Experts: Mideast youth radicalism is “public health crisis”

By Jillian Slutzker

January 16, 2015

In refugee camps across Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey and other countries, more than 3 million Syrians live in limbo. Especially for those in their teens and twenties, their life plans—education, careers, marriages and families—are suspended while a violent civil war at home rages into its fourth year.

“If you go into a refugee camp, every day is Ground Hog’s day. There is no tomorrow and there is no yesterday. Every day is frozen,” said Curt Rhodes, Founder and Director of Questscope, which works across the Middle East to create social, educational and entrepreneurial opportunities for marginalized youth.

Rhodes joined other experts in youth, development and stabilization on a panel entitled “Youth Programming in Jordan and Syria,” hosted by Creative Associates International on Jan. 6.

With the spread of ISIL and other extremist groups in an already unstable region, preventing marginalized young people from joining violent extremist groups is becoming a development and security priority.

Outside of the Middle East’s conflict hotspots, many youth in transitioning countries like Egypt and divided ones like Lebanon are also adrift. With more than 100 million youth aged 15-29 in the region and a youth unemployment rate of 28 percent, economic opportunities are slim.

Authoritarian governments and nascent, backsliding democracies leave youth with the “inability to feel like they had any say not only in their governments but even in their communities,” said Richard Jaskot, Director of Stabilization and Development at Creative.

Criminal treatment breeds criminal youth

To stem radicalization among youth, Rhodes said, governments and practitioners first need to adjust the lens through which they view the problem.

In the Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan and other communities where Questscopoe works, Rhodes said youth in juvenile detention centers often report being mistreated and abused by authorities. This abuse within a system meant to reform at-risk youth can in fact lead to even more alienation and violent behavior.

“The fact that you treat them in a criminal way helps them become better criminals,” he said.

Rhodes said that rather than labeling at-risk, marginalized youth as criminals to be tracked and punished, we should view radicalization among youth as a public health crisis, looking at its causes and symptoms and striving to reduce its spread.

Countering radicalization with connection

While headlines speak of new “recruits” to groups like ISIL and “recruitment” campaigns via social media, experts say that those who join these violent groups are largely seeking out membership, “auditioning” in the words of Guillermo Cespedes, Crime and Violence Prevention Advisor at