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“I Want to Think Big”

No child should have to fight in a war, shoot a weapon, or witness a death. Yet Catalina had done all three before she was even 15 years old.

Having run away from a violent stepfather whose abuses were so cruel that she once attempted suicide, Catalina sought validation and protection within the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) -- one of several paramilitary organizations at war with the country’s government.

“My stepfather burned me with hot sticks from the fire,” Catalina explains in Alto el Fuego (“Cease Fire”), an award-winning documentary directed by Raul de la Fuente and presented by the Salesian Missions office in Madrid, Spain. “He tried to physically abuse me. When I complained to my mother, she didn’t believe me and then beat me too.” Catalina saw no other choice but to flee to the woods -- where she soon encountered FARC guerillas.

“I left with them,” Catalina says, simply. “It seemed like a dream; what had I gotten myself into?”

As it turned out, her experiences as a child soldier were so traumatic that she began using papeleta: base cocaine wrapped in paper. “I couldn’t accept what was happening to me,” she recalls. She and other children were regularly forced to march for several days without food, water or sleep. Many young girls functioned as “wives” to older men and -- when they bore children -- were forced to give them up. After a surprise attack on her unit, where almost everyone was killed, Catalina summoned the courage to escape.

At Ciudad Don Bosco in Medellin, Salesian missionaries welcomed Catalina with a warm embrace. Now living in a safe environment with her basic needs met -- and with the loving support of psychologists, social workers and educators -- she has blossomed into an intelligent, confident and determined young woman.

“[The Salesians] have given me many opportunities,” she says. “So I want to think big.” Thanks to the job-skills training she’s received, Catalina has begun to work. Ultimately, she aspires to attend University, and to buy a house where she and her two younger brothers can live. She has also begun working to reconcile with her mother -- and views her many scars of war as something to tell her future grandchildren about.

To learn more about Ciudad Don Bosco’s work on behalf of children like Catalina, you may watch Alto el Fuego here. (21 minutes).

A Rose Blooms in Kivu

The Democratic Republic of Congo has been plagued by intense, brutal conflict since 1988. More than 5 million people have died -- as many as 1,000 casualties per day, according to the World Health Organization -- and nearly half of the war’s victims are among the young. Sadly, those who survive face related humanitarian crises, including health epidemics, gender-based violence, and chronic food insecurity, that further threaten their futures and potential.

Worse, according to a recent report from Child Soldiers International, the country continues to mobilize underage combatants -- a strategy that succeeds, in part, precisely because children and young adults see little other choice. While the vast majority of these child soldiers are recruited, some of them enlist “voluntarily.” Of this latter group, most are girls.

“It seems counterintuitive,” explains Father Mark Hyde, director of Salesian Missions. “But in a country where girls are regarded as second-class citizens, and regularly experience violations of their human rights and dignity, life in the army can seem an attractive choice: one in which they will have food, shelter and security -- or so they are told.”

This is exactly what 14-year-old Rose believed when she decided to flee an impoverished, repressive household in order to join one of DRC’s rebel militias. The reality, however, was much different: physical and emotional abuse, deprivation and despair.

Fortunately, United Nations representatives discovered Rose -- at that point 16 and pregnant -- and referred her to the Salesian-run Maison Marguerite.

Established in 2009, Maison Marguerite offers a safe haven for at-risk, abused and exploited girls and young women in the war-torn district of Kivu. One of the few such facilities in the area, Maison Marguerite comprises a school, overnight shelter and community space. Currently, 22 girls between the ages of 12 and 17 live at the shelter, while 60 others visit during the day -- attending professional training in tailoring, culinary arts, hairdressing and more.

At Maison Marguerite, Rose benefitted from psychological therapy, life-skills training, self-esteem coaching, parenting classes, recreational opportunities and more. She also received nutritional assistance, pre-and post-natal care for herself and her infant Hortense, and family reunification counseling.

Recently -- after successfully completing her training as a hairdresser and demonstrating positive personal progress -- Rose returned home with Hortense. Equipped with all the tools she needed to launch her own business, she is now able to support herself and her young child.

“There is so much more work to be done in the Democratic Republic of Congo,” says Fr. Mark. “But programs like Maison Marguerite are absolutely crucial in breaking the vicious cycle of violence and poverty -- because educated, empowered and independent mothers raise children who are the same. The life and job skills that Rose, and other girls like her, receive at Maison Marguerite truly help them blossom into well-adjusted adults.”

News & Updates

“I Want to Think Big”

No child should have to fight in a war, shoot a weapon, or witness a death. Yet Catalina had done all three before she was even 15 years old.

Read More »

A Rose Blooms in Kivu

The Democratic Republic of Congo has been plagued by intense, brutal conflict since 1988. More than 5 million people have died -- as many as 1,000 casualties per day...

Read More »

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As many as 250,000 young people, under the age of 18, are forced to become #childsoldiers. Together, we can expand crucial prevention services so precious girls & boys never have to experience such abuse.
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It’s horrifying to imagine: precious girls and boys, some as young as seven years old, forced to become soldiers and fulfill the most brutal roles of violent conflict. Will you help us rescue and rehabilitate them?
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