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#GivingTuesday: A Note from our Founders

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I was fighting back tears with everything inside of me. “I can’t cry. I won’t cry.” I had to self-talk myself into holding back the emotional floodgates threatening to burst...

We were just outside of Goma, in a small village called Mugunga, at the construction site of our seventh school. As construction kicked off, we began meeting with families in the village. One family immediately stood out to us – a single mother, along with her four daughters, had been displaced from war and recently settled within the community. Poor and traumatized, they were struggling to survive. The two oldest girls looked to be no more than three or four. To our surprise, we learned they were six and seven, respectively, and they were suffering from severe malnutrition.

The builders were still in the early process of construction, so our team frequently held rallies and community roundtables to discuss local needs. It was at that point we decided to intervene in the girls’ lives through basic food aid and nutrition training. When we returned to their home, however, it was already too late. Hope, the oldest of the four girls, had died the night before.

Everything inside of me wished I could go back in time – back to the moment I first saw her and held her tiny body. We had met so many desperate families, and so many malnourished children – how were we to know that she had so little time left? We sat there in silence with a grieving mother and her three remaining girls. What is there to say to a mother who has literally seen her Hope die?

It’s in these moments when we have to decide: will we believe that all hope is lost? Or will we choose to lift our eyes in order to see the silver lining?

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We left their home that evening with even greater resolve and determination. There was still much work to be done.

Stepping back, we know that hope is not lost. In fact, we know that education can powerfully transform war-affected regions – we’ve borne witness to it. And with the support of our global partners, we can alter the trajectory of entire communities for generations to come. Through 2020, we aim to build 40 schools in various war zones – we call it our Vision 20/20 goal.

Through YOUR continued support, here are just a few highlights from 2017:

  • 1,400+ students enrolled and educated
  • 60+ teachers and faculty trained and employed
  • 7 schools in operation
  • 2 new schools completed
  • 2 schools ready for construction
  • Near 100% student pass rate on national exams

In order to reach our 40-school goal by 2020, we need all hands on deck. That means we need a team of advocates and volunteers, financial partners, teacher trainers, field staff, and back-end administrative staff. We know it’s an ambitious goal, but we’ve got big plans!

Next year, we are looking to break ground on EIGHT new schools, providing education opportunities to approximately 1,600 new students! Which is why we need your help… Through the end of this year, our goal is to raise $200K to help us forge ahead into new war-torn communities, including Syria and Iraq. We cannot wait to share more on our program expansion efforts!

Starting on Giving Tuesday (November 28th), we’ll be kicking off our year end campaign towards our Vision 20/20 goal to build 40 new schools. To make a year-end gift, click below!

 Thank you for your financial partnership!

Though we lost sweet Hope this year, we believe her death was not in vain. In the days after her passing, our local team checked the three girls into the hospital where they were immediately started on an emergency, high-caloric dietary plan. As for Hope’s mother, we were able to offer her a job as an interim cook for the construction workers and as custodian at the new school. Now, when we walk the dirt path to their home, we are greeted by three healthy girls with mile-wide grins!

Even in the midst of tragedy, now more than ever, we believe there is hope for a brighter future. THANK YOU for your continued support. We are excited for you to continue with us in our journey to transform war zones through education!

Sincerely,

Edison & Cassandra Lee

Co-Founders, Justice Rising International

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The Other Side of Syria

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When we think of Syria, we often look back to recent reports we've seen in the news media -- the war, the gas bombings, the destroyed buildings. While these are very real aspects of the current situation, there is also an incredible beauty and vitality that is often overlooked, and we sometimes fail to think about the individual lives represented in those reports.

On Tuesday, October 17th, join our team in Los Angeles for a night of food and conversation, and come listen to the real life stories of a local Syrian woman living in LA that will endear and unite us in our shared humanity.

Together we will also enjoy a Syrian meal (vegetarian option available), home cooked (with love) by our guest.

To purchase your ticket, click below.

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Tumaini

For our third week of Education Month, we're taking a deeper dive into girls' education. Educating girls goes far beyond learning and literacy — child and infant mortality drastically decreases, community health increases, and it results in the overall reduction of child marriages.

