Our Future Through the Eyes of War Children

by: Nardos Tekle

“No one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin, or his background, or his religion. People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.”
Nelson Mandela, Long Walk to Freedom

On November 5, 2013, three of ACN’s regular bloggers (myself included), and ACN’s peace committee coordinator – Becky Norvang, attended a seminar on diversity hosted by the British Council in Oslo. The goal was to bring awareness to diversity’s biggest obstacle – our implicit associations towards race, gender, disability, etc. The seminar was very educational, and it is safe to say that we were all inspired by the great presentations, discussions, and personal stories. However, what I found very fascinating was the presentation on the psychology behind our implicit associations by Mads Nordmo – a PhD student at the Department of Strategy and Management at NHH.

Mads Nordmo explained how we begin to develop implicit associations as toddlers due to the way our brain processes information by categorizing. We immediately develop preferences for anything that makes us happy or feels good, people that resemble us, or places that are safe. Quite rapidly, these preferences become automatic, and anything that is slightly different from what we already associate with being positive, will automatically become negative. In other words, children are not by nature racist or bias and as Nelson Mandela once wrote, “No one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin, or his background, or his religion…” Children, however, are sponges who soak up everything they see, hear, learn, and feel.

So what happens when children are constantly exposed to prejudice, racism and stereotypes about people from other groups? Well, according to this psychology, they will either unconsciously or consciously internalize these biases until they eventually become automatic. While at the macro-level, diversity continues to be misunderstood as a threat because of the never-ending circle of unconscious (and, in some cases, conscious) dislike.

It is very interesting to see how clearly and practically this psychology applies to children in war zones, in particular. There are millions of innocent children caught up in the middle of wars they didn’t start, and they are far too often the ignored victims. These are the children robbed of childhood, the children exposed to extreme violence and as a result, learn to hate so deeply that they are willing to whatever it takes to kill – even if it will cost them their own lives. These are the children who are brainwashed and then handed rifles. These are the children that are both psychologically and physically damaged, the children that will forever be haunted by the horrors of war. These children are the future that will either determine peace or war.

This pattern can be found in any conflict-affected country, just pick one, any one, and see for yourselves. When it comes to war, children are the most vulnerable victims namely because they have not yet developed the right coping mechanisms necessary. They need to feel safe, they need to be loved, and they need constant reassurance that they will never be abandoned. When all these things are stolen from them, their innocence becomes replaced by pain, anger, hate, and revenge. And in countries such as Israel and Palestine, Pakistan and Afghanistan (just to mention a few), vulnerable children become valued resources for armed groups and the training beings early through textbooks. If, or when, textbooks are not an option, televisions and radios are there to ensure that everyone knows whom the enemy is, and that the enemy is responsible for all the pain and devastation. What does this mean for our future if children can easily be taught to hate to the point where they are willing to die in order to kill.  What does this say about our future?

warchildThere are countless of documentaries, articles, and published books on this subject. There are also a number of organizations dedicated to help war children, one of the well-known organizations being: War Child – an independent humanitarian organization. There are many stories and articles on their website aimed to bring awareness of the consequences of ignoring children in war zones. After all, they are our future and we are all affected.

This is what War Child has to say about our future,
“You only have to look into the eyes of a child is conflict today to know what the wars of the future might look like”

This, I believe, is a wake up call for us all. But how can we help these war children, who, believe it or not, are our hope to a peaceful world, our future? How can we restore hope and repair the damage that these children have been exposed to? Furthermore, how can we protect children from exposure to prejudice, racism and stereotypes that are all the ingredients for war?

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