“Children are our hope.”
Chances are you’ve heard this statement countless times. Politicians use it in campaign speeches, parents when advocating for their children, and teachers when trying to remind society why what they do is so important. All of our visionary goals and all the dreams we pour into the next generation are for them. No one can deny protecting and empowering children to be paramount. And yet, children today seem to be the most neglected amongst us, globally. If children are our hope, what is there to say about a world that is destroying theirs?
Today, at least 357 million children live within 50km (31 miles) of an armed conflict and face the danger of being killed each day (Reuters). This is an increase of 75 percent since the early 1990s. Today, more than half of the world’s refugees are children. Today, there are more than 153 million orphans worldwide and everyday this number increases by around 5,700.
We can look at these numbers and talk about their effects- how millions of children around the world have been orphaned, displaced, injured, or starved. We can categorize these atrocities as human rights violations and lament their unlawful nature. But I’d like to talk about the more subtle, moral injustices that occur as a result of these atrocities. I’d like us to think about the quiet moments in which childhood is stolen from so many children who deserve and need to live it.
When I see these facts, I do not see mere numbers, I see individuals– every single one just as important as the other. Protecting and empowering children matters.
Let’s look at real life examples:
Take Rajab for example. His mother and father died in a tribal attack on his village in Kenya. Every morning at sunrise, he walked miles to work the neighboring farm while children his age made their way to school in their polished uniforms. But he couldn’t join them. Not only because he had to earn money to support his grandmother but also because he only had one pair of clothes (the ones he was wearing) and couldn’t dream of buying additional ones let alone all the school supplies learning required. In the evenings, Rajab’s grandmother boiled bones and leaves to produce some sort of soup for them to eat and they sat quietly in the corner of the mosque. You see, little Rajab didn’t have a home either. The village he was born in was burned and pillaged and Rajab only survived because he was knocked unconscious beneath the rubble, hidden away from attackers. Even worse, Rajab had no friends. He yearned to play soccer with the other kids but they ran from him whenever he approached, he told us. Knowing he was as poor as poor could get, the other children always assumed he was going to ask to eat dinner at their homes, Rajab explained.
Another example that comes to mind is that of Marah, a young girl from Gaza. Growing up in a territory constantly under bombardment meant over the years she developed severe PTSD. At any sound, she would flinch. As the months went by, her mother watched her little girl grow increasingly more anti-social. With every attack, the sound of bombs became more familiar and the chances of losing a loved one more real. Marah became so scared that she stopped playing outdoors and preferred the security of four walls. At night, her mother told us, Marah frequently wet the bed and woke in a panic from consistent nightmares.
Childhood is often denoted by moments of joy and exploration- curiosity not marked by fear. But children in circumstances of war and poverty are not afforded these privileges. In the stories of just two children above, I can’t help but imagine the moments these children experience that no one will know about: Those hours spent alone gathering crops while the other childrens’ laughter chimes in the distance; The grumbles of their stomachs as they go about their morning with nothing to satisfy their hunger; The nightmares that keep them up at night; the pain of remembering their mothers and fathers and knowing they will never see them again.
In the case of Rajab, he was given the task of his own survival. With no one but his grandmother, the world was no longer full of possibility but rather scary and unpredictable. And in the case of Marah, the safety and freedom to simply play outside with friends was stifled by perpetual violence and fear.
To be a child is a precious and fragile thing and the atrocities we see daily on the news are undoubtedly damaging. But, in the same way children are vulnerable to these global events, they are also full of potential– no matter where they started, helping children can transform their lives forever.
You see, despite Rajab’s difficult life as a young child, he is now growing into an incredible young man. At the direction of fellow village members, the Zakat Foundation team found Rajab and enrolled him in the orphan sponsorship program. Now, he told us, he’s the most popular kid in school and plays soccer with the other kids every day. What’s more, his grandmother no longer boils bones and leaves for dinner– they have rice and meat like everyone else and, his grandmother tells us, are investing in a plot of land Rajab can grow and sell his own vegetables on when he’s older. Rajab’s childhood here, while heartbreaking, became his source of strength. With the knowledge that someone out there cares enough to sponsor him and believes in his dreams, he is well on his way to success.
And in the case of Marah? She was enrolled in our mental health programs where she met Gazan children going through the same thing she was. Through it, she attended summer camp and made life-long friends. Last time we visited her she told us she still uses the techniques to calm herself down whenever she feels scared or worried. She then ran to grab a certificate she received recently to show us how well she was doing in school.
In this case, a simple sponsorship didn’t just give Rajab and Marah consistent food, clothing, and education, it gave them laughter, friendship, hope, and the space to dream. It returned to them their childhood and gave them the strength to redefine who they will become through it
If children are our hope, than it is our duty to safeguard them. And if children are our hope, than empowering a child anywhere around the world, is empowering an entire generation to come. Learn more about helping children at ZAKAT.org.