This week, we're featuring a story of young girl named Tumaini... I (Cassandra Lee) met her accidentally while I was visiting her neighbor, a twelve year old boy named Gaspar, who is a student in our secondary school.

Tumaini is eight. She wore a tattered dress and was busy sweeping the floor with a hand broom made from twigs.

“Jambo,” I greeted her softly. Her delicate frame and quiet demeanor made it seem like she would startle easily, and I didn’t want to scare her as a foreigner entering into her house. She shyly returned my greeting and continued on with her chores.

That could have been the end of the story. I was busy interviewing other community members and had many other people to see; all easy excuses to move on. But there was something about her that drew me in.

I turned to her again and asked if her mother was home. I then invited myself in for a more formal greeting, which is something that’s very common here.

The mother was nervous, but excited, to host us. She quickly grabbed a small stool for me to sit on, and another for one of our Congolese team members. She then turned and took a water jug to make a seat for herself.

We started asking her about her life. "Are you married? How many children do you have? Do your children go to school?"

Her story went something like this (I'll paraphrase): Years ago, rebels attacked her village in an area called Walikale in Eastern Congo. The attack was severe and everyone in her family was killed. With only a 3rd grade education and four children in her care, she moved to the village of Kalembe as she didn’t know where else to go. Her two oldest children have since moved away from home, and she’s left with the two youngest, Tumaini, age 8 and Daniel, age 6.

“Tumaini doesn’t have shoes and I don’t have money to buy her shoes, so she stays home with me and helps with the chores. Daniel has shoes so I sent him to school. Life is very hard,” she continued. “Some days I feel like I have no hope.”

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This is exactly why we’re here. It is for families like hers. It is so she can be reminded that in the face of war and poverty, there is still hope for her. She may have lost a battle, but together, we can help to see her succeed.

We work extremely hard to get more girls to attend school. Today, we've achieved complete gender parity across our seven programs, a rare feat in rural contexts, and something we're very proud of.

Everywhere we go, there are families just like Tumaini’s who first prioritize education for their boys. In order to shift this widespread attitude, our team works diligently at the ground level, working with individual families to change mindsets.

To reach communities, we host education rallies that draw in hundreds of people to hear testimonies of the importance of girls' education and how it impacts the community for future generations. We go door to door and talk with parents about the challenges of sending their daughters to school, and how they can overcome challenges.

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Educating girls, and women entrepreneurs, can help strengthen the local economy, even contributing to new employment opportunities. Girls with primary and secondary degrees earn higher wages and help prime the next generation for future success in school and beyond. Educated girls are also healthier and have healthier families. In fact, for each additional year of education a girl receives, infant mortality and child marriage statistics drastically decline!

Focusing on girls' education also helps to reduce extremism. In the face of war and conflict, educating girls helps bring peace and stability.

Simply put, educating girls transforms communities.

For Tumaini, her story is not over. With guidance and support from the Justice Rising team, Tumaini's mom now sees the value of saving and investing in shoes for her daughter, and in turn, her daughter's education. And with support from our global community, we plan to educate more girls just like Tumaini.

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Girl Boss. Period.

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Girl Boss. Period.

In honor of Education Month, this week we’re taking a deeper look at barriers that students face when it comes to getting an education.

So for this blog we want to highlight a huge barrier for half the student population: periods.

In Congo, women and girls show all new meaning to the word “strength.” They work non-stop—cooking, cleaning, and child rearing—all without electricity or running water. They also have very limited access to basic amenities like soap, lack variety in their cooking or diet, and are without other basic household items.

They are our heroes.

So do you ever wonder, in the middle of the jungle, what girls do while they’re on their period? They can’t just run to the store and pick up a pack of tampons.

As a part of our Water, Sanitation and Health (WaSH) program, we train girls and women how to stay clean and safe during their monthly cycle.

This month, I (Co-founder Cassandra Lee) loved getting to sit in on the training. Here are some golden moments from our trainees during the lessons:

"When you look down and you see your period for the first time, you can be proud! You can say—‘I am a woman. I am courageous. I can carry children!’ Having your period is not a shameful thing. Talking about your period is not a shameful thing. You must be proud of who you are!” -Mama Rachel, JR WaSH Director

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It’s estimated that one in ten girls miss school because of their period. By some estimates, this equals as much as twenty percent of a given school year. (UNESCO / World Bank)

"See, you must be courageous as a woman. Courageous and clean. You are so special with all the things your body can do. You must make sure to take care of it. You can make your own sanitary pads and don't let your period hold you back. Don't let it keep you out of school."

