Today's blog is written by Jonathan Carral, a graduate student at Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs. Jonathan is currently interning in DRC with Justice Rising.
The DRC has been characterized by severe conflict since its independence in 1960, including two wars involving nine other African nations. The children living in the DRC, especially the eastern region, are thus among the most marginalized and vulnerable groups in the world, often being exploited as weapons of war.
As a graduate student studying international conflict resolution with a focus on vulnerable and orphaned youth, I was beyond excited when presented with the opportunity to visit the DRC and work directly with those children most in need.
I first heard about Justice Rising in May of last year and immediately began to brainstorm about how I could partner with them. I decided to apply for a grant that supports the implementation of “peace projects” around the world. After some initial research and several conversations with JR staff, we agreed that the grant would serve the greatest good if applied towards the construction of a vocational training center. Such a center would promote peace by incentivizing at-risk youth to turn from the military for stability, while empowering them to pursue alternative paths for their futures. After a very arduous application process, my project was one of eight selected to receive funding.
Vocational training is an essential resource for former child combatants for a number of reasons. Upon completion of the center, boys under the organization’s care, as well as other youth from the community, will be able to learn practical job skills in an apprentice-like atmosphere. This is essential because it directly addresses the macro issue of child recruitment and re-recruitment. Without marketable skills, children transitioning into adulthood are forced to enlist or return to the military. Partnering with Justice Rising and providing practical job skills ensures that young people are discouraged from joining the armed forces and are instead seeking out viable alternatives to support themselves.
In addition to the center, I look forward to helping with educational initiatives, especially with an emphasis on re-envisioning heroism in the eyes of young people. Despite horrible abuses, many former child soldiers leave the military with a skewed understanding of heroism and courage. Too often, young people believe that the one with the gun is the one with the power to make a change. As a result, they both abhor and admire the life of a soldier. I will be working one-on-one with a group of young boys and delve into questions of influence, change, identity, and power in hopes of expanding their understanding and inspiring hope through education and opportunity.
This project will also provide young people with practical tools to maneuver the identity building process. When a child’s developmental capacities are constrained by severe trauma, like those involved in armed conflict, the long-term effects can be quite severe. It can stifle the realization of a positive identity, ultimately affecting their future as adults. But nothing can promote a sense of positive identity like the prospect of a bright future.
I just arrived in the country a few days ago and cannot wait to see the vocational center come to life. Lives are waiting to be transformed as a result!