Students, displaced due to the conflict in Syria, receive psychosocial support at a center in northern Lebanon, in the form of drawing and dance lessons to help them forget the conflict. Photo by: Russell Watkins / DfID / CC BY

Multiple pairs of drumsticks lay perpendicular to a circle of chairs occupied by a group of professional musicians studying peacemaking at the School of International Training in Brattleboro, Vermont. They were using a new elective offered by the three-week course “Conflict Transformation Across Cultures” to learn how to integrate music into social outreach for communities affected by war and other forms of violence.

Instructor Otto De Jong made funny expressions and hand gestures as he encouraged his fellow artists to emulate the people they teach through socially conscious music programs. In this workshop, the musicians’ target audiences included youth in low-income American neighborhoods, underserved South African townships and refugee camps around the globe. Some musicians pretended to spar with their neighbors and play practical jokes while others grimaced at the potential for impalement.

De Jong was un-phased by the participants’ behavior. As a trainer for Musicians Without Borders, an international nonprofit organization that uses music education to assist in healing conflict-ridden communities, he has led courses everywhere from Rwanda and Palestinian territories to Kosovo and Northern Ireland.

“I saw many times how teachers became angry with children because something went wrong, like beating each other with sticks,” explained De Jong. “I believe that if the teacher could have another system to hand out these sticks, that wouldn’t have happened.”

Slowly De Jong’s students fell into line. Even the more disruptive musicians tired of their antics.

With all eyes on him, De Jong picked the sticks off the floor one pair at a time and passed them through the circle as he chanted “I hand out the sticks, I hand out the sticks.”

This was just the kind of lesson SIT’s CONTACT program staff hoped for when they partnered this year with Musicians Without Borders and the timing is critical. The Vermont-based institute has spent two decades making its campus a safe environment for global peacemakers hoping to deepen their theoretical and practical understanding of conflict resolution, and these days violence all across the world is threatening the development of a new generation. For example, civil wars in Africa and the Middle East and skyrocketing crime in Latin America have driven increasing numbers of school-aged children to migrate, drop out or both.

As such, World Learning, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit organization which runs SIT as part of a larger effort to promote international exchange, education and development in 60 countries, has been working across its many programs to help educators create healthy, nurturing classroom environments that accommodate and empower youth dealing with traumatic life circumstances.

A lot of these fun and games are aimed at easing those tensions — and that was something even the adult participants of the CONTACT program could appreciate since many of them hailed from conflict-ridden societies such as Somalia, Liberia, South Africa and Tibet.

“It’s a very base level way to get people to connect,” explained CONTACT Executive Director Bruce Dayton, but it’s one he knows can have far-reaching effects. “We all sing and use our voice, and we can all perceive beauty.”

Tatevik Khoja-Eynatyan, an Armenian refugee based in Baltimore, Maryland, came to the program looking for strategies such as these to implement in the choir and bucket drumming courses she offers to youth in after-school programs. Many of her students are refugees from Africa and the Middle East, unaccompanied migrants from Central America and underserved youth from crime-ridden local neighborhoods, so these games help them to let off steam and regain focus amid the chaos of unstructured lives where parents are often working long hours to make ends meet and English may not be a primary language.

“We still learn structure and we still learn how to collaborate, but it’s something that’s fun and easy to do,” she explained.

It also helps her maintain her inspiration when she feels she’s losing control of the classroom dynamics.

“It’s funny how sometime we think oh, I’ve exhausted all the possibilities, but we haven’t really,” said Khoja-Eynatyan. “Getting all this input from different people will help me feel stronger in the moment, and I’ll have more tools to pick from to kind of trouble shoot.”

Preparing teachers for children of war

Khoja-Eynatyan is part of a growing trend of educators seeking innovative solutions for refugee education. The United Nations reports that more than 50 percent of the world refugee population is now made up of school-age children, the lives of which are often precarious. Not only do they suffer violent memories, they may need to learn a new culture and language or adapt to less-than-optimal living conditions. For example, their parents may have to leave them unattended in order to find work to make ends meet, or they themselves may have to take to the streets for work. This can leave them vulnerable to abuse and sexual exploitation.

“Because of the traumas they faced, they might exhibit hostile or aggressive behaviors, and teachers may not have the background they need to understand how to better engage them,” said Jo Kennedy, associate director of World Learning’s Teacher Education, Training, and Research and International Development Programming. After nearly two decades developing World Learning’s Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages curriculums, she worked with educational experts in Lebanon to develop teacher training manuals and workshops to help integrate Syrian refugees into Lebanon’s public school system. Since the onset of Syria’s civil war in 2011, Lebanon has become the top destination for Syrian refugees. There are currently more than a million of them. This teacher assistance program, known as Developing Rehabilitation Assistance to Schools and Teachers (D-RASATI-II or My Learning in Arabic), is working to train 750 teachers in 250 schools to offer some 20,000 Syrian refugees and their Lebanese classmates enhanced psychosocial support.

