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From child labourer to child rights advocate

By Klevisa Breshani, Communications Officer, World Vision Kosovo

Rafet, 14, a Roma child from Kosovo, used to think that working jobs for himself and his family, even physically demanding ones, was his duty as a child. He also thought that working was more important than going to school and earning money more important than an education. Rafet used to spend his days collecting plastics and transporting heavy loads to help his family.

His work not only robbed Rafet of his energy, it also prevented him from attending school. Participating in the awareness activities organised by the Local Initiatives for National Change (LINC), an 18-month project funded by World Vision Australia and implemented by World Vision and Health for All (a local partner) in Kosovo, helped Rafet understand his rights and change his mind. “I now help my parents around the house and go to school,” he says.

Today, not only is Rafet aware of his rights, he is also coaching many children in his community, helping them to understand their rights as well. Now, Rafet attends school regularly. His grades have improved and he is one of the most active children in the project’s initiatives. “I knew little about my rights before joining in the activities,” he recalls. “Here, I have learned that nobody should treat us violently, force us to beg on the street or work,” he says. “They [adults] have taught us so much about what we should do, and nothing about what to not to do,” he adds.

Before Refat started to attend school regularly, World Vision and the partner organisation held many awareness meetings with his parents, informing them that compulsory education is a right for every child.

Rafet walking in his neighbourhood

In the area where Rafet lives, a child was bitten by a street dog and lost his life while working to collect plastics and cans. “That made Rafet’s parents reflect,” says Orjana Demaliaj, World Vision’s LINC Project Officer. She adds: “Rafet’s father, an erector by occupation, is trying harder now to find a job  to help his family and save time for his children to attend school. Two of his oldest sons have emigrated to Germany and they are helping the family too,” she says.

Rafet is a member of one of six advocacy groups established over the past ten months in communes with the highest number of marginalised Roma, Ashkali and Egyptians. These groups typically lack information in regards to child rights and social protection services. Each group is comprised of 15 participants: children, youths as well as social protection workers and people with disabilities.

The project is focused on training groups in local advocacy techniques and strengthening them to raise their voices in order to influence child protection at the local level (with a special focus on vulnerable groups such as the Roma, Ashkali and Egyptians, among others). The project is also helping members to influence implementation of social protection service policies so that they can push for enhanced social assistance schemes and reduce cases of child labour. The LINC project is working to reach 102 direct and 350 indirect beneficiaries, including children, community groups and centres for social protection workers.

After learning a lot in the training sections, Rafet is sharing his knowledge with his siblings and schoolmates in order to show them what their rights are. Rafet shares his personal experience with other children working improper jobs for their ages and motivates them to spread the knowledge gained during the training as much as possible.

“In my neighbourhood, I know many children who work. They go early in the morning and come home at night. There are many girls whose parents don’t allow them to go to school or play. Instead, they force them to work, collecting [plastics] or washing cars on the streets. I often see their parents shout at them. I think what is happening to those children is not right and I have to help them!” Rafet says.

He uses his time at school and with his acquaintances in his neighbourhood to share about child rights. “During the school break or even in the neighbourhood, my friends and I tell other children about what we have learned at the group and that we should not work, nobody should [treat] us violently or force us to beg on the streets,” Rafet says smiling.

Thanks to Rafet, his family have changed their mindsets. “My brothers and my sister rarely go to work since I told them that children under 18 should not work. Instead, they should go to school,” he says.

Recently, Rafet and his group have written a clause regarding child rights law which has been sent to the Kosovo parliament to approve. The clause says that no child should work! Instead, children should pursue compulsory education.

“I know how they feel and I don’t wish to see any child working in poor conditions. Even though children are little, they should be respected and protected from adults!” he states.

Rafet wants to become a doctor when he grows up and heal the ill, especially children.

This story was adapted from an article at wvi.org

Mamita says no to child marriage

By Barun Bajracharya, Content Manager, World Vision International Nepal

18-year-old Mamita is from Lamjung in the western region of Nepal. Her mother fixed her marriage when she was 15.

 

18-year-old Mamita dreams of becoming a nurse and helping the marginalised. Mamita lived with her family of six in Lamjung. Her father was working as a labourer in Saudi Arabia. Due to a lack of good employment opportunities in Nepal, it is common for people with limited or no educational qualifications to go to the Middle East and other countries to work as labourers.

But at the age of 15, Mamita confronted the biggest obstacle of her life, a decision that would alter her future.

A marriage proposal came knocking on Mamita’s family door. Thinking they had found a good match, her relatives brought a marriage proposal intended for her sister. The climate of festivities quickly turned to one of panic when her sister eloped, leaving the family in a compromising position. The news of the elopement had started marring the image of the family within their community. Something needed to be done to save the family from losing respect.

