LAKEVIEW — Ajtene Geci calls her son Don a "miracle baby."
Don Geci nearly died several times as an infant from febrile seizures. That was when the now-16-year-old Lake View High School junior's family was escaping a war in Kosovo from 1998 to 1999 that would claim thousands of lives and create hundreds of thousands of refugees.
Ajtene carried Don, the youngest of her three children, for miles and miles through mountains, forests and rivers. The family — her husband Besnik, a daughter and two sons — survived four months in the wilderness before reaching neighboring Macedonia.
There, they joined other refugees on their way to Iceland, New York and finally San Diego. When they arrived in California, they had less than $50 to their name and only the clothes on their backs.
Most of the family now lives in Lakeview — where Don Geci is his high school's second-ranked student and aspires to be an astrophysicist. He is also Lake View High's top swimmer, powering through the pool with the same determination it took for his parents to start anew in the United States.
"He is my miracle, that's all," Ajtene said. "He made us proud, happy and healed our past. He is just a miracle."
'We Were Healthy and Together'
The Kosovo War lasted less than 16 months, but it left a disastrous impact.
Thousands were killed, many more were injured and raped, and intellectuals were hunted down.
Besnik Geci was considered an intellectual. He was a physical education professor and swimming instructor at the University of Prishtina, located in Kosovo's capital and largest city.
"If you are inside a war zone, you don't know what's going to happen," Ajtene Geci said. "We decided to leave."
It was a grueling ordeal. Besides the travel through rough terrain, the family had no access to medication. Ajtene Geci said Don's seizures nearly took his life on multiple occasions.
But Don did not die, and the family eventually reached the relative safety of a refugee camp in Stankovec, Macedonia. They remained there until the International Organization for Migration sent the Gecis briefly to Iceland and then to the United States.
When they first touched American soil at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York City, Ajtene used $4 of the family's $50 to buy each of her three children a plain muffin. They were down to their last reserves when they landed in San Diego. In his immigration paper photo, an exhausted 16-month-old Don is sleeping in his mother's arms.
"They came with one little satchel. This beautiful family, I think they had a dollar. They didn't have any other clothes or anything," said Margie Neill, who met the Gecis at the San Diego International Airport on Aug. 4, 1999.
Neill and her husband Peter had read about the Gecis in a newspaper article, which said they and other Kosovo refugees needed places to live. The Neills fixed up a part of their house with a refrigerator, carpeting and some beds. The Gecis stayed there for five months.
With the exception of Diona, the Gecis knew little English. With work as a professor out of the question, Besnik took a job as an assistant mason, mixing mortar. Ajtene was employed at a tuxedo store. Margie Neill, now 84, still has a photo of her, the Gecis and her husband dressed to the nines in clothes from the tux shop on a stand next to her bed.
"We just adored the family, and they loved us in return," Margie Neill said.
Said Ajtene: "After the war, I didn't care what we did, and we were blessed. There is nothing close to what we went through. We were together, the five of us, and the most important thing was that we were healthy and together."
A Passion for Swimming and the Stars
After arriving in the U.S., Don never suffered a seizure again. He grew up in San Diego, learning to swim starting as a 4-year-old in neighborhood pools and the Pacific Ocean. He has loved torpedoing through the water since.
His affection for astronomy originated during a return trip to Kosovo when he was 10. Walking through a pitch-black forest at night, Don gazed at the sky and located the Milky Way, unblemished by any light pollution.
"I felt incredible emotions of awe and wonder when I saw it," Don said.
Don's passion for swimming and stars have blossomed in Chicago, where the family moved the summer before his first year of high school after both his parents lost their jobs. Besnik now drives a shipping truck back and forth between Chicago and Los Angeles, while Ajtene is a patient service representative for Advocate Health Care.
Don's teammates named him Lake View's swimming MVP as a freshman and as a sophomore. He is a captain this year.
"I look up to Don," said senior swimmer Andriy Andrushchak, of Ukrainian Village. "He has very good leadership skills, he's motivated, and he's fun to be around."
Don, who stands at 6-foot-3, is best at butterfly, but his coach, Janet Allen, said he is the top swimmer at Lake View in each of four swimming strokes. Allen said Don almost always wins the races he enters.
"I can't say enough good things about him," said Allen, of Buena Park, who has a master's degree from the University of Illinois at Chicago. "He also applies a lot of physics to swimming. When he's teaching other kids how to swim well, he'll say, OK, remember Newton's Third Law?'"
And while Don's competitive swimming career likely will end after high school graduation, his dedication to science is just beginning.
Don is reading Krauss' book, "Quintessence the Mystery of Missing Mass in the Universe." His bedroom is filled with similar pieces of literature. Ajtene, seeing her son's obsession with learning, gave him her credit card a few years ago and said he could buy whatever books he wanted.
"He has no limit on books," she said. "If you go in Don's room, everything is in order, and it's all about science. You can look around, but you can't touch his books."
'My Goal Is to Study the Universe'
Don has a 4.85 grade point average on a 4.0 scale. He's already taken advanced placement physics, chemistry, biology, world history and U.S. history. Next school year, he likely will add AP calculus, statistics, environmental sciences and psychology to that list.
His short list of colleges includes Princeton — because "its Institute for Advanced Study has a history of great achievements," he said — plus Cornell, Cal Tech, MIT and the University of California at Berkeley. He also would love to attend the University of Chicago, which he already visits weekly for its Arthur H. Compton Lecture series at the Enrico Fermi Institute and where Don said he is "an island of brown in a sea of gray hair."
"I once told him that he is smarter than I am, and he started to disagree," said Don's freshman physics teacher at Lake View High, Melissa Zagorski. "I told him that what I have over him right now is experience, but that will only last so long."
Zagorski said Don's self-confidence is evident, but he's not cocky. She noted he also stays away from the "typical high school drama and just goes about his business."
Perhaps that's because Don knows how much his family had to overcome for him to be able to live what he said is truly the American Dream.
"Of course, I can't understand what they went through, but I share grit with my parents," Don said. "My parents' goals were to establish a family in the United States. My goal is to study the universe."