Born with Down syndrome, the quiet boy who lived next door to Soela Zani in 1988 had never spoken and rarely went outside because his family was ashamed to be seen with him on the streets of Gjirokaster, Albania.
“It was a sad and different time then in my country,” says, Zani, now 35. “Now, we know differently. Children with Down syndrome are lovely and sincere. We need to accept them as they are and give them possibilities to succeed in life.”
Since she opened an exhibition last month at Albania’s National Historical Museum featuring children with Down syndrome replicating poses from famous paintings, her email box has been flooded and her phone hasn’t stopped ringing.
“I feel very lucky because I’ve now found my passion,” she tells PEOPLE. “These children are the same as other children. I’ve learned to see them in a beautiful way.”
Zani’s photo sessions, which started three years ago, feature 14 different Albanian kids with Down syndrome in classic poses from Renoir’s “The Dancer,” Manet’s “The Fifer,” Gaugin’s “Mr. LouLou” and Magrite’s “The Son of Man,” among others.
“When the exhibit opened, I saw many people crying in front of the pictures,” says Zani, a former theater set decorator who took up painting when she was 12. “It feels good that my work has spoken to them. If my work has touched the heart of the audience, then my mission is done.”
Zani was inspired to take on her photography project by a 4-year-old boy with Down syndrome, Arbi Zaimi, the son of Emanuela Zaimi, who is founder and CEO of the Down Syndrome Albania Foundation. “She asked me to take some pictures of Arbi and her family,” she says, “and I was so impressed by how strong they were. We’ve since become good friends.”
“Our kids are amazing in making people fall in love with them,” Zaimi, 33, who introduced Zani to several other children helped by her foundation, tells PEOPLE. “When Soela showed me the famous paintings she was going to reproduce, I instantly thought of the name of her exhibition: ‘Every Human is a Piece of Art.’ Then I chose my son to be Picasso’s son in the ‘Paulo as Harlequin’ photo. I think they have the same look.”
In some parts of Albania, says Zaimi, having a child with Down syndrome is still thought to be unlucky or shameful. “They are considered not being able to do a thing in life,” she says. “But Soela has figured out the beauty of our children, inside and out.”
“Soela was brilliant with the kids,” adds Enerjeta Xhaferi, 33, whose daughter, Vanessa, 10, put on costumes to duplicate poses in two paintings: John Hoppner’s “Harriet Ann Seal,” and Thomas Gainsborough’s “Master John Heathcote.”
“Her work is so good, you can almost not tell the photographs from the paintings,” says Xhaferi. “She shows that kids with Down syndrome can do anything, and I thank her with all my heart for making me proud of my daughter.”
A 2016 calendar has now been created with the photographs to raise funds for Down syndrome causes, and Zani hopes to one day snap more portraits and publish a book.
Although single with no children, “I work with kids and families every day and I feel married with my work,” she tells PEOPLE. “There is no difference between a child with Down syndrome and a child without it. They are the same because they are children. This series is a present from me to them.”