This is key in traditional classrooms where teachers are accustomed to reprimanding children in front of their peers for not paying attention or coming to class without completing homework assignments. Post-traumatic stress syndrome is likely to interrupt sleep and concentration and many refugees aren’t living in environments that are conducive to studying, so nearly 100 trainers have been asked with showing these teachers how calming meditations or “whole body listening” games that could help them calm the children so they are receptive to their school lessons.

“You have to be able to say to the students ‘here’s how I know you’re listening and that you understand,’ you have to be very explicit so that they’re more able to successfully exhibit those behaviors,” said Kennedy.

Teachers participate in five-minute role playing exercises in which some act as refugee students while others assume their traditional teacher roles. They then spend another five to ten minutes reflecting on why these children might withdraw or act out.

After the workshops, the trainers follow teachers into the classroom for additional coaching to ensure that teachers have properly absorbed these new communication and classroom management skills, as well as deal with the added stress they themselves face when dealing with kids in crisis.

“Changing how you do what you do is a practice in and of itself so this coaching is very critical,” Kennedy added.

Empowering youth to address their own crises

The intersection of trauma and aggression is manifested in much of Latin America as well. Citing concerns such as gangs, bullying, domestic violence, teen pregnancy and child labor, the Inter-American Development Bank reports that one in two Latin American youth will drop out of high school. But there is a silver lining. Adolescence, the final phase of development before adulthood, also represents a time of greater self-awareness and influence over one’s peers. It just has to be harnessed in a strategic way.

In 2011, World Learning joined the youth outreach program Jóvenes en Acción, a joint initiative founded a year prior between the U.S. Department of State, the U.S. Embassy in Mexico, the Mexican Ministry of Education and the private sector.  

A 10-month high school leadership program aimed at helping teenagers in Mexico promote a culture of lawfulness among their peers, youth apply for the program in project groups of four or five by submitting a proposal for how they hope to curb social problems in their communities. The winning teams — usually representing some 80 youth — come to the United States on a four-week exchange program. They spend a week at SIT participating in team building exercises and workshops to become comfortable talking about their community issues, then spend approximately two weeks living with American host families and making site visits to community outreach projects similar to those they plan to recreate on their side of the U.S.-Mexico border. Then, at the program, they spend five days in a synthesis workshop in Washington.

“We’ve found most participants have not had an opportunity to talk about these community issues from their perspective in a safe space,” said Lisa George, the Jóvenes en Acción program officer at World Learning.

Gerardo Alan, a recent high school graduate from Mexico City, wanted to address bullying and violence within romantic relationships, an issue that can exacerbate other problems such as teen pregnancy.

His team started with a PowerPoint presentation on the topic, one that left little time for follow-up questions and discussions.

“We had around 70 people the first time, but the next activities were virtually empty,” he recalled. “As we rethought our approach, we tried to remember what attracted us to the Jóvenes en Action’s activities.”

They remembered that arts and sports activities were some of the most engaging parts of their training, so they brought in senior students focused on humanities and the arts.

“In one activity, students had to represent with modeling clay what violence meant to them, but with their eyes blindfolded, allowing their imagination to run free. After that, we did a brief reflection asking questions like ‘What does your sculpture represent?’ or ‘How would you define dating violence?’ They made really touching and interesting reflections and produced real art pieces,” he said.

That made students more receptive to presentations from local psychologists who could help youth define healthy relationships.

“A couple of people told us that before this, they hadn’t even considered that they were in a violent relationship,” he added.

Students have found that open discussion about these issues enables them to identify more discrete signs of violence in their own lives. From that point forward, they can catalyze their own strategies to positively change their community.

“The Jóvenes program is really about helping these youth realize they already are leaders in their communities. It’s a pay it forward effect,” noted George.

Thanks to his ambition for programs such as Jóvenes en Acción, Alan will be enrolled in Brown University this fall on a full scholarship. He hopes to major in social or gender studies.

The mind-body connection

After observing the CONTACT program’s partnership with Musicians Without Borders, Dayton is convinced creative activities such as these are crucial for anyone working on community outreach and education in conflict environments. Like Alan, Dayton says games and music helped him integrate his academic theories on conflict with an experience of “body and spirit,” and he was grateful to see a similar transformation in CONTACT participants.  

“What I hope is that we gave them a sense of how they could actually build community programs and how they could understand the roots of conflict from a deeper level so they could be much more strategic.”

For more Devex coverage on the role of young people in global development, visit Focus On: Youth.

The views in this opinion piece do not necessarily reflect Devex's editorial views.

About the author

  • Julienne Gage

    Julienne Gage is a senior writer and editor at World Learning, a Washington-based nonprofit dedicated to international Exchange, education and development. She has a bachelor’s in peace studies from Whitworth University, a master’s degree from El País School of Journalism in Madrid with a specialization in immigration reporting and a master’s in cultural anthropology from Western Washington University focused on the arts for youth development in Cuba and postwar El Salvador.