iba* was only six years old when civil war broke out in Syria. Although she doesn’t remember everything from the 2011 clashes, there are certain things she won’t ever forget.
During the war, her father disappeared and is still missing today. A passing bullet also claimed the life of her baby brother. Hiba, the eldest of six children, then stepped in to support her grieving mother and younger siblings: After tragically losing her brother, she helped wash, wrap and bury the six-month-old baby.
Now a young teenager, Hiba has grown up experiencing the harsh realities of war. In many ways, the 15-year-old has lost her childhood. She and her siblings can’t recall a time without war.
In recent years, the United Nations (UN) has highlighted the mental health needs of children affected by violence around the world. “When children grow up in armed conflict, their deep mental scars are often overlooked,” UNICEF Executive Director Henrietta Fore shared in a statement. “Prolonged exposure to violence, fear and uncertainty can have a catastrophic impact on children’s learning, behaviour and emotional and social development for many years. If ignored, toxic stress from witnessing or experiencing traumatic events can lead to an increase in bedwetting, self-harm, aggressive or withdrawn behaviour, depression, substance abuse and, at worst, suicide.”
The UN estimates that one in four children live in countries affected by conflict or disaster. For those who survive the violence, they are left with psychological scars that need special attention. If left unchecked, the effects of trauma can impact their health and well-being – disrupting their ability to learn. Through programs that support vulnerable children, CBM is working with global church partners to create safe places for children to heal and continue their education.
A New Start
Hiba and her family are among the 5.6 million Syrian refugees who have fled to neighbouring countries since the war began. The UN’s refugee agency estimates that another 6.6 million people are internally displaced. Nine years into the conflict, the ongoing violence has created the largest refugee crisis in the world – more than half the country’s population has been forced to leave their homes.
Like Hiba’s family, many Syrians have sought refuge in Lebanon. But life hasn’t been easy. Nearly 70 percent of refugee families live below the poverty line. For those who lack legal documentation, accessing essential services like medical care, adequate housing and employment continue to be a challenge. To make ends meet, some families adopt precarious coping strategies to survive: working in unsafe environments, reducing meals and incurring debt for basic needs. Faced with these pressures, refugee children are at risk of exploitation and abuse – some families have turned to child labour and early marriage to help alleviate their financial burden.
The 2018 Vulnerability Assessment of Syrian Refugees in Lebanon – a report that assesses a representative sample of Syrian refugee families to identify changes and trends in their situation – found that more than half of refugee children were out of school. Most were adolescents and youth who reported the need to work as a reason for not attending. The costs of transportation and educational materials also pose a barrier to school attendance, especially as children get older.
Although Lebanon has taken steps to increase access to education, it has been challenging to accommodate the sudden influx of school-aged children. Lebanon, which has welcomed more Syrian refugees than any other country, is home to about 488,000 refugee children. As a result, local schools have overcrowded classrooms and struggle to accept new students. And the high costs of private schools are out of reach for most refugee families.
CBM supports the True Vine education program, which provides Syrian refugee children with an alternative education option. In partnership with a local church and the Lebanese Society for Educational and Social Development (LSESD), close to 600 children benefit from this program.
“As Syrian refugees continue to flee to Lebanon, the Lebanese public education system has been unable to absorb the large numbers of Syrian refugee children,” says information from the LSESD. “Many of the children now enrolled in this program had been out of school for two to five years and were at risk of falling out of the education system completely.”
The True Vine program helps fill the education gap by providing basic literacy and numeracy skills, as well as psychosocial support in a safe environment. The program also prepares Arabic-speaking children to enter Lebanon’s education system, which provides English instruction.
Sami* is one of the True Vine educators who helps refugee children adjust to learning. “When the children first come to the centre, they are afraid. But with time, they gain confidence,” says Sami, who is also from Syria. “Through the learning process, they become more confident; when they start to read and write, they become more confident … I tell them ‘you can do it, you know how.’”
Hiba is a student enrolled in the True Vine program, where she also receives regular counselling sessions with a psychologist. After losing her father and baby brother, Hiba was left traumatized. As a coping mechanism, she unconsciously suppressed the memories. But she continued to suffer from severe panic attacks that seemed to worsen when she arrived in Lebanon.
Emily Talley, who works with CBM’s partner in Lebanon, says having access to trained specialists has a profound and far-reaching impact on the lives of children affected by war. “Children become adults, and there is a large chance that young people who grow up constantly being marginalized and deprived of basic security and emotional warmth will look at the world with vengeance and hatred,” she explains. “With these students being loved and taken care of unconditionally, they have learned the emotion of empathy … and created a community of tolerance and genuine humanity.”
Through the counselling support, Hiba was able to improve her mental health and focus on her education. She has built friendships with other students and now has hopes for the future. Hiba, who enjoys “making girls look pretty,” would like to become a prominent hairdresser one day.
