When Agostin Qosaj's family arrived in Dunedin three years ago after political turmoil in their native Albania, they spoke no English, had no health insurance and had no idea of what to do in a new country.
A few weeks later, the youngest family member, Emanuel, 12, fell off a pickup truck and broke his arm. Hospital bills piled up and the family began to panic.
That's when Alen Janjus entered the picture. Janjus is a youth specialist with Gulf Coast Jewish Family Services, which helps refugee families assimilate by providing tutoring and case management. The youth program serves about 200 clients in the Tampa Bay area.
One of the first things Janjus did was navigate the health care system with the family after Emanuel's injury. Soon their bills were forgiven and the boy was back to normal.
But normal was not good enough. Emanuel was born with one leg shorter than the other. Janjus found a hospital that would operate to repair his leg at no charge.
Seeing his brother on the path to recovery impressed Agostin, now 14, so much that he plans to become a doctor.
"I realized I really want to help others and make stuff better," he said.
The brothers have come a long way since the first "terrible" and "embarrassing" first day of school three years ago, as Agostin and another brother, Ndue, now 13, described it, when everyone stared and no one could speak with them.
"They were very shy, young kids, now they're smart and outgoing," said Janjus, who is from Bosnia-Herzegovina.
Janjus still acts as liaison between the brothers and their schools. Without him, Agostin probably would not have attended orientation at Countryside High School this year and "the first day would have been harder," Agostin said.
The refugee youth program also enlisted Agostin, Ndue and 15 others from eight countries in a program to encourage their creativity and help future students. The refugees were given cameras to shoot what they felt, and the resulting photographs are part of an exhibit that will run through Saturday at [email protected] in St. Petersburg.
Organizers said the pictures and interviews with the students will guide educators as they help other refugee students.
Agostin's pictures capture how much popular culture he has absorbed. One is of the rims on a car. Another is the prices at a gasoline station. He cites them as the reason why his older brothers won't give him a ride sometimes.
Michael Knauber, 32, of New Port Richey, who attended the opening of the show on Saturday, liked Agostin's photographs because for a 14-year-old, his understanding of the economy "is pretty surprising."
"Every single photograph, I get the feeling that they are happy to be here, that they appreciate the help they're getting," Knauber said.
Though the boys have new friends and new dreams, no one wants to forget Albania all together. From his old life, Agostin misses the soccer games with friends and dips at the beach.
Janjus has tried to ease that pain as well. He encouraged Agostin to talk with the school soccer coach about a tryout. Janjus explained to Agostin that if he plays well and earns good grades, he could win a scholarship to college.
"If I didn't have faith, I wouldn't encourage him," Janjus said. "But he's really good. I have faith in him that he's going to be successful one day."