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“Children came yesterday at five o’clock,” Helga Weissova wrote in her diary in Terezín, (Volavkova, 1993). “No one is allowed near them. They are all barelegged and only a very few have shoes. They all have frightened eyes. Where they came from we never found out, nor where they were taken either. They have gone. All that is left is a few lines scribbled on the wall of the barracks that hardly anyone can figure out.” Between 1942 and 1944 there were 10,000 children in Terezin Concentration Camp. Only 500 survived.
One hundred million people died in wars during the 20th century and the 21st century portends to be an equally catastrophic. We live in a time of unimaginable and unspeakable humanitarian crisis, for 50 percent of those killed in wars are children. In the aftermath of mass violence and natural disasters the importance of education, teaching and learning are rarely a priority, and yet as UNCEF states, "In wartime, education gives children a sense of stability." Evidence of the importance of education is provided in a meta-analysis of 160 studies of 60,000 victims of mass trauma which suggests that re-establishment of social structures bolsters resilience and can minimize psychological problems" (Norris, Friedman, and Watson, 2002; Shalev, Tuval-Mashiach & Hadar, 2004).
“Today, in more than 36 countries around the world, children are the innocent victims of armed conflict," UNESCO reports. "Children have been cheated of the chance to go to school, to play in the fields, and to be raised within a peaceful environment protected by elders. However, the international commitment and investment in education for children living in areas of armed conflict and natural disasters has not been a high priority.” Marc Sommers (2002) states, "More than during peacetime, education during and soon after emergencies centers on teachers. If teachers are present and able to respond, educating children can continue”(p. 25). Sommers writes of education as a protective measure and argues that a "lack of investment in and creative, participatory work on education for children and youth in danger makes a return to peace and stability difficult if not fairly impossible" (p.28).
The need for the international community to support teachers working with children in areas of areas of extreme poverty and public health emergencies is also of critical importance. In the last UNICEF update on child survival which focuses specifically on the mortality rates from preventable or treatable diseases for children under five. Thirty thousand children a day die even though we have the knowledge and resources to save their lives. “Child mortality is closely linked to poverty,” the UNICEF report states. “Advances in infant and child survival have come more slowly in poor countries and to the poorest people in wealthier countries.” The report addresses issues of public health services and then states, “education, especially for girls and mothers, will save children’s lives.”
Education has the potential to keep children alive and increases the possibilities for children to recover from mass trauma. Teachers have an important role to play whether we are at peace or war. September 11, 2001 in New York, July 7, 2005 in London were both catastrophic events that resulted in trauma. Most recently the earthquake in Indonesia left 5,800 dead and 600,000 people without homes. The earthquake in Pakistan killed 73,000 people and millions of people were left without shelter to live through a Himalayan winter. The tsunami in India, Indonesia, Sri Lanka and Thailand was similarly catastrophic. In Banda Aceh alone 220,000 people died.
Here, in the United States, Katrina was quickly followed by Rita and these two hurricanes have devastated Louisiana and Mississippi. In the Gulf Coast region 372,000 thousand children were evacuated from the communities in which their families used to live. A social disaster has followed which is also of catastrophic proportions. We were not prepared for the physical, social and psychological impact of the hurricanes and we are still not prepared. For teachers this is of particular concern because teachers are often first responders. Few teachers have had any training in working with children when catastrophic events take place, and few teachers, if any, have any experience of working with children in situations of mass trauma.
In the year since the G8 Summit at Gleneagles in Scotland (2005) and Live Aid 2 (2005), 11,000,000 children under the age of five have died of malnutrition and disease (UNICEF, 2006), and many millions more have died if we include older children and children who have died in wars. The lives of children who survive are deeply affected by what has happened to them, to their families, and to their communities.
At the April 2004 Scholars Forum which focused on teachers helping teachers, Adam Shapiro, a human rights activist, who has made a documentary about children in Darfur and another in Bagdad, said, “The leaders I have know are nearly always teachers.” Adam, who has most recently been living and working in Kabul, Afghanistan, then said, “Education is more than about learning. Education is first a form of resistance. It is part of a struggle. Education is a struggle for identity, “this is who I am,” “this is who I want to be.” Education is also about survival. Whatever we can do we should do.” The teachers and scholars associated with ICEC know we are part of the struggle. ICEC is founded on the idea that language learning is central to human existence, and the complex relationships between language, literacy and education cannot be separated from children’s personal and shared identities and their ways of being in the world.
ICEC is intent on addressing some of the complexities of the world in which children sometimes have to fight to live. ICEC creates a space in which discussions can take place through which teachers, scholars, psychiatrists, physicians and humanitarian workers attempt to understand the complexities of local, regional, national and international issues. ICEC encourages conversation, critical thinking, original ideas, and creative and imaginative thought that is accepting of a diversity of ideas and addresses pejorative controversy and disagreement.
Being human brings great joy, especially for teachers who have the privilege of spending their professional lives working with children. Central to the work of ICEC is the creation of spaces for the imaginative worlds of children. The relationships between death and destruction and compassion and caring, unspeakable acts and celebrated accomplishments, are more complex than these simple dichotomy implies, but connections are rarely made in the ways that provide insights into the lives of children and the traumatic events that they experience. To teach is a life long struggle. There is great pleasure but also great pain. In life great accomplishments are celebrated little attention is paid to how easy death is easy to achieve.
ICEC provides a forum which encourages teachers to bring joy to the lives of children, to celebrate their accomplishments, but also to support them when catastrophic events take place.
The urgency of the mission of ICEC cannot be exaggerated. Two years after the tsunami in Sri Lanka many families are still without homes. The tents are gone but families are still living in dilapidated barracks (Perlez, 2006) and the conflict between the government and the separatist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam has once again become a matter of life and death. Shimali Senanayake (2006) reports in the New York Times that the violence has resulted in 700 deaths during the first six months of this year. In Sri Lanka children and their families are now dying for ideological and political reasons and not because of the wave.
The situation in Louisiana following Hurricanes Katrina and Rita have followed a similar trajectory. After the hurricanes there was a time of compassion and caring but one year later, when more catastrophic storms are expected, many families still do not have homes, and children do not have schools to attend, or their schools are unprepared to support traumatized children. Children live in trailers and tents and they are traumatized by the aftermath of the hurricanes just as much as the actual storms. “It is almost as if we are creating conditions for them that are virtually impossible to overcome,” Irwin Redlener is quoted as stating in a recent New York Times article entitled “For Many, Education Is Another Storm Victim.” Redlener, who is president of the Children’s Health Fund and Professor of Public Health at Columbia University, states, “The kids really cannot afford to wait.”
ICEC is not willing to wait. This is a time of intense preparation undertaken in the belief that ICEC the center can make a difference in the lives of children who are traumatized.