Societal ridicule and an inability to provide for her children drove her mother, Nirmala, to arrive at a precarious decision. Fearing the possibility of her other daughter following in the footsteps of her sister, Nirmala offered 15-year-old Mamita as a substitute bride. Oblivious to the adverse consequences of child marriage, uneducated Nirmala followed the traditional custom, thinking it was perfectly normal to offer Mamita as a fair alternate option.

According to the 2014 UNICEF report, Ending Child Marriage, almost half of all child brides worldwide live in South Asia. Nepal is one of the 10 countries with the highest prevalence of child marriage. 52% of women aged 20 to 49 years were married or in union before ages 15 and 18.

Nirmala left no room for discussion on the matter and expected Mamita to graciously accept the marriage proposal. Crippled with fear, Mamita could not say anything to her mother but within her heart she knew that she did not want to marry early. Knowing that the situation was beyond her, she sought help from the members of her school’s child club, which was supported by World Vision.

“When I first heard about the news of my marriage I could not comprehend what was happening. I knew that I was too young for marriage and I wanted to study further and become a nurse. I was just 15. It made me sad and depressed and out of fear I could not say anything to my mother.”

“I knew there was a child club in my school and they worked on child protection issues. I thought they might be able to help me, counsel me and find a way out. That was my only hope. I was desperate to get any help,” says Mamita.

Despite the fear brewing within her, Mamita took the bold step of reaching out for that help. She approached the children’s club and talked to them about her predicament. After getting the assurance that all measures would be taken to protect her rights as a child, Mamita sighed a sigh of relief. The children’s club sought the support of local authorities and attempted to counsel Mamita’s mother on the issue of child marriage. Mamita had finally found her ray of hope.

As part of an awareness programme, school child clubs receive an orientation from World Vision on child protection issues, such as child marriage, child labour, and child abuse.

School child clubs also work for school issues such as cleanliness, attendance, studies, extracurricular activities, awareness programmes, street dramas and more. They learn that child marriage is illegal and that boys and girls are not mature enough to get married before the age of 20. The child club members are also trained by World Vision on who to contact when child protection issues are raised.

They first contact concerned authorities such as the District Child Welfare Board and the Village Child Protection and Promotion Committee to report a proposed child marriage. The child club members also directly talk with the authorities, coordinating a fixed time and date to meet the family of the proposed bride or groom and advise them.

This story was first featured on wvi.org

 

A mother’s story: Being positive about HIV

By Elayna Fernandez

She kept saying “I’m so grateful,” and she couldn’t stop smiling. I was instantly inspired by her sense of pride and the light that radiated through her beautiful brown eyes.

I think it is no accident that her name, Milagros, means “miracles.” That’s what you experience in her presence.

I couldn’t help but stare at her and just soak it all in. She is a loving mom, an entrepreneur, and an inspiration to many.

A smiling Milagros at home.

By now you may be wondering: who is this woman and what makes her so happy? I’ll answer the second question with a simple word I’m a big fan of: perspective.

In Philippians 4:11, we read this statement from Paul: “for I have learned, in whatsoever state I am, therewith to be content.”

I find this verse exquisitely brilliant.

To refresh your memory, Paul was in a yucky state that not everyone would be content to be in. He wrote this verse from prison. Now, I don’t know Paul personally and didn’t read this in the original language, but I can assure you I’ve learned a powerful lesson from this very short sentence: you may not necessarily be grateful for the prisons in your life, but you can choose to be grateful for whatever else is happening, while in the prison, through the power of perspective.

Well, back to Milagros. She’s not in prison per se, but for over six years, she’s found herself in a condition she never thought she’d be in. I was in awe of Milagros as she told her story: she had a near-death experience while giving birth to her son Genesis, and she thought she almost lost him. Whew! The tales of the past can be an emotional experience for both the storyteller and the story hearer.

But, wait. Behind Milagros’s perfect smile, sparkly eyes, and passionate gratitude, and beyond her survival is the condition that is very much present right now, as you read, and will continue to be present in her life: she’s positive … HIV positive.

So you asked, who is this woman? Well, yeah, I assumed you asked. And here’s my heartfelt answer: she’s a brave single mother of seven kids, living with HIV in a stigma-filled community, providing for her family by selling homemade bread at the local market. She’s also the go-to person for anyone who is diagnosed with HIV, because she’s turned her pain into a passion to help others understand that they can lead a healthy, meaningful life despite the disease.

Why is Milagros so grateful? I can’t possibly recall all the reasons. I was too caught up in the moment, and too in love with her kids, and it’s been a long day. She had a long list. I’m serious.

Do you have a long gratitude list? Is it so long that it would overwhelm people? Especially people that seem to have more than you do?

