At the tender age of seven, Lirjon Rexhaj has experienced more heartbreak than most of us witness in a lifetime. Lirjon was born in the Kosovo republic of Yugoslavia, right in the middle of the ethnic, religious, and regional battles that engulfed the Balkan states in the 1990s.
Threatened by the Serb’s campaign of ethnic cleansing, the Rexhajs, Albanians, were forced to flee their home in the small town of Paya in 1998. Mr. Rexhaj, who normally works as a judge, had scrimped and saved to buy their house by toiling in a pizzeria in the U.S. for two years. But then, the Serbs came, and to stay meant certain death. So Rexhajs and their five children fled, finding refuge in neighboring Montenegro.
Making matters worse, Lirjon fell ill; at the slightest exertion, he would start to gasp for air. He was diagnosed with congenital ventricular septal defect, a hole between the right and left sides of the heart. Without surgery, his prognosis was poor. An operation, however, wasn’t an option, given the family’s circumstances.
Following peace negotiations, Kosovo’s ethnic Albanians were finally allowed to go home. After four months on the run, the Rexhajs returned to Paya, only to find their home had been burned to the ground. The family of seven squeezed into a one-bedroom apartment with no running water. They struggled to rebuild; living on meager rations donated by relief organizations.
Lirjon survived all this turmoil. But the boy’s condition worsened: quickly he grew too fatigued to play outdoors. Sadly, regional hospitals were not equipped to handle his problem. Doctors estimated that he had less than a year left to live.
Finally, a stroke of luck. Through Lirjon’s aunt Julie, who lives in New York City, the boy’s troubles came to the attention of Jacqueline Gavagan. Jacqueline lost her husband in the attacks of 9/11. In his memory she established the Donald Richard Gavagan Fund with Project Kids Worldwide, as a way of saving the lives of children with congenital heart disease.
Project Kids Worldwide is a Manhattan based nonprofit organization dedicated to bringing life saving heart surgical services to medically underserved children around the globe. Through Jacqueline’s efforts of raising money, she will help save Lirjon’s life. Project Kids quickly took up Lirjon’s cause and after many obstacles and setbacks due to the political turmoil in his home country, Lirjon arrived and received the successful surgery he needed to save his life.
Lirjon wants to be a judge, like his dad. Even if he does not realize that dream, at least now he will be able to go and play outdoors and have the chance of living a long healthy life.
Jacqueline’s story is equally compelling. She is the widow of Donald Gavagan, a bond trader with Cantor Fitzgerald who died in the World Trade Center attack. In the wake of 9/11, Jacqueline started the Gavagan Fund, seeking a way to honor his memory and to help children in need, specifically those with congenital heart disease. In 1998, her own son, Donald III, was born with a serious heart defect, yet he survived because of a life-saving operation performed at NYU Medical Center. “I really want to make a difference,” says Jacqueline. “The only way I can do this is to sponsor a child.” Jacqueline and Donald’s third child was born six weeks after the attack.