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Difference Maker

People Making a Difference: Nadia Bitar helps Liberian orphans

The fashion model-turned-philanthropist aims to build a new home for them.

By Danielle ShapiroCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / July 21, 2009

‘At a certain point you say, “Are you going to be a person that always takes, or are you going to give back?” ’– Nadia Bitar

Stephanie Keith/Special to The Christian Science Monitor

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Monrovia, Liberia; and New York

Nadia Bitar has experienced life's extremes. As a young child, she rode in a BMW driven by a chauffeur. The car was a gift to her then-13-year-old older sister from their father, she says.

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But she has also seen dead bodies strewn in the streets of her hometown, Monrovia, Liberia, and lived as a refugee. These extremes have shaped Ms. Bitar. Despite the hardships, she insists that she is "blessed," both for what she has been given and what she has survived.

These days, as an adult, she's trying to help Liberia recover from 14 years of devastating civil war through a nonprofit aimed at improving the lives of Liberian orphans.

Hailing from mixed Liberian and Lebanese heritage, Bitar is slender and statuesque, with golden-brown hair. After growing tired of modeling, a part-time occupation with no job security, she worked a short stint as a VJ for the youth-oriented video channel MTV Africa.

Her Haven Missions, begun in late 2006, is a response to what Bitar describes as her "early midlife crisis." "At a certain point, you think, 'Is this all there is to life? After all I went through?' " she says. "You say, 'Are you going to be a person that always takes, or are you going to give back?' "

During almost two decades of intermittent civil war, hundreds of thousands of Liberians were displaced and nearly 250,000 killed. Today, six years after a peace accord, most Liberians live in poverty.

More than half of Liberia's 3.5 million people are under the age of 18. The mortality rate for children under 5 is among the highest in the world, school enrollment is low, and nearly 21 percent of 5- to 14-year-olds work as child laborers, according to UNICEF.

Bitar was still a child when full-blown war reached Liberia in 1989. In October 1990 the family fled to nearby Ghana and lived in a refugee camp for 11 months. During another bout of intense fighting in 1996, Bitar’s mother, Esther Toe, wouldn’t allow her three daughters to leave the house for several months because of the rampant sexual violence. “We couldn’t even go out on the balcony,” Bitar recalls.

By the time she started Haven Missions, Bitar was living in New York City. At a fundraiser in 2007, she collected $40,000 to aid Liberian orphans.

Though she had always planned to build her own facility in Liberia, she started by providing financial assistance to an existing organization. In July 2008, Bitar entered into a partnership with Pastor Jones A. Beyan, the founder of an orphanage just outside Monrovia called the Childcare Foundation. When Bitar and her older sister, Laila, visited the home, they found 28 children sleeping on the floor. Many didn't own good clothes or proper shoes.

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