MIDDLEBURG, Va. – Jason Vadhan didn’t know anyone when he arrived at a summer camp for young people who, like him, have lost a loved one in a terrorist attack. But it didn’t take long for him to form profound relationships.
Vadhan, whose grandmother was on United Flight 93, was one of the 77 participants in this year’s Project Common Bond, which brings together relatives of 9/11 victims as well as youths from around the world who have been scarred by terrorism.
When the 18-year-old Vadhan, of Atlantic Beach, N.Y., finished a roundtable and interviews with reporters last week, other campers gathered in an adjoining room and burst into applause when he walked in.
“I came here not knowing one person,” Vadhan said, “and when that door opened and there were people cheering for us, I walked right up to a kid I met three days ago, and I gave him a hug and I cried.”
Project Common Bond is organized by Tuesday’s Children, a nonprofit dedicated to serving the families of 9/11 victims. But the camp has, over the years, taken on a more international focus.
This year’s eight-day camp – held on the campus of a girls’ private school about 40 miles west of Washington – attracted participants from eight countries, including, for the first time, Russia and Sri Lanka.
Many of the campers, who range in age from 15 to 20, return each year for the friendships, the sense of community and the shared experiences. Their lives are shaped by extraordinary events, but at Project Common Bond, they feel normal.
“It’s so simple here,” said Julie Griffin, 19, whose father was killed on Sept. 11. “Everybody just gets it.”
Losing a relative to terrorism is different because the tragedy plays out in public, said Fran Furman, director of counseling at Tuesday’s Children.
“You’re unique in a way that you didn’t choose to be unique,” Furman said. “It’s very, very difficult to feel like you can connect and bond with other teens.”
Yet at the camps, close relationships form instantaneously.
“There’s that deep connection,” said Caitlin Leavey, 20, whose father, a firefighter, died while responding to the World Trade Center attack.
“One of my friends doesn’t speak English, and I’m still able to communicate with her and make a lasting friendship. I think that’s amazing.”
In the mornings, campers attend classes and group discussions on peacemaking and conflict resolution. This year’s theme was dignity: how terrorists took it away, how campers can reclaim it, and how they can encourage it in others.
Some have even chosen conflict resolution as a college major or career path based on their camp experiences.
“I wanted to turn my tragedy into something positive,” said Leavey, who’s majoring in peace and conflict studies at New York University and wears a necklace with the name of her father’s fire company, Ladder 15.
Afternoons at the camp are all about fun, with sports, drama, music, art and dance.
Mijal Tenenbaum wasn’t sure fun would be part of the experience when she attended last year’s camp in Belfast, Northern Ireland.
“I thought it would be weird, that we would be here and be awkward all the time because there would be this big elephant in the room that we would not talk about,” said Tenenbaum, a 17-year-old from Argentina whose father was killed in the 1994 bombing of a Jewish community center in Buenos Aires.
But when she arrived, she said, “it felt amazing.”
The 10th anniversary of Sept. 11 was not a major focus of this year’s camp, although a few campers painted a mailbox that will be installed at the 9/11 Memorial at Ground Zero, serving as a symbolic receptacle for messages of peace from around the world.
The killing of terrorist leader Osama bin Laden, on the other hand, came up frequently. The responses were wide-ranging, said Monica Meehan McNamara, a family therapist and scholar who designs the curriculum for the camp.
Some campers said they were happy and wanted to celebrate, while others argued another killing wouldn’t solve anything.
Marie Clyne, 21, a camp counselor from Lindenhurst, N.Y., whose mother was killed on Sept. 11, said she felt more relief than joy.
“It was kind of like, ‘Finally, the bad guy is gone,’ ” she said. But, she added, “I see both sides.”
Sometimes the campers are forced to abandon their preconceptions. Project Common Bond includes both Israelis and Palestinians, and young people who hail from opposite sides of other conflicts.
Richard John Hill, 18, comes from a unionist family in Northern Ireland, and his uncle was killed by the Irish Republican Army. At Project Common Bond, he met someone from a nationalist family whose mother was killed by the IRA.
“That was entirely new to me,” he said. “I can’t explain how powerful that was.”
Organizers hope to hold the camp abroad again next year, possibly in Spain. In the meantime, campers use social media to stay in touch throughout the year, and some even travel to visit one another.
Tenenbaum said she has someone to reach out to whenever she’s feeling down.
“It’s nice to have friends all over the world who know what I’m talking about,” she said.