Helping Child Soldiers Be Kids Again

Publication Date: 
February 13, 2018

Trust. Hope. Love. For former child soldiers in Medellin, Colombia, these emotions are almost impossible to imagine -- let alone feel. Aggressively recruited into armed groups fighting a civil war they do not understand, far too many boys and girls under the age of 18 suffer heartbreaking abuse as a result. At Ciudad Don Bosco, Salesian missionaries are determined to help these children reclaim their youth, and futures, through a targeted program focused on social reintegration.

In Medellin, violent drug wars routinely tear families apart, leaving hundreds of children to fend for themselves on the streets. Here, they are particularly vulnerable to violence, disease, malnutrition and despair -- a situation that paramilitary groups exploit to their advantage.

“They promise daily meals, a place to sleep, safety and security to these kids,” explains Father Mark Hyde, director of Salesian Missions. “Instead, once children agree to become soldiers, they are immediately deprived of their basic human rights and are forced into situations no child should ever experience.”

One of the oldest and largest programs for street children in Latin America, Ciudad Don Bosco (“Don Bosco City”) has, since 1965, served more than 83,000 boys and girls with nowhere else to turn, including former child soldiers. This newest program, called “Specialized Protection House – Building Dreams” more specifically addresses the unique needs of these former child soldiers.

“We know that there are at least 6,000 minors currently trapped in this situation,” says Father Rafael Bejarano, director of Ciudad Don Bosco. “For those who successfully leave it, we want to provide the tools they need for a better future: psychological assistance; interpersonal skills; basic education; and more advanced training that will lead to stable, long-term employment.”

Children enter “Building Dreams” through an official referral process. Once there, they progress through three steps -- Pedagogy of Trust, which fosters healthy bonds with adults; Pedagogy of Hope, which affords opportunities for academic and vocational training, life-skills development, civic engagement and personal responsibility; and Alliance Pedagogy, which helps participants integrate what they’ve learned in the previous two steps, and apply them toward the next phase of life. Missionaries also offer family reconciliation support for those who seek it -- and job placement opportunities at partner companies in the area.

Looking forward, Fr. Rafael hopes “Building Dreams” will become unnecessary as Colombia’s government negotiates with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) to end more than 50 years of armed conflict. “We hope the peace process with FARC allows children to enjoy their status as children,” he says.

Until then, Salesian missionaries in Medellin will continue to help boys and girls recover their lost childhoods, with the loving support they need.

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