While you think on that (I did for a long while today while riding the bus around some impoverished communities in the Dominican Republic), let me share what I remember:

  • She’s grateful to God because she can be alive to raise her kids.
  • She’s grateful because she can be a loving, caring mom.
  • She’s grateful because she has had the support of World Vision (Vision Mundial, in Spanish), through her son’s birth, her diagnosis, and the roller coaster of emotions and challenges that come with it.

World Vision is the organisation that invited me to live this incredible experience in my homeland. Most of her kids are sponsored through World Vision, they provided her with small business training, and they even built her house for her.

Perspective is how you view something. It has a Latin root meaning look through or “perceive.” It means going broader and going deeper, to find the good in every condition we may find ourselves in.

Perspective can help us find JOY in the JOurneY.

You may find pain, poverty, and pestilence along the way, but if—when—you take a closer look, you will see HOPE, JOY, and LOVE shining bright.

Perspective doesn’t get you out of prison, yet it arms you with the awareness that, though it may sound or seem unreasonable, there’s actually a way out.

What actions can you take to help someone? Sponsoring a child may sound like too easy or little of a solution. RM65 may sound like too crazy of a “price.” [Insert your perspective] And you may be sceptical about it. And I would be, too.

Except that I’m not.

Meeting Milagros’ children today reminded me vividly of my own childhood. Things like safe drinking water, proper nutrition, basic sanitation, decent clothing, access to healthcare, and good education were often considered a luxury. And sometimes being poor also meant feeling judged and lonely, and suffering the anxiety of lack and apparent doom.

Milagros with her four sons at their home.

Meeting Milagros’ children, and other children that are sponsored through World Vision, also reminded my heart of what child sponsorship can make possible. One of my siblings had a sponsor in the USA, and that afforded a different set of possibilities for that child, while improving the situation and condition for our family as a whole.

And for Milagros? Her positive story is possible today because her children were part of World Vision’s sponsorship program. Their staff make regular visits to every family involved in those programs, and when they do they evaluate each family’s situation and needs. That’s how they discovered her condition in the first place.

When I was packing for my Dominican Republic trip as a World Vision Blogger, I found an old fortune from a few months ago. It read: Your happy heart will bring joy and peace to those in need.”

That is my prayer. Is it yours? If like me, you pray for a world in which children can break free from the prison of deprivation, where they have access to safe drinking water, nutritious food, empowering education, protective clothing, quality healthcare, and secure shelter, and the chance at a brighter future, I invite you to explore child sponsorship and take compassionate action.

I am living proof that your gift can bless a child, a family, and a community at large.

And as I think of Milagros’ gratitude and joy, I wouldn’t want to mislead you. These don’t just come from perspective. She’s become a mentor and an instrument of hope. She’s an inspiration to her six natural children, and an angel to the little one she rescued when his mom died from giving birth.

She’s an example to me of how perspective makes you positive in any circumstance therewith. She’s also a testament that God blesses a cheerful giver, and a grateful receiver who gives back.

This story was featured on worldvision.org

How one mother’s determination helped her daughter go to university

What unites parents around the world is their dreams for their children – and just what they’re willing to do to see them fulfilled. In some places, that’s harder than most.

When Nozipho was born, her mother Mariah was on her own, a single mum with five other children to take care of.

That was in 1988. Due to a scarcity of transport in her part of Swaziland, Mariah had to give birth at home; there was no one to help her. Despite the difficulties, Mariah decided to call her last born Nozipho – meaning gift.

Mariah and her daughter Nozipho

Nozipho was a sweet little girl from the very beginning and everybody in the family loved her. She was very smart in school, topping other students year after year.

Amidst the hardship, Mariah was determined that her children should remain in school, even though there were times when the family went to sleep without eating food for days.

To cope, Mariah started farming, assisted by her six children who would weed and take care of the cotton plants until harvest time. With the money she received, Mariah made sure that there was food in the house, the children had clothes and their school fees were paid.

Nozipho and two of her siblings were also sponsored by World Vision which assisted the family – without the presence of World Vision in her community, Mariah would have struggled to keep her daughter in secondary school.

Nozipho certainly made the most of the opportunity. After graduating high school in 2004, Nozipho was accepted into university, where she embarked on a journalism and mass communications diploma. The Swazi government awarded her a scholarship for her three years of study. Now, Nozipho was able to support her mother.

During her first year at the university, Nozipho gave Mariah some of her government allowance to help buy wiring material for electricity installation. “It has been my wish to have electricity at home,” says Nozipho. Later, she was also able to give her mother money to plant maize so she could produce enough food for the family, as well as a 10,000 litre water tank.

