Empowering Young Minds in El Salvador to Resist Gang Influence

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North San Salvador, seen from Santa Elena neighborhood. Photo: Xtremesv via CC BY-SA 4.0.

“Since wars begin in the minds of men, it is in the minds of men that the defenses of peace must be constructed,” wrote the poet Archibald MacLeish for the preamble of UNESCO’s constitution in 1945. Having experienced two world wars in less than a generation, its member nations knew well that political agreements alone are not enough to build a lasting peace. For peace to be truly established, we must forge a moral and intellectual unity in our thinking toward each other.

In the last five years, over 62,000 children from El Salvador have arrived at the U.S. southern border without their parents. The risk of this dangerous journey, along routes controlled by criminal smugglers and crooked cops, outweighs the dangers at home, where gangland wars between MS-13 and Barrio 18 have led to El Salvador having the world’s highest murder rate for children. In a country of 6.5 million, El Salvador’s Defense Ministry estimates that more than 500,000 Salvadorans are involved with gangs — including the relatives and children of gang members who have been forced to participate in crimes.

Schools do not escape this harsh reality. Rather than being a safe haven for education, many schools and their surrounding areas are completely controlled by gangs. Teachers are subject to regular death threats and extortion. “We fear reprisals from the gangs. Any decision you take and they don’t like, like disciplinary action against a pupil, can bring a threat,” says a teacher in one of the most violent neighborhoods outside San Salvador. In the first half of 2017 alone, over 12,000 students dropped out of school due to violence, according to the Salvadoran Ministry of Education.

The government has made countless efforts to combat violence inside the schools. Repressive measures haven’t worked, and even preventive measures don’t necessarily work. We are left to build the “defenses of peace” in the minds of students.

UNESCO’s founding statement is at the heart of IBREA Foundation’s mission, a New York City-based nongovernmental organization having consultative status with the United Nations, whose mission is to empower individuals to understand themselves better, enhance their motivation, and be more mindful of their life choices and behaviors.

Since 2011, IBREA Foundation has provided a specialized holistic education program in El Salvador’s public schools, which combines physical movement, stress training, breathing techniques, selected readings and journaling, group work, and more. Through a process of managing strong stressors in the brain and body, students can find pragmatic ways to cope with the challenging circumstances of daily life in El Salvador.

Laura, one of the first students in IBREA’s program in 2011, is a living example of overcoming social violence through changes in mindset and behavior. She describes how the only way for her to overcome her mom’s death at the hands of a street gang — was to redirect her own destiny and that of her children, through the ability to accept the reality that surrounds her, and utilize her own willpower and determination to overcome it and change it. “IBREA’s program gave me tools to relief my stress, my anger, my resentment … all the way to the root. I see many kids around me falling into gang networks. I learned that if I don’t give up in my choice for peace, people around me don’t give up, and so will the people around them. That’s how we can improve our community.”

IBREA’s program now reaches 25 percent of all public schools in El Salvador. For his work in creating “cultures of peace inside the public schools” Mr. Ilchi Lee, president of IBREA Foundation, is being presented with the José Simeón Cañas National Award by President Salvador Sánchez Cerén of El Salvador on September 12 at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in San Salvador. The award to Mr. Lee was made possible due to the outpouring of support and gratitude from the many teachers who witnessed the improved security of their schools and the lives of their students change for the better.

For more information please visit IBREA Foundation or email Isabel Pastor Guzman at isabel [at] ibreafoundation.org.

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