Children of War Counsel Teens

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

AT 16, Gabino Hernandez has plenty of war stories to tell. The El Salvadoran refugee has seen death squads, civil war. ``There is a lot of fear,'' he says of his country. ``They force you to go in the Army. If you resist, they'll kill you - take you away, and you'll never appear again.'' His father was a drug addict who abused his mother. After she died, Gabino fled to the United States alone. That was 18 months ago. Today, at Cathedral High School in Boston, he tells his story to an assembly of ninth- and tenth-graders as part a group called ``Children of War.'' The organization has brought together 42 teens from war-torn countries to combat violence, racism, and despair among youth in the United States.

Sponsored by the Interfaith Religious Task Force, a network of religious and peace groups, Children of War tours have met with more than 100,000 youths in the US in the past six years. The 1990 program is concentrating on New York, Los Angeles, and Boston. The three-week tour ends today.

These Children of War tell teens their often-emotional stories and initiate peer counseling. ``The purpose of the tour is to be a catalyst to get young people enthused,'' says Judith Thompson, national director of the Brooklyn-based organization.

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The seven young people visiting Cathedral High today are from such diverse countries as Lebanon, Northern Ireland, and Mozambique. They aren't here for pity, they say, but to reach out to American students who face such warlike circumstances as racism, gangs, and violence.

The group's message to teens: You're not alone. ``The process of beginning to share one's hurt or pain ... is a healing process,'' says Ms. Thompson.

``Very painful, the things they were talking about,'' says Ernestine Reams, 15, a ninth-grader who lives in a high-crime area. ``You feel like `I'm lucky - I thought I had it bad.'''

Suffering can give way to triumph and the will to make changes. ``We work on the level that [young people] are real heroes inside,'' says Thompson. Out of such youth empowerment grows youth leadership, she adds.

Adam Donnelly and Anne Dyer are from Belfast. He is Protestant, she is Roman Catholic, and they are friends. Anne tells how her uncle was killed by the British Army. Adam talks about how he chooses to denounce the violence some of his peers engage in. ``You, too, have the opportunity to reject violence,'' he says.

``We are like one family; we are all children of war,'' says Sana Gorab, 17, a Beirut native. She recalls spending months in an underground shelter because of heavy shelling. One friend was killed by a car bomb. ``Everyone has different problems, but we want the same thing - peace,'' she says.

These are individuals who have gone through very trying circumstances, says Randy Fong, a social studies teacher at Roosevelt High School in East Los Angeles which has hosted several Children of War groups. ``What's remarkable is that they retain that optimism and hope in a world in which too often violence is seen as a solution,'' he says.

Mr. Fong has found that the program can encourage students to learn more about the world and see the interconnectedness of events. It can also stimulate participation in community affairs. The key is to follow through, he says.

``A lot of people will have an emotional response: `Gee, what can I do?''' Mr. Fong continues. ``It's important for any school to have a follow-up to encourage students who would like to be part of solutions to problems.'' His school, for example, has a voluntary human rights letter-writing campaign and a community internship program.

Children of War's coordinators hope that a new youth leadership training program will spread the group's philosophy. Pilot programs will be initiated in the cities this year, following the visits, to develop youth leadership and encourage young people to get involved in their communities.

``We'd like to see a large and growing racially integrated movement of young people,'' says John Bell, director of youth leadership training for Children of War. A handbook is now being printed.

Local chapters would build ``a national network of youth leaders,'' says national director Thompson. ``When people see young people stand up to do a positive thing in the community, it buoys the whole community'' and brings hope, he continues. Many people ``look to youth as a barometer in a society.''

``There's no future in people hating,'' concludes Damu Daley, 16, of Boston's Dorchester neighborhood after hearing a Children of War presentation: ``We can't work until we are together.''

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