Over the years, Mariah has benefited from various World Vision projects, using them to increase her skills – and help the local community. She remembers being taught how to make water harvesters using one bag of cement to help cope with times of low rainfall, a common problem in her area. With the skill she acquired, Mariah even assisted her neighbours and other people from other community to build water harvesters.

“I am always grateful to World Vision for the assistance that my family received over the years,” she says. As well as food rations and basics for the children, Mariah received a goat and fruit trees. In fact, the trees are doing so well, says Mariah that “every year they give fruits in abundance and we even sell some to our neighbours.”

Since Nozipho finished her post-secondary education, she has been working for a construction firm. With her salary, she is assisting her mother to take care of her six grandchildren who were left orphans after two of her children died.

As Nozipho looks to the future, she hopes to start her own consultancy firm. She is grateful to be able to take care of her ageing mother and her grandchildren.

This story was featured on worldvision.com.au

His sister’s keeper: Protecting kids from child sacrifice

by Kari Costanza

When my son, Nick was 6, he began taking a school bus to his babysitter’s house after school. Thinking of Nick walking a block down the hill to Barb’s house frightened me. Until then, he’d walked everywhere with his dad and me, usually holding our hands.

“Nick,” I told him sternly, “When you get off that bus, you cross the street and run to Barb’s house. Do not look right. Do not look left. Do not talk to anyone you see on the way. Just run.”

Those first few days Nick took the bus, I’d leave work and sneak up behind in my car just to make sure Nick followed directions. He did. He looked neither right nor left and ran like the dickens. My worries abated.

Those memories flooded back yesterday when I met 9-year-old David in Uganda. David and his family live in what’s referred to as the “heart of witchcraft” in Uganda.

Witchcraft is in plain sight here in Buikwe, a district east of the capital city, Kampala. Behind many homes are tin- or thatched-roofed huts. Inside are the tools of witchcraft—animal carcasses, shells from nearby Lake Victoria, and doves cooing softly, awaiting slaughter.

Like many in this lakeside community, David’s father, Paul, was a fisherman. His mother worked in gardens, often leaving her children home alone. Two years ago, David and his little sister, Sharon, were brushing their teeth under a coffee plant in the front yard. That’s when the strangers approached.

“Two men came here and started calling us,” says David. “I told Sharon to run. I ran.” He points down a path that leads to more homes. Sharon, a toddler, could not keep up. The men captured her, pressing chloroform to her face to silence her cries.

9-year-old David and his 4-year-old sister Sharon. (Photo: Jon Warren/World Vision)

Child sacrifice is an abomination. Abductors are middlemen between people desperate—for money, to bear children, or to rid their bodies of disease. Witchdoctors convince them that only a child’s body part, such as the head, the fingers, or the private parts, mixed with traditional medicine, will cure the problem. Ritual demands that the parts be removed while the child is still alive and conscious.

On the day we met David, we learned that 6-year-old Trevor was being buried in a nearby community. Trevor had gone missing the previous Friday. His body was found yesterday without his tongue or genitals. Trevor’s mom is a widow.

Abductors prey on vulnerable families, like Trevor’s, waiting until the child is alone to abduct them. Trevor was buried next to his father. As the grieving relatives departed, family friends leveled the cement over his small grave, encasing him in earth. Trevor was the second child in this area to be sacrificed this year.

World Vision’s Amber Alert-style program is taking on child sacrifice in Uganda. The program is ingenious in the way it has created a radical partnership between leaders of all faiths, law enforcement, local government, child protection committees, and traditional healers.

This diverse group has reached out with the message that stopping child sacrifice is everyone’s responsibility. Faith leaders have created a radio program that airs messages about child sacrifice, good parenting, and taking care of one’s neighbors. Betty Nandawula, a Catholic, and Umar Mukisa, a Muslim, co-host a live call-in program about family relationships, taking on topics such as domestic violence and parenting. The traditional healers have started their own radio program, trying to protect children and to ferret out the witchdoctors who kill them.

When a child is abducted, the community is ready. Villagers are taught to intervene, and, if that doesn’t work, to sound the alarm. Seventy-three villages are equipped with drums that beat out a special rhythm and megaphones that carry the sound across the miles. Motorcycles block off exit routes and logs are laid across pathways to stop the abductors.

The Amber Alert program uses drums to alert the community when a child goes missing. (Photo: Jon Warren/World Vision)

It works. Eight children have been saved this year from child sacrifice. When they were abducted, the community responded. Villagers began combing the green fields, searching for the children. The abductors, apparently frightened, dumped the children and fled.

That’s what happened to Sharon. When her brother, David, saw the men, he was afraid. He ran until he found a man with a cell phone. It was his neighbor, Chiwa.

