“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 nations 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.
In El Salvador, a country of 6.5 million, its Defense Ministry estimates that more than 500,000 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.
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 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 having consultative status with the United Nations, who works for peace around the world by empowering individuals to make better use of the mind. Through an educational curriculum that combines physical movement, energy training, breathing techniques, selected readings and journaling, group work, brain respiration, among others, 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 20 percent 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 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, through the ability to accept the reality that surrounds her, and utilize her own willpower and determination to overcome it and change it. “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.”
To recognize IBREA’s contribution, President Salvador Sánchez Cerén of El Salvador is giving the National Award “Jose Simeon Cañas” 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 is due to an outpouring of support and gratitude from the many teachers who witnessed IBREA’s program changing students’ lives and the security of the their schools. The award ceremony will take place on September 12th, at 12 p.m., at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in San Salvador.
For more information on the award ceremony please email Isabel Pastor Guzman at isabel [at] ibreafoundation.org.