People Making a Difference: Nadia Bitar helps Liberian orphans

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

Stephanie Keith/Special to The Christian Science Monitor
‘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

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.

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.

"I wanted to help the kids as soon as possible," Bitar says, urgency evident in her voice.

The sisters set to work. They bought beds, mattresses, sheets, pillows, clothes, shoes, and food for the children. Bitar's mother now brings food supplies once a month, pays the staff, and checks in on the orphanage. A younger sister, Caldelia "Love" Williams, helps as well, and Laila is hands-on whenever possible.

Bitar gratefully acknowledges the support from her family, including her boyfriend, who actively encourages her work with Haven Missions. They now live in Greece with a toddler son. Bitar is starting her own line of resort clothing, and 10 percent of the profits will go to Haven Missions, she says.

Helping others is nothing new for Nadia, Ms. Toe says. Her daughter used to spend a portion of her allowance on needier children even as the war meant she received less. In turn, Bitar says it is her mother – a pastor who still lives in Monrovia and raised 11 children, eight of whom were not biologically hers – who taught her generosity.

"Giving back is something that was ingrained in me," she says. "When you grow up in a world where every day you see people in need," it's hard not to help, she says.

Yet the Childcare Foundation is still far from ideal. The metal-roofed home is cramped, and the low ceilings are covered in peeling newspaper. The kitchen consists of a small fire on the ground inside the school building, itself a dark space with rickety benches and bare walls. There is no running water or electricity.

Recently, the government updated the required minimum standards for children's institutions, says Lydia-Mai Sherman, a spokeswoman for the Liberian government's Department of Social Welfare.

The Childcare Foundation site is too small, and expanding it would be too costly to turn it into her dream for Haven Missions, Bitar says.

For $20,000, she recently bought 10 acres of wooded land about 40 minutes outside Monrovia. By 2010, Bitar plans to build an ecofriendly orphanage there, with solar panels, separate dorms for boys and girls, a school for up to 500 children, and a six-acre farm so that Haven Missions can grow its own food. A fundraiser in May netted about $15,000, with more donations likely, Bitar says. The new facility is expected to cost $50,000.

Bitar plans to visit Liberia in the fall to check on her project. While she remains the driving force behind Haven Missions, as well as its principal fundraiser, for now she makes only one annual visit so she can save up for construction of her new site.

While making clear that the Bitar family will have to work with the government, Ms. Sherman applauds their efforts. "We embrace what [Nadia Bitar] is trying to do," she says. "The government can't do it alone."

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