“Chiwa knew what to do,” says Mary Nakibuka of the child protection committee. “He informed other members,” she says. “Another child protection committee member heard David screaming. He made a phone call to get the message on the megaphone. It said, ‘[Paul] Buka’s child has been abducted.’ Motorcycles blocked the highways. Because the megaphone was heard by the abductors, they dropped her.”

Sharon is safe. She’s 4 now. Family life has changed. Today the children go everywhere with their parents. Their father, Paul, no longer fishes but farms so that he can stay at home.

I asked David why he ran away from the men. He responded that his mother told him not to talk to strangers. I asked Mary later about David. “Why did he run? Do children know about child sacrifice?” She nodded. David knew exactly what could have happened.

Remembering how Nick would run from the bus stop to the babysitter’s home, and how I used to spy on him, made me consider the lengths parents go to protect their children. World Vision goes to the same efforts, helping parents in Uganda protect their children through the Amber Alert.

The project continues to expand. Next, it will create or strengthen youth clubs, teaching children to protect themselves against child sacrifice. The project will work with parents to provide safe spaces for their children to go while they work.

Honest communication is critical to changing social norms. Traditional healers will be encouraged to talk about their skills and denounce fake healers, who prey on children. Faith leaders, both Christian and Muslim, will help lead the efforts to stop this criminal act. The Amber Alert system will spread—being replicated in more communities.

It is too late for Trevor, whose mother will grieve for her lifetime, but the work World Vision is doing in Uganda will save other children—girls like Sharon whose life was saved by her brother and a community that knew exactly what to do.

This story was originally featured on blog.worldvision.org

Educating parents helps fight malaria

By Thet Kaung Myat Oo, Communication Associate, World Vision Myanmar

Aung, 8, is in grade 3, and lives with his parents and siblings in a village situated along the bank of a river in Myeik Township, Tanintharyi Division, Myanmar.

Most of the families in Aung’s village rely on odd jobs and struggle for their daily living, and Aung’s parents are no different, working to feed their five children in paddy fields and rubber plantations, or sometimes doing traditional river fishing.

“I would rather go find work to earn money for my family or stay at home, rather than attend those kind of discussions,” replied Daw Yu Htay, Aung’s mother, when asked by volunteers and her neighbours to attend health awareness sessions.

Daw Yu Htay works odd jobs in her village, earning about 3000 kyats (around $3 US) each day.

“Although I was invited to attend malaria behaviour change discussions often, I never attended because I thought they were not important,” she said. “Sometimes we slept with an insecticide net, but sometimes we did not. I did not believe the transmission was from mosquito bites.”

One day, Aung got a fever.

“I gave him some medicines which I bought from the local shop that I use to treat my children when they are sick,” Daw Yu Htay said.

“My neighbours asked me to take my son for a malaria blood test, but I just ignored them,” Daw Yu Htay recalls.

Three days later, her son’s fever became even worse. “I could not swallow food and felt pain in my head and stomach,” recalls Aung.

Daw Yu Htay finally accepted the help of a World Vision volunteer. Aung’s blood test came back positive; he was seriously ill with Plasmodium Vivax (PV) malaria. PV is one of the five species of malaria parasites that commonly infect humans.

Despite the health volunteer’s urging, Daw Yu Htay didn’t want to take Aung to the rural health centre, because she had no money. However, the volunteers encouraged her to take him, and accompanied them.

From there, Aung was promptly sent to the hospital, where he received the necessary treatment. He recovered quickly, and is back at school enjoying his lessons.

World Vision paid for Aung’s medical fees and transportation charges.

“My son survived because World Vision helped us. I would regret it my whole life if my son had died from malaria. I neglected my children due to lack of knowledge, but now I have changed,” says Daw Yu Htay.

“We sleep with long lasting insecticide net every night. I keep my children from being bitten by mosquitoes,” she declared.

Now, Daw Yu Htay not only actively participates in awareness raising sessions but also encourages her neighbours to sleep with insecticide treated bed nets.

This story was adapted from an article at wvi.org

When health services are in the hands of communities

By Achel Bayisenge, Communications, World Vision Burundi

43-year-old Josephine is happy to be equipped with tools and drugs that help her fight against malaria

In the courtyard of a modest house in the rural areas of Burundi, Josephine, a Community Health Worker (CHW) is sitting next to a table with a metal box on it. The box contains a complete toolkit donated by World Vision to help fight against malaria. Josephine sometimes takes her box outside to make sure everything is in its place to avoid unpleasant surprises. Her box may run short of drugs and she would be unable to attend to the patients of her community. The living room of her modest house is a little dark and does not allow her to see everything clearly, especially when it comes to writing; she explains. She has to give a report to her nearby health facility so that needed drugs can be made available on time.

Josephine is a 43-year-old lady who lives on Ntunda hill in Ntunda ADP, northeast of Burundi. She is committed to fighting against malaria in her community.

