A Place to Heal

updated 09/11/2000 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 09/11/2000 01:00AM

An aging ferry chugs slowly toward a stone wharf in Croatia, carrying 100 excited children and adult volunteers to the Adriatic island of Badija. As the youngsters disembark for a two-week summer camp, two middle-aged Americans greet them like long-lost relatives. "You've grown so much!" Carol Tanenbaum exclaims to one girl. "I can't believe it. Last year you were only this tall!"

Then, amid the cheery chaos, Tanenbaum and her husband, Fred, spot a young boy, his brown hair blowing in the breeze. When Elvis Fazlibaszic first came to idyllic Badija from his village near war-ravaged Sarajevo three years ago, no one was certain what atrocities he had seen. They knew only that the boy, separated from his mother, was aggressive, hostile and, as one volunteer put it, ate with his hands "like an animal." But on his fourth trip, Elvis, now an endearing, bright-eyed 11-year-old being raised by his grandmother, flies into the Tanenbaums' arms. "I love Fred and Carol," he says through an interpreter. "They are the best grown-ups in the camp."

President of the nonprofit Global Children's Organization, Fred, 59, a workers' compensation lawyer, and fellow board member Carol, 58, a California psychoanalyst, are striving to ensure that, at least for two weeks each summer, Elvis and scores of children like him have a chance to escape the scourge of hardship and war. Here, in a converted 15th-century monastery off the Croatian coast, 146 boys and girls ages 7 to 12—many of whom have been victims of persecution or seen family members murdered in the ethnic conflict that has scarred so much of what was once Yugoslavia—will join 77 local and U.S. volunteers to swim, dance, sing and draw, often with miraculous results. "It's impossible to comprehend the horrors these children have lived through," says Carol. "But it's so amazing to see how quickly some of them transform. They're kids again. Light comes back into their eyes."

Founded in 1993 by Judith Jenya, 59, a former lawyer now living in California who was moved by the plight of children she had heard about during a visit to Europe, GCO has provided 12 summer camps in the Balkans and two in Northern Ireland. In the next year the group hopes to expand with a camp on the Red Sea as well as one in Los Angeles, where the Tanenbaums will play host to homeless and foster children as well as recently arrived refugees. The locales may be divergent, says Fred, but the mission (funded through private donations and $1,000 contributions from each on-site U.S. volunteer) is always the same. "Here children learn there is a safe place in the world," he says, "and begin to understand that hate doesn't have to rule your life."

For some it is not an easy lesson. In a training session prior to the children's arrival, volunteers are instructed not to broach the subject of the kids' war experiences and are prepared for what by most standards might be considered abnormal behavior. With some children, "we'd have to stay with them until they had fallen asleep because they were horribly afraid of the dark—massively afraid," says Jesse Bernstein, 18, who volunteered while a Los Angeles high school student. Some of the children have been subjected to torture or rape. One little Bosnian girl refused to let anyone touch her beautiful knee-length hair. "Her youngest brother had loved her hair," Carol recalls. "The story was that her father's head had been brought to the family in a plastic bag." Then, when her brother also disappeared, "she swore she would never cut her hair again."

Working to supplant such memories one recent afternoon, Carol—an artist whose Sherman Oaks home is filled with her oil paintings—oversees an arts-and-crafts session. Beneath pink oleander trees in a courtyard, the kids are personalizing their paper name tags with glitter stars. "Wow, that's wonderful!" Carol says, looking over the shoulder of Berina Dzemakovic, 11, a little girl from Sarajevo whose father, a soldier, was killed when she was 5. Nearby, Fred assists with twice-daily swimming sessions, picking up child after child and bouncing them into the vivid-blue Adriatic. As he helps one little girl float on her stomach, she starts to paddle, then shouts, "I can swim! I can swim!" In coming days the campers can look forward to "Hawaiian night," at which kids don leis and hula skirts, and "disco nights," when, says Fred, "some of these kids dance better than kids in Manhattan."

Clearly he and Carol are the camps' guiding spirits. High school sweethearts who married at 21, the Tanenbaums have two daughters, Carrie, 35, a doctor of traditional Chinese medicine, and Erin, 31, a graduate student who served as GCO's volunteer coordinator. "They are far and away the most emotionally sensitive souls I know," volunteer Josh Romm, 37, a friend from San Diego, says of the Tanenbaums, whose involvement with GCO dates back to 1994, when Carol met Randy Beckwith, Judith Jenya's sister, at a dinner party. Beckwith had just spent her summer in Croatia and lit up the room when she spoke of it. "I had an intense 'This is the right thing' kind of moment," says Carol. "I just knew that this is what we had to do."

Today, she and her husband have ample evidence that they made the right call. Snjezana Matijek, 16, first arrived at the camp in 1994 after being evacuated during the shelling of Sarajevo and now serves as a volunteer.

"I was a little bit confused when I first came here," she says. "But the island helps to heal."

Susan Schindehette
Pete Norman on Badija and Janet Kinosian in Los Angeles

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