Credit: @ibreafoundation, IBREA Foundation

Fighting gang violence in El Salvador by empowering young minds

By:  IBREA Foundation

“Since wars begin in the minds of men, it is in the minds of men that the defenses of peace must be constructed,” wrote the poet Archibald MacLeish for the preamble of UNESCO’s constitution in 1945. Having experienced two world wars in less than a generation, its member states knew well that political agreements alone are not enough to build a lasting peace. For peace to be truly established, we must forge a moral and intellectual unity in our thinking toward each other, which is where education comes in.

In El Salvador, a country of 6.5 million, its Defense Ministry estimates that more than 500,000 – or 13% – of Salvadorans are involved with gangs, including relatives and children of gang members who have been forced to participate in crimes. Wars between MS-13, the country’s largest gang, and its chief rival, Barrio 18, have aggravated what is the world’s highest homicide rate for people under the age of 19. In 2016, 540 Salvadoran children were killed, an average of 1.5 every day. These conditions leave them with few options but to flee their country. In fiscal year 2016 alone, the U.S. Border Patrol apprehended a record 17,512 unaccompanied Salvadoran minors.

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Credit: @ibreafoundation, IBREA Foundation

Schools do not escape this harsh reality. Rather than being a safe haven for education, many schools and their surrounding areas are completely controlled by gangs. Teachers are subject to regular death threats and extortion. “We fear reprisals from the gangs. Any decision you take and they don’t like, like disciplinary action against a pupil, can bring a threat,” says a teacher who is part of the IBREA programme, working in one of the most violent neighborhoods outside San Salvador. In the first half of 2017 alone, over 12,000 students dropped out of school due to violence, according to the Salvadoran Ministry of Education.

The government has made countless efforts to combat violence inside the schools. Repressive measures haven’t worked, and even preventive measures don’t necessarily work. We are left to build the “defenses of peace” in the minds of students.

UNESCO’s founding statement is at the heart of IBREA Foundation’s mission, a New York City-based nongovernmental organization, which works for peace around the world by empowering students through education. Echoing some of the findings in the Peace chapter in the 2016 GEM Report, the programme has a curriculum that combines physical movement, energy training, breathing techniques, selected readings and journaling, group work, brain respiration, among other elements. IBREA’s program takes participants through a process of identifying and releasing strong stressors in the body and brain to find peace inside—and then project this strength to peers, family, and community.

Since 2011, IBREA has provided its brain-based holistic education program in public schools in El Salvador, which now reaches over 25% of all public schools in the country. Laura, one of the first students in the program in 2011, is a living example of overcoming social violence through changes in her mindset and behavior. She describes how the only way for her to overcome her mom’s death at the hands of a street gang was to redirect her own destiny and that of her children. “IBREA’s program gave me tools to relief my stress, my anger, my resentment … all the way to the root. I see many kids around me falling into gang networks. I learned that if I don’t give up in my choice for peace, people around me don’t give up, and so will the people around them. That’s how we can improve our community.”

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Credit: @ibreafoundation, IBREA Foundation

To recognize IBREA’s contribution, President Salvador Sánchez Cerén awarded the “José Simeón Cañas Slave Liberator Order” last week to the president of IBREA Foundation, Mr. Ilchi Lee, for his work to create “cultures of peace inside the public schools in the country.” This was due to an outpouring of support and gratitude from the many teachers who witnessed IBREA’s program changing students’ lives and the security of their schools. The award ceremony took place on September 12th at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in San Salvador where many ambassadors from Central American countries came to support. We hope this will help other schools follow the same example.


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