Instead of instructing our girls to buy pads, which are expensive and often hard to find in the villages, our trainers teach them how to make their own pads out of things they can find in the market.

It usually involves a small, inexpensive piece of mattress/sponge-like material, fabric, and string to sew with. They make their own reusable pad out of a pattern we give them. During the lesson we also give them everything they need to make their first pad, including needle and thread!

"Water is your best friend when you have your period. What's your best friend?”

 “Water."

This was stressed many times throughout the training. Many girls don’t know how to properly clean themselves during their cycles, either. It’s usually shameful to discuss, so women don’t talk to each other about it. They don’t talk about it with their daughters, and when their cycle arrive, they just stay home and wait until it passes.

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“Now that you know how to make your pads, you can wear it knowing you are protected! You can go to school. You can go to the fields. There is no need to miss anything! If you ever need help, you can courageously talk to your female teachers, or other girls in this groupwe are all in this together!”

It was actually really incredible watching our team work. They crossed into culturally uncharted territories, and every girl in the class loved it, and hung on every word they said.

In Congo, it’s also very difficult to go to school if you are girl, and there is a clear discrepancy when it comes to literacy education. The literacy rate for girls sits at just 50%, while the literacy rate for boys in the DRC is nearly 80%. Teaching girls about something as simple as how to take care of their bodies while on their periods can help keep girls in school throughout the year and lowers dropout rates as they grow older.

At the end of the women’s health and safety classes, we also gave each participant a new pair of underwear, and a package of Kotex with instructions for how to use them. In our group for child mothers, many had never been taught this before. Some girls already had one, two or even three children, and yet, the majority had never really discussed their periods or basic care and hygiene during their cycle!

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We are so proud of our team’s boldness and the work they continue to do with respects to women’s health and girls’ education. Period.

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Kicking off Education Month

This week marks the first week of classes for our Justice Rising Schools in the Congo!

We’re especially excited to announce that we now have...

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This was made possible in large part because of our incredible community of financial partners! Thank you to all who continue to invest in our mission to transform war zones through education!

To kick off the start of the new school year, we’re celebrating with our 3rd annual Education Month.

This Education Month, we’re taking a deeper dive into the importance of education in war zones, the barriers students face concerning education, prioritizing girls' education, and we'll wrap up the month with an overview of our trauma care programs.

This week, we'll start off with the question of “Why Education?” What's its importance? 

  • Why are we so singularly focused on education when there are so many urgent needs in war zones?
  • Why do risk going to some of the worst-affected areas to build schools?
  • Why are we pushing to build 40 new schools in the next 5 years?

Well, it’s simple really: education is a game changer.

By increasing secondary enrollment in a war-affected region from 30% to 60%, you have the potential to HALVE the risk of conflict!

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Imagine for a minute what it must be like for a young boy growing up with the constant threat of abduction, swept into a life of child soldiering. For girls, they risk being married while still a child or potentially a sex slave for rebel war lords.

Through education, we can decrease the direct threat of exploitation a child may face, and create a more healthy and peaceful future for entire communities for generations to come.

 Cassandra Lee, the Co-Founder of Justice Rising, had this to share:

I remember sitting with displaced families shortly after a difficult season of war. It wasn’t my first time sitting in a displaced persons camp, but that time it hit me differently. We were there to learn and listen, and family after family, story after story, people poured out their hearts with the horrors of conflict.

I had spent the last several years living in different war torn areas and was exhausted by the cycle of war and poverty I kept seeing. War and peace, raids and rest, one generation after another. And here I was again, same stories — I heard stories of children that had fled for days to escape rebel raids. They slept in rivers, hid in jungles, anything they could to not be abducted and now they were here, in an IDP camp, and had lost everything. With blank stares they told me over and over again that they had no hope. So what now?

