Jason Vadhan was 8 years old when his grandmother died on Sept. 11, 2001. Kristin White Gould, 65, was a passenger aboard United Airlines Flight 93 when it plummeted to the ground in Shanksville, Pa., after passengers and crew members fought back against al-Qaeda hijackers who had seized control of the aircraft and turned it toward Washington.
The loss of his grandmother in such a sudden and public act of violence is a painful story, but one that Vadhan, 18, said he feels safe sharing openly among the 76 other young people in Project Common Bond, a camp for teenagers and young adults who have lost family members to an act of terrorism.
In its fourth year, the camp is being hosted by Foxcroft School in Middleburg. It began July 23 and ran through Saturday.
Vadhan said it is empowering to be surrounded by people who share the same experience and are united in their determination to promote peace.
“We’re not here as kids suffering from acts of terrorism,” Vadhan said. “We’re here to overcome it.”
The project was created by Tuesday’s Children, a nonprofit organization that provides support services to families affected by the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. The project brought together young people ages 15 to 22 from nine countries for an eight-day program that focuses on therapeutic group work in addition to peace-building, mediation and conflict resolution skills.
Kathy Murphy, director of Project Common Bond, said the camp was conceived in 2007 when “a group of teenagers said to us, ‘We want to get involved globally.’ ”
Those teenagers were all from families served by Tuesday’s Children, said Terry Sears, executive director of the nonprofit group. In the years since their tragic losses, the teens had come to understand that there are victims of terrorism all over the world who might not have access to the support and resources that their families had, Sears said.
“They wanted to reach out to others who haven’t had the same kind of global attention,” she said.
In its first year, the camp was just that: a summer camp, gathering teens of different nationalities to spend time together, play sports, work on art projects “and maybe have some conversations about what had happened in their lives,” Sears said.
But the project evolved over the years, adding a curriculum designed by Harvard University Law School’s Negotiation and Mediation Clinical Program and delivered by a professional team, coordinated by family therapist Monica Meehan McNamara. The participants still play sports and work together on therapeutic art projects, but they are also engaged in conflict resolution exercises and team activities designed to foster trust, healing and cooperation.
The program is continuing to expand, Sears said. So far, 225 teens and young adults from 12 countries have participated in Project Common Bond, and the camp plans to include participants from additional countries, including Colombia and India, in the future.
At a focus group exercise Wednesday, 18 campers gathered around a table to share their thoughts on what the project has meant to them. Together, they represented nine countries: Argentina, Israel, Liberia, Northern Ireland, Palestine, Russia, Spain, Sri Lanka and the United States.
Julie Griffin, 19, whose father was killed Sept. 11, 2001, has participated in Project Common Bond since its first year. She said the camp helps teens understand how to turn their tragic experiences into a catalyst for positive change.
“We gain so much strength,” she said. “We’re not necessarily the ones in dire need anymore. We’ve been there . . . but now we are going to go out and make a better world.”
Mijal Tenenbaum, 17, of Argentina said that the camp does more than connect young people for a week and that the friendships forged are lasting.
“It’s a family,” she said. When she’s having a hard time, she knows she can always contact her friends online and they are there for her, she said.
“It’s really nice to have friends all over the world who know what I’m talking about when I’m not feeling okay,” she said.
McNamara, who moderated the forum, asked the teens how it felt to coexist and spend time with kids from very different religious and cultural backgrounds.
Fadwa Sarrawi, 22, of Palestine answered first. She sat beside Or Badihi, 18, of Israel during the forum.
“I sit beside Or, and I feel there’s no difference between us,” she said.
Badihi nodded: “This is a place to start a change.”
Richard Hill, 18, said that he and other teens from Northern Ireland first found each other at the airport and became fast friends, despite religious differences that might have prevented such bonding in their country.
“Here, we see the things that are common to us, whereas if we were back home, maybe we’d be more focused on the things that separate us,” he said.
As the 10-year anniversary of Sept. 11. 2001, approaches, Jason Vadhan’s family still honors his grandmother often. They visit her grave after church, he said, and serve holiday meals using the china and silverware she used when she hosted family gatherings.
His grandmother was a part of the passenger and crew uprising on the flight, Vadhan said, adding that the courage she showed in those pivotal, final moments has been “a lasting inspiration. She took it upon herself to help protect the lives of others.”
Vadhan said he plans to carry on that legacy — by volunteering, participating in programs such as Project Common Bond and studying to become a pediatric neurosurgeon.
“What she did, it really drives me,” he said of his grandmother. “It’s carried me for 10 years now.
. . . I could not be more proud of her.”