‘’No child has died so far because of malaria on my hill, since we started treating children from home,’’ Josephine explains joyfully.

According to the WHO, more than 6 million people, including 2 million children, in Burundi suffered malaria from January to August 2016 alone.

More than 2500 of the affected people have already died.

Since World Vision became aware of the outbreak, the organisation scaled up its integrated community case management approach, focusing mainly on malaria management. This approach consists of treating the 3 main killers of under-five children in Burundi, namely malaria, pneumonia and diarrhoea.

Josephine is proud of being able to diagnosis and treat malaria that affects children in her community.

“We had a similar outbreak of the disease 15 years ago and many people perished, especially children,” she still remembers.

Asked if she had taken courses in medication before the World Vision project, her answer is no; World Vision trained and equipped 108 community health workers, including herself, throughout the whole commune of Gitaramuka to help them stop the Burundi malaria trend.

Josephine is always ready to help out whenever a malaria case arises on her hill, she explains. The donated metal box holds a complete toolkit including drugs, gloves, needles, solar torch, para checks, report forms, and many items enabling her to serve better, she continues.

Josephine and her bicycle.

On top of the toolkit, World Vision supported her with a bicycle. A bicycle helps her move around in the community to follow up on the health status of children she has treated. If their status does not improve, she refers them to a health facility, she says. A bicycle is also used to transport children if she finds that there is a need for the sick child to reach health facilities quickly. She appreciates World Vision’s support with all this. What caused many deaths in the past was the long time mothers had to travel to reach nearby health facilities. For many of them, this involved walking for hours and hours while the child’s health status worsened.

During the current malaria outbreak, community health workers are receiving more children than ever before. Sometimes their metal boxes run short of drugs because of the many children in need.

Josephine is asking for more support from the Government and Donors to help ensure that other communities do not experience what happened in the past when community health workers had not started working.

This story was featured on wvi.org

Planting a brighter future

By Xuan Thiem Le, World Vision Communications Officer, Vietnam

D410-0174-09-cropAting Ai with his cousins and a birthday greeting card he received from his Australian sponsor.

As a recent graduate of Quang Nam Forestry College in central Vietnam, Ating Ai, 22, speaks with passion about protecting woodlands and the natural environment.

His enthusiasm is not just a reflection of his academic studies. It arises out of painful firsthand experience of slash-and-burn farming techniques that kept his family desperately poor.

As a child, Ai camped out with his family on their plots of land in the hills around their home in the Dong Giang district of Quang Nam province.

“They cut trees in deep forests and burned them to plant more upland rice,” he recalls. “Unintentionally, they destroyed their forests and caused soil erosion.”

The primitive farming methods led to ever dwindling harvests. Although Ai’s father could sometimes supplement the family’s diet by trapping wild animals, they went hungry for three or four months every year.

To make matters worse, the desperate quest for food persuaded Ai’s parents to set their children working in the fields rather than sending them to school.

None of Ai’s three elder sisters completed more than two years of elementary education. For a long time it looked as though Ai might never enter a classroom at all.

Seed of Hope

The establishment of a World Vision development program brought dramatic changes for Ai, his family, and their community.

Ai was among the first children in his village to become a World Vision sponsored child.

One of the immediate benefits was Ai began receiving support to attend school at the ripe age of 9.

“I would have [remained] illiterate if my parents were not encouraged by teachers to send me to school when World Vision came to my village,” he says. “I still remember how joyful I was when I first came to my first class — although most of my classmates were several years younger than I.”

One of Ai’s most vivid childhood memories is running home to show his parents his certificate of merit after a stellar performance in his first year in school.

Further encouragement came from Ai’s Australian sponsor.

Ai still keeps and treasures the first letter he received from her. It was a card for his birthday — something that had never been celebrated before. The card was the first piece of correspondence Ai had received in his life.

“I still remember the strange joy when, for the first time in my life, I held in my hands such a beautiful greeting card,” he says.

Things began changing for Ai’s mom and dad, too. The World Vision development program taught local farmers improved agricultural techniques and animal husbandry.

As their agricultural yields grew and their fortunes improved, the family began raising cows and growing acacia trees to supply wood chips for the papermaking industry.

World Vision also supported villagers to set up a traditional community house is used for community meetings, harvest festival celebrations, and a place for children to play.

Ai helped carve and color designs on the building’s wooden beams.

“My favourite subject at school was arts. It helped me a lot to give a helping handing hand in decorating the house,” he says.

Future Growth

Ai’s mother died of liver cancer when he was 14; three years later Ai’s father succumbed to the same disease.

But by then Ai had sufficient resources to finish school and go on to higher education. As a college graduate, he hopes to secure a position as a forest ranger, preferably serving the community where he grew up.

