousin’s family to host Arife, before and after surgery while she is in this country.  Francesca and Ivan speak a little of Arife’s language and they are looking forward, a little nervously, to helping to save this girls life.  My Father, Andy, meets with Mario, RoseMarie, Ivan and Francesca at the airport,  anxiously awaiting the arrival of Arife and Dr. Jeton Vorfi, who we learned just before leaving home, would be the one escorting her.

When they finally come through the US customs door, we are surprised at how frail and small this little girl is.  Dr. Jeton Vorfi explains that she would not eat or drink a thing on the entire 20 hour trip.  She slept most of the way.

They return to Ivan and Francesca’s home around 11PM.  We are able to get her to give us a weak smile when she is given a new doll, and a box of chocolates.

Things do not look good right now for Arife.    The next morning, an old friend of Jeton’s stops by to visit, he is also a past student of Dr. Issenberg, the  two doctors, in consultation with Dr. Issenberg decide Arife needs to be examined right away.

At Montefiore hospital, it is determined that she is suffering from mal-nutrition, not just because her family is too poor to provide an adequate diet, but also because her poor circulation does not allow her body to process what little nutrition she does get.

Her blood oxygen level is less than 50%.  If you or I were in this state, we would already be deceased.

We decide there must be another greater force at work in this girl’s life, and she is meant to live.  For the next two weeks, she is fed with a feeding tube, she receives Oxygen treatment and has several infected teeth removed.

She finally begins to smile

Arife is beginning to get used to these new friends.  She realizes that she is now part of a much larger family.  She is treated for lice, checked from head to toe for other ailments common to the poorest of the poor.  It is determined that without our help, she probably would not have lived another 10 days to 2 weeks.  She should have had this surgery several years ago, but it may not be too late for her yet.  Many people are praying for her recovery.  We keep in contact with her family via e-mail through Lt. Papke.  He sends word to her father every few days.  Her surgery is postponed for two weeks until she is strong enough to survive it.

The big day is here.  Dr. Gregory Crooke does a remarkable job.  Her heart is badly malformed but he is able to creatively use what tissue she has to make it pump efficiently without too many leaks.  Now only time will tell if it will work.

Arife recovers slowly.  Ivan, Francesca, Mario, Rose and others, take turns staying with her around the clock.  She begins to become like one of their own children.  Each day she is a little better. And a little stronger.

It looks like she is going to make it.  The questions abound.  Why did it take so long to get her here?  How many more children are in need like her?  How can we send her home to such poverty again?  Arife becomes a favorite among the nurses.  Dr. Arabella Stock, an Intensive care doctor, is especially interested in Arife’s case.  She is being sent by the hospital to Kosovo, to determine how many more children there might be that need our help and what we can do about it.

Arife doesn’t care much about the problems back home.  She has energy and strength to walk around and not get tired for the first time in her life.  Its has to be an unbelievable feeling.

Never before has she experienced such generosity.  Ivan and a few friends determine that she cannot go home to a life of poverty, not after all that has been invested in her so far.

Ivan and Mario decide to be the ones to escort her home.  They will open a bank account where her father will be able withdraw an amount equivalent to a reasonable salary, each month.

The joy of the  reunion is unspeakable.  The impossible has happened.  The miracle has come true.

Mr. Zejna cannot believe his eyes.  In 6 weeks, his frail little girl has changed so much.  She is no longer gasping for breath.  She is no longer quite and sullen.  She has joy and hope in her heart.  He cannot believe the energy she now has.  The scars on her chest are testimony to what she has been through.

The reunion at home is no less profound.  Perhaps now, their life will begin to turn around.  Who would have expected, that their weakest child, the one noone expected to live past 5, is now the one to save their whole family from a life of pain and suffering.

Arife doesn’t seem to fully understand all that has happened to her.  She simply knows, that she was sick and now she is healed.  She was poor, and now she is rich.  She will soon be able to keep up easily with what ever her brother and sister want to do.  Such joy, she never knew existed

Mario and Ivan spend several days, they borrow a truck and buy a kitchen table and chairs for the Zejna family, they buy a refrigerator, a couch and a truck load of food.  Arife is now a celebrity in her own right.  The generosity of her benefactors overflows from her to her family and friends.

Even her mother, sullen and withdrawn, who had barely spoken a word to anyone for several years, is beginning to smile and converse again.  Its like a rebirth, an awakening of a new spirit.

All because of a program called, “The Gift of Life”.  Your Gift of Life.  Its not just a gift you are giving to one child at a time.  It is a gift that goes beyond, way beyond what any of us can imagine.  It is a gift that bridges international barriers, it is a gift that brings people together, it is a gift that gives hope and new meaning to families, communities, even whole countries.

From the bottom of our hearts, thank you from all of our children, for all that you do to save their lives!

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4 Responses to “Arife’s Story”

  1. Jana Wienecke says:

    Hello. Could you tell me how she is doing today. I’m interested because I heared a lot of her, because my father told me. Thank you

  2. Andy says:

    the last we heard,she was doing well. Her family were all doing much better than they had been because of the support that Arife received from her new friends and “family” here in the US. Andy

  3. Thorsten Pütger says:

    Hello all together,

    This is a Trip in the past for me! Often I asked myself how Arfie is doing? 14 years ago i worked with Lt Papke to organisie Arifes Trip to the USA.

    At this Time I was Press Officier in German Contingent KFOR. If possible, let me Know where Arife is living at this time! How can I get in Touch with her!


    Thorsten Pütger, LtCdr German Navy

  4. jeton says:

    ok my name is Dr Jeton vorfi . I was Arifes escort .She is doing well and lately she got married . You can find here on face book : Arife Zejna – Profile

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