In the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), CBM partners with the Baptist Church in Central Africa to provide counselling support to vulnerable children and youth through an initiative in North Kivu province. The project also provides vocational training and equipment to young people living with physical and mental challenges, including conflict-related trauma.
In the DRC, decades of conflict and political unrest have increased the vulnerability of children. In the eastern region, which is rich in natural resources, armed groups recruit child soldiers and use sexual violence to enforce control. Women and girls are often targeted on their way to school or while doing chores for the family, such as collecting water.
As a young teenager, Margaret was raped while searching for firewood. She became pregnant and gave birth to an albino baby – increasing their vulnerability. In her community, raped women and albinos both suffer from marginalization. At age 16, Margaret was unable to cope with the fear and trauma she experienced. As a result, she confined herself to her room and suffered in silence.
Through the project, Margaret received the counselling she needed to start rebuilding her life. She learned about tailoring and designed a blouse for her mother to demonstrate her new skills. Now, Margaret can earn an income and better care for her son.
“This centre was a grace for me,” Margaret’s mother says of the program. “It came to build my household, which was broken, and to revive my daughter.”
Fighting for their Future
In the Philippines – where religious tensions have led to violent clashes in the past – CBM is working with local youth to address the root causes of conflict, so future generations can keep safe and stay in school.
In 2017, CBM partnered with local faith leaders and organizations to launch the first Inter-Faith Youth Leadership gathering. The annual three-day event brings youth from Christian and Muslim regions together in one room. Participants take part in workshops, problem-solving activities and group discussions that are aimed at breaking down religious barriers through positive education.
The first event was held in Mindanao, a southern region of the Philippines that has a history of religious tension. Conflict-affected communities in Mindanao are among the poorest in the Philippines, says information from the World Bank. They suffer from poor infrastructure and lack basic services – including education and health care. In the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao, poverty rates are almost double the national average.
Michael Waddell, CBM Field Staff based in the Philippines, says many of the youth who participate in the inter-faith gathering have witnessed some form of violence. When they first come to the gathering, they often have preconceived notions about the opposite faith group. But facilitators have found that much of their opinions come from stories passed down from their elders. To help break the cycle of violence, says Michael, the gathering helps youth to look ahead to the future – together – and rewrite their story.
As an ice-breaker activity, youth are asked to share their hopes and dreams. “It’s pretty much all the same for each person: I want to be healthy. I want a good job. I want a wife and kids.
I want to have an education,” explains Michael. “Looking at these sticky notes stuck on the wall, you can’t tell which ones are from a Christian or Muslim because they’re all the same. Everybody really shares the same kind of aspirations for life.”
Glonel is a Christian youth pastor who was invited to participate in one of the gatherings. This gave him the rare opportunity to interact with Muslim youth in an effort to better understand one another. “Indeed, this gathering is life-changing,” he says. “It changed my perspective towards my Muslim brothers and sisters – even though we have differences, we also have commonalities.”
By the end of the gathering, young people are empowered to go back to their communities and be advocates for peace and reconciliation. Many of the participants also form new friendships and continue to keep in touch through social media.
“These young people want something more than what they’ve been raised with,” Michael says of the violence. “They want to see life improve for themselves and their future generations.”
A Lasting Impact
Although war affects entire populations, the UN suggests “those who bear the heaviest burden are arguably a country’s youth.” When a conflict erupts, youth face immediate consequences: hunger, disease, abuse, injury or even death. But once the conflict ends, they face emotional, social and economic challenges that continue into adulthood.
“Conflict situations undercut the efforts of young people to move forward with their economic lives, whether they stay in their countries or seek escape as refugees,” says information from the UN. “For many, this means deferring or giving up on personal investment in education. Additionally, while wartime economies may provide job opportunities for some, for most the uncertainty of wartime violence undermines any efforts to secure work or to start building a career.”
At the end of 2018, the number of people displaced by war globally reached a record high of 71 million people. And half of the refugee population in that same year were children. As global conflicts continue to rise – and the youth population forecasted to increase by 2030 – supporting war-affected youth will impact sustainable development down the road.
Terry Smith, CBM’s Executive Director, understands the importance of investing in the next generation. “I have witnessed, in working with CBM’s global partners for 25 years, both a deep passion and a stunning competency as they incarnate Christ’s love and acceptance for young people” he says. “Every year, through the ministries we support, the lives of thousands of children and youth are positively impacted and their futures brightened in ways that wouldn’t have happened otherwise. The work is slow, methodical and labour-intensive, but God is producing an ‘eternal weight of glory’ (2 Corinthians 4:17) through this. It is very likely the most strategic ministry we can engage in because when it’s done effectively, we are not only transforming individual lives, but the future of our world.”
* Name has been changed.
CBM partners with local churches in the DRC to provide vocational training to youth in conflict-affected regions.
In the Philippines, CBM’s annual inter-faith gathering encourages Christian and Muslim youth to promote peace.
Nicolette Beharie serves with CBM as editor of Mosaic.
Based in Ontario, she specializes in magazine editing and
feature writing for non-profit organizations.