I knew I wanted to respond, but how? What could I do that could write a different future where this cycle would stop repeating itself. I didn’t want to put a band-aid on the problem  I wanted to come up with a solution where we could raise up children who could one day stop the cycle of war.

And that’s when we started learning about the power, and importance, of education in war zones.

Stay tuned this week to learn more about how we can transform war zones through education.

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Death to Life

“Do people in your country know about the slaughter happening here?”

 The conversation came out of nowhere and hit me like a ton of bricks.  “Slaughter”!   That word has a force that goes straight to my gut and steals the breath from my lungs.

 I pause and he asks again, “Do people know how bad the war is here in Congo? Do they know people are being slaughtered? Even still, even now?”

 I can’t hesitate any longer, “No. Mostly not; some do. Many don’t though.”

 Our country director is always so fascinated with cultures.  He loves asking questions about how people think and why they respond or why they don’t.

We discuss war at length and talk about the toll it leaves on people and the way it shapes our thinking.

He explains that most people in the villages in Congo don’t realize that peace is something that can actually be attained. They don’t realize that other countries in the world don’t have ongoing war like they have become accustomed to.

 I think the same thing with our countries of peace, but in reverse.  For many people, imagining a life on the edge of a rebel raid feels unimaginable to relate to.

 “Surely though, if they know how people are being treated here, the killing, they would help, right?”

 What was I to say? I felt backed into a corner and I searched frantically for a response that didn’t feel insensitive. Sometimes conflict, atrocities and chaos feel so far away that if we don’t intentionally pause and let empathy set in we can go about our lives forgetting the devastation that is happening around the world. We don’t consider what our role and response should be.

 We were on our way to dig a foundation for one of our new schools when this all started unraveling. Last week, a tractor smoothed the land, this week with sticks and string we made the outline for the classes. The next step is for the workers to dig out the foundation before filling it with stones and cement.

When we arrived on the land we started directing people. Like being conducted in an symphony orchestra, people took to their place. They began digging, moving and pushing dirt. However, with shovels deep in the ground, what came up wasn’t just rocks and sand.  We had a slight shock as like other excavations, we started pulling out bodies that had been buried under the land. Skulls, femurs, fingers. It didn’t look like a gravesite but rather like a slaughter had occurred here years before.

 The longer you stay in a war zone, the more personal these words become...

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 The kids brought the bones to show me as a cool discovery of their day. It was strange seeing their familiarity of it and playing with the bones almost as if it were a science class. They were determining where each of the bones and parts would be on body and how they would connect. For me, I could only imagine who the lost lives were, imagining how they died and how they ended up here. The skull with a machete type crack wasn’t as novel for me as it was for them.

 In the past we learned that our village had been the headquarters for two major rebel groups over the years. Because it was beautifully situated on 3 mountains at the edge of Virunga National Park, it became strategic to seeing enemies approaching and planning their next attack.

 Years later, we now see the effects of their placement on the individuals we spend our days with. A generation of youth, now young adults, missed out on their schooling.  They replaced stories of regular childhood games and play with stories of pain, and displacement.

 I feel like I’ll never know the fullness of what their community has gone through. I’ll never know the pain that they have felt, the gunfire that they’ve run from, the slaughters that they’ve witnessed.

But at the end of the day I have the constant reminder to commit to slowing down and listening. To hearing their stories and dreaming together about my role as a member of the global community and how I can help to respond. 

Education is such an important piece in the next steps of development. Thank you for being a part of that. For committing to partnerships with communities to end the slaughter and help families back on their feet with the tools to move forward to bring transformation.

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The Untold Stories of Syria's War

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The Untold Stories of Syria's War

The first night we arrived in Syria, I climbed into bed exhausted from travel and the emotions of the border crossing. No sooner had my head hit the pillow than I could hear the crashing of the bombs starting outside. Welcome to Syria.

Sometimes it felt so close that my room would shake. I debated for a second—do I get up? Or do I turn on music so I can go back to sleep? I left it at first and then decided with the latter—just something to drown out the explosions. This wasn’t my first rodeo. Many times in Congo, we’d often gone to bed to the sound of gunfire or with the knowledge that bandits had tried multiple times to enter our home just that night. It comes with the territory of working in war zones, I guess.

When I woke up in the morning, however, I assumed the bombs would have ended. I was wrong by a long shot. Our whole hotel shook with each crash as fighter jets now zoomed overhead dropping the bombs a little louder. A little closer.

“Don’t worry, Cassandra, don’t worry.” Our new friends told me with a little laugh over breakfast, “Don’t be afraid.” This was their normal. War raged just a few kilometers away and it has been this way for six years. “OK, I’m not afraid, but when should I become worried?” I thought it was a fair question.

“We don’t know. We don’t know when they will strike. When a bomb comes and you feel it hit the house, that’s when it’s a concern. But we don’t know when that will be. So we keep living. All we know is that God is good. Even still. He is our protector.”

With this in mind, we packed up our things and we did, indeed, head out to carry on with life. It was my first time in Syria and everything was new. I felt like I had a million questions to ask and things to learn about. Before coming, I had assumed that so much of the country had been destroyed and that life had slowed almost to a halt. But now, here we were with our new friends (who were hilarious and fun). Everywhere we looked, people continued to go out for dinner, enjoyed picnics and, in the midst of ongoing conflict, had stories of so much hope and resilience.

After leaving the hotel, we started making house visits. I wanted to see and hear it for myself. I wanted to hear the stories and meet the families that, until now, I’d only heard about secondhand.

We started with coffee and cookies (that, as it turns out, are Syrian staples), and met with family after family who had lived through the war.

One of the most impactful days was when we got to sit with a headmaster from Aleppo who drove down to meet with us. He’d heard that we build schools in war zones, and he wanted to discuss a potential partnership on a number of education-related projects. He was appointed as the headmaster of a school through his church years before the war began, but when the conflict escalated, his school was destroyed. He reached out and shared many stories as if we were his last lifeline. His students were traumatized, his best teachers had fled as refugees, money was hard to come by, and each day, they weren’t sure if it would be their last. But in the face of an uphill battle, he knew he couldn’t quit. So he rebuilt.

“It wasn’t easy,” he told us. “After the war everything was damaged in a critical way. All the furniture was stolen. We had nothing. But we knew the power of education. That is the greatest tool to end terrorism, building schools. So we restarted and opened up our classes. We are growing a generation that knows what the word ‘love’ means.”

It felt like he spoke the exact words on my heart. This man had given everything to stand for peace.

“A bomb crashed into my neighbor’s home one night,” he told us. “It was so close we couldn’t tell at first if we were also hit. My son ran and came into our room and I just held him. ‘Can we please leave? Can we please live like refugees somewhere else, anywhere else?’ he asked me. I told him we were called here to help those who have no other choice than to stay. Every night, he still comes into my room and I hold him until he falls asleep.”

Every house we visited we seemed to find individuals who were rising up in the midst of conflict, having a stare down with war and coming out with an attitude that said, “I’m not a victim to this situation, but an architect of it.” *

We stayed in Damascus, and there we met a group of women being a bright light in the midst of a dark storm. At a time when many fled the country, these women remained. Some of them had tried to get refugee status and were denied. Others just weren’t ready to leave. “We would rather die in our home country, than live somewhere else.”

And so in the face of difficult circumstances, these women banned together and would find some of the poorest, most desperate families and do whatever they could to support them.

“We all need each other. Every day, we take what we can and try and help someone who needs it more than we do. Whether that be food, clothes or assistance to get work. Many times we don’t have enough, but God provides. We have received aid from other NGO’s and people that care, they have helped us expand what we do.”

Every day, I was so humbled by the families we met. It’s like we were given a tour of heroes of our time, believing for the restoration of their country. Living the kind of love that lays its life down for others.

“I stay and teach because my country needs me,” said Sarah, a primary school teacher, who told us how she’d stayed this long. “Why leave now? I meet students every day who are traumatized. They are fine one day and the next there is bombing on their street and they need someone to help them through the difficulties.”

When we think of Syria, my hope is that we'll continue remember these stories, and not simply think of the war and violence that have become commonplace in this nation. May we remind ourselves of the incredible resilience and courage of the Syrian people who brave living each day as they daily choose hope, love, and peace.

-Cassandra Lee, co-founder

*Quote from Simon Sinek.

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