Ai’s life experiences have given him a profound respect for those who reach out to help others.

As a youngster he wanted to become a soldier because he often saw them abandon their guard duties to help with the rice harvest or repair villagers’ homes.

“I still keep those caring images in my heart,” he says.

Today, he hopes many more children like him will find sponsors.

“I learned from my parents’ farm that plants grow strong from fertile soil,” he says. “I experienced through my life that my sponsor’s love and care fertilized my hope to shoot up to a brighter future.”

This story was featured in World Vision Magazine.

Syria’s children – how conflict can harm brain development

By Alison Schafer
Senior Programme Advisor
Mental Health & Psychosocial Support
World Vision International

The Syria conflict has been raging for over six years. In times of war, children are among the most vulnerable groups. Even though most will survive the conflict physically, the immediate and long-term well-being of children remains a serious concern for humanitarian organisations, like World Vision.

Conflict situations commonly expose children to extremely stressful and terrifying events. World Vision has heard from children who have escaped Syria, speak about both witnessing and being victims of violence; losing parents and loved ones; and being displaced.

Children also tell us about the daily challenges they face living with those who love them, who are themselves dealing with personal experiences of war and displacement and unable to be as supportive or loving as they once were. These ongoing stresses can have strong and lasting effects on children’s socio-emotional well-being and their growing brains.

And a vast number of children have been impacted by this crisis: more than four million children in need in Syria, and more than one million child refugees now living in Turkey, Lebanon, Iraq, Egypt and Jordan.

Research suggests that the physical consequences of conflict on a child’s brain development can have adverse and marked consequences – with the potential for permanent changes to the brain’s architecture. Without adequate intervention and the presence of protective and caring relationships, Syria’s war could have a lasting impact on children’s learning abilities, memory, social interactions, stress and fear responses, and the ability to control emotions. The experiences of Syria’s war-affected children could lead to a generation of children experiencing long-term mental health, social and economic problems.


“My grandchildren have never had a beautiful day in their lives,” says the grandmother of Fatima, 4. “The older girls barely talk, and when other children cry, they curl up with their hands to their ears and rock.” Photo by Jon Warren

Click here for more information on how to help these children cope with stress.

It is a common misconception that young children do not understand stressful or violent events and so are not as affected as adults. But their young minds process much more than is often credited.  World Vision has often observed this in children affected by crises: their developmental milestones can be delayed, their capacity for higher education attainment is jeopordised and their behaviour, emotional attachments and social environments are also impacted. Most often, crises induce severe and chronic stress among children.

Research shows that “toxic stress” – when the stress response system is activated over a prolonged period without the buffering presence of protective and caring relationships – leads to elevated levels of the cortisol stress hormones in the brain. This impacts the brain’s hippocampus and leads to children having learning difficulties, problems with short-term memory and difficulty controlling emotions.

Humanitarian organisations often see children exhibiting limited concentration, behavioural and emotional self-control in the remedial, recreation or education programmes they provide for children and adolescents.

During early childhood, the neural circuits of a child’s brain for responding to stress are particularly vulnerable to prolonged and elevated cortisol levels.  This can have permanent effects on a person’s ability to regulate stress and fear responses later in life and means they are more likely to develop anxiety, depression and a range of other mental, emotional and behavioural disorders. The long-term impacts aren’t limited to the brain. Research also shows a strong correlation between exposure to adverse childhood experiences and higher rates of heart, liver and lung disease in adulthood.

This evidence highlights the need for humanitarian agencies to go beyond delivering food, water and shelter and ensuring a child’s physical safety. Displaced children living in refugee camps, or in isolation from host communities, commonly face boredom, social exclusion and lack of stimulating activities or opportunities for play. On the surface, this may seem a minor concern. However, a lack of adequate stimulation can also be linked to significant neurological shifts in the developing brain.

In childhood, only the neurons and neural pathways that get used are strengthened in the brain, whereas those that are not used die out. The brain is like a muscle. It requires frequent repetitive use and stimulation – through environmental cues, relationships with family, social engagement and education. Neglect and under-stimulation of children affected by conflict can lead to severe impairments in the cognitive, physical and psychosocial development of the child, creating a lasting legacy of war.

This can lead to emotional, cognitive, and behavioural disorders, anxiety and depression, emotional and interpersonal difficulties, and significant learning difficulties.

World Vision prioritises setting up Child Friendly Spaces – safe places where children can play, learn, make friends, develop routines and be monitored for behavioural and emotional issues. The spaces are up and running in Lebanon and are hosting Syrian children.

Our research on Child Friendly Spaces for refugee children living in Ethiopia and Uganda found children participating in such programmes showed more sustained and consistent mental, social and emotional well-being than those refugee children who did not have such opportunities. The research highlights the importance of these spaces in minimizing long-term damage for children.

