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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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MATCHING CAMPAIGN: We're Expanding!

Today we're launching our MATCHING CAMPAIGN for our expansion plans!

In just a few weeks, our team is traveling to the Middle East to scout out new war torn areas for potential expansion of our projects into new areas. We’ll be conducting early diligence and research, cultivating local partnerships, and seeking out areas in desperate need of education. 

As we look to grow and expand in both Congo and the Middle East, we're excited to kick off our matching campaign to support our new efforts!

A few generous donors have already pledged up to $20,000 towards a matching campaign. That means from now through April 18th, every dollar you give will be DOUBLED up to $20,000!

If you've been asking yourself how you can get involved to help with the crisis in the Middle East and bring peace to areas with conflict, here is an opportunity to do something. The time is now. Join us and see your giving multiplied!

Help us reach our goal to expand our efforts into new areas. Donate today and, together, let’s fight to give these children a future to hope for.

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Syria Fact Sheet

As Syria enters its sixth year of conflict, we've put together a quick fact sheet outlining how the crisis and conflict has affected children and education in the region.

Justice Rising currently works in Eastern Congo and has five schools serving 1,200 students.

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Philomena

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Philomena

 

This is Philomena

 

She lives with her children on the outskirts of Beni, DRC. Philomena became a single parent when her husband was killed in a rebel attack three years ago.

 

She and her husband led a simple life as farmers, along with their grown children, subsisting on the food they produced on their land. When war again started returning to the area, Philomena discussed the available options with her children – stay in the village or flee to the city. How could they leave when their entire livelihood depended on their crops?

 

One evening, they saw rebels approaching from a distance with torches in hand. Philomena hid in the bushes while her son and daughter-in-law went back to look for their children who were sleeping in their nearby home. 

 

While she waited in the tall grass and trees, Philomena heard rebels approaching her children on the road.

 

“I heard everything.”

 

Her son and his wife begged for their lives. She heard the blows of the machete landing repeatedly. Then silence.

 

She couldn’t move a muscle. It felt like all the air had been sucked out of her. It sounded like the soldiers had left, and though the weight of what happened pinned her to the ground, she knew she had to get up and look for her grandchildren. Were they still alive? Were they OK? Did they hear the commotion and run for safety?

 

When she reached the house, the two young children were still sleeping. She woke them up, and ran with them back to the jungle to once again hide, too afraid to do anything else.

 

The next morning, government soldiers arrived and took Philomena and her grandbabies to the city. She knew from that point on she would be their caretaker. They were the only family she had left.

 

 

In Eastern Congo, schools not only provide basic reading and writing, “but in the short-term it provides them with the stability and structure required to cope with the trauma they have experienced.” (Jo Bourne, UNICEF Chief of Education)

 

In areas where war has decimated entire villages, we can no longer wait. We MUST continue to build schools and see education opportunities made available in communities affected by war.

 

Join us today. Give, share, or forward the message to bring Education Now to war-torn villages in Eastern Congo. Build Schools. Change lives.

BUILD SCHOOL 7

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Open the Windows to Opportunities

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Open the Windows to Opportunities

It's the little details that are vital. Little things make big things happen." - John Wooden

Today we're calling those who long to make a big impact by taking little steps. It costs $30 to buy a window for one of our schools and we need roughly 20 windows for each school. Will you partner with us to build our next school in a war torn community and reach hundreds of lives with education?

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6 Things We've Learned From Building Schools in War Zones

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6 Things We've Learned From Building Schools in War Zones

Building schools in war zones has been hugely rewarding experiences for us as an organization. From the first day when your students walk through the door, you’re overwhelmed and full with dreams for each one of your kids. They have all experienced much trauma from war, including long days and nights hiding in the jungle and fleeing from rebels. For kids who are given the opportunity to go to school, it isn’t just about reading and writing – it is an opportunity to change their futures and their communities.

 

Our team recently purchased land for our SIXTH school! In honor of purchasing new land (picture above) and as we prepare to break ground on our flagship school, we wanted to celebrate by taking a look back on SIX things we have learned about building schools in war zones.

 

1. It’s Going to Take Longer Than You Think

 

No matter how well you plan, 9 times out of 10, there will be delays when building schools in Africa. We call it “Africa time”. No one is in a rush. In the early days of building our primary school in the village, we would encounter major interruptions every week or two. We’d sometimes build for a week and then it would rain relentlessly. Naturally, we would often have to put a pause on construction. Then we would build for a week and the chief workers would get sick, and we would again have to pause construction. The following week, war would break out, and again, we would have to pause construction. At first it seemed stressful and overwhelming and making our deadlines seemed doubtful, but eventually, you learn that stressing out will never speed up the process – it will only steal your joy. Thankfully, we finished the school and we were still able to open on time! Though things don’t always go according to our timetable, we trust that things will eventually get done.

 

2. Gender Equality is Something You Have to Fight For

 

In places with extreme poverty, families often send their boys to school, but keep the girls home to work. Many families have the mindset that they can only afford to send boys to school while the girls remain at home. In order to emphasize the value of girls’ education, our team often facilitates community meetings with families to stress its importance in transforming communities and in shifting the status quo. Just recently, we found out that our schools have been recognized by the Regional School Board for establishing greater parity between genders in our schools and creating opportunities for our young girls! We’re so proud of our teachers and staff who fight every day to make a difference.

 

3. Hire Local Teachers

 

When war enters a village, local villagers are forced to flee deep into the jungle for safety from potential dangers, including abductions and rape. When the dust settles, transplants often move out of the affected area(s) in search of safer communities. However, those who return home are often locals. Understanding this reality, Justice Rising seeks to hire local teachers to mitigate the otherwise high levels of absenteeism among teachers and students. We find that local hires are committed to investing in the next generation through education. As one teacher put it, “We are committed to building our community and refuse to abandon the school and students even during the hard times.”

 

 

4. Partner with Community Leaders

 

With every school we build, we must work together with government agencies, chiefs and community elders. This guarantees our school’s safety and ensures greater success with regards to student enrollment. Even during difficult periods of conflict, and in particular, when our schools are forced to close down temporarily, the village elders have designated our schools as “safe zones,” meaning that those who have been wounded or lost find refuge in our schools and/or reunite with their family members. The village elders intimated to us that our schools “represented peace” and they expressed their gratitude for the hope it provided.

 

5. Students May Not Always Come to School in Uniform

 

There was a time when we rarely saw students coming to school in their school uniforms. Slightly disheartened (as we know uniforms have a high value in the Congo), we asked the teachers why the students came to school in their “play clothes”. The teachers explained that there had been active war in the village for the past several weeks and how many homes were pillaged and looted. The clothes on their back were all they had left.

 

Our schools are different than most schools built in peaceful villages, and we are always so amazed by the courage and resilience our students display each day as they consistently show up to class, even in the midst of so much uncertainty.

 

6. Change Takes Time

 

We must never try to rush change. There is beauty in process. We recognize this beauty in the way our students, teachers and staff, and schools continue to grow and evolve. While we can monitor and evaluate our progress through numbers and figures, it’s in the stories of hope and resilience we find the greatest value and reward. Our biggest takeaway: Don’t despise small beginnings – change takes time!

 

Thank you again to everyone who helped us get to SIX schools! We could not be more excited for all that the future holds. 

If you'd like to be among the first to make a donation to school number SEVEN (coming early 2017) click below to invest and make an impact that lasts.

 

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