Children will then only have to deal with tolerable levels of stress – levels that don’t lead to lasting effects on the developing brain.

World Vision is responding to the Syria crisis. In addition to water, health and cash programmes, World Vision aims to scale up its children’s programming. In Lebanon and Jordan we are working to establish or delivering: child and adolescent friendly spaces for recreation and psychosocial support, remedial education initiatives, and maternal and child health programmes that can promote children’s support with their caregivers.

It takes a world to end violence against children! Click here to learn more about the fears and dreams of the Syrian children.

Safe places to be children

By Edmond Lee

April 7 marks World Health Day. This year, the focus issue is depression, an illness characterised by persistent sadness which affects a person’s ability to perform everyday tasks or maintain healthy relationships. Many depressed people suffer feelings like worthlessness and guilt. In the most severe cases, depression can lead to self-harm and suicide.

Worst of all, depression can happen to anyone, including children.

Emergency situations can be a major source of mental health issues. The WHO estimates that 1 in 5 people are affected by depression and anxiety during humanitarian emergencies and ongoing conflicts. For children, the trauma of being displaced and witnessing terrible things can leave scars that last into adulthood.

Whenever World Vision responds to an emergency, we are ready with food, water and other essentials. But we also recognise that fulfilling a child’s physical needs isn’t the end all be all; it is not enough for a child to be well-fed if they are suffering mentally and emotionally.

That is why we are always ready to give these children a place to heal.

Escaping the trauma of war

Mosul
A World Vision staff member chats with a boy who was displaced by conflict near Mosul, Iraq. 

During the recent military operations in Mosul, Iraq, many fleeing children arrived at relief camps petrified, struggling to express themselves, and in some cases too terrified to speak. Years of brutal occupation and terrible violence had taken a toll on their mental health.

“Many children have been stuck in their homes while bombings, sniper fire, or chaos ruled around them. Others have witnessed the death of family members,” said Aaron Moore, World Vision’s programs manager in northern Iraq. “Our Child-Friendly Spaces provide a safe place for children to come to terms with the violence they’ve seen and just take time to play as children again,”

One little boy had seen his 15-year-old brother killed when they fled. When he came under World Vision’s care, he was too terrified to even speak.

“Thankfully, with the support of a trained World Vision psychologist, he was able to say his name by the end of the day. However, this is just the beginning of what could be years of specialist support, as children begin to rebuild their lives and regain a sense of normality.”

Many children don’t want to play when they first come to the camps. “However, after a few days at the Child-Friendly Space with our staff, they’re slowly beginning to regain confidence and a sense of hope for the future,” says Aaron.

Art therapy

One important coping mechanism for traumatised children is art.

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Faras, 11, remembers happier days in Syria. Now the happiest thing in his life is coming to the Child-Friendly Space, so he draws the bus he rides.

At a Child-Friendly Space in the Bekaa Valley, Lebanon, Syrian refugee children use art to express a wide range of feelings. When Faras, 11, draws a picture of his past in Syria, he sketches an idyllic landscape with a smiling sun, a rushing river, and a green field where he and his brother once looked after sheep. Habib, 9, uses a black crayon to outline a helicopter dropping bombs.

That’s appropriate, says Bassima, the supervisor, who is also a Syrian refugee. “We have a past that is both beautiful and ugly.”

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Habib, 9, recalls a helicopter dropping bombs near his home. “The house is okay. The bombs exploded the neighbours’ house. I saw it; many were killed,”

Animators, the adults who lead activities for different age groups of refugee children, don’t ask them about their painful experiences and losses.

“We provide a peaceful place for them to feel their freedom. It’s a safe place for them to experience feelings and memories,” says Bassima.

Even as they help children come to terms with the past, the staff members attending to the children are also concerned for their present and future.  Huda, an animator, says “Every day there is something sad [the children hear] about relatives in Syria. They need support not to be overwhelmed by sadness.”

Ahmad, a classroom animator for a group of 10- to 12-year-olds, echoes this sentiment as he pantomimes raising an umbrella in a circle of 12 boys and girls. As they mimic his motions, he calls the Child-Friendly Space an “umbrella of comfort and safety over your head.” Indeed, this ‘umbrella’ may be the only thing stopping these children from being washed away by a flood of fear, anxiety and depression.

As for what lies ahead, “The future is very important to us, the future for these children,” says Huda. “If we create this peaceful place for them, we’ve done what we can do.” Indeed, for children of conflict, a little peace may be all they need.

If you would like to support Child-Friendly Spaces (and physical relief) for children in humanitarian emergencies, please make a contribution to our Emergency Relief Fund

The stories and pictures in this post were adapted from articles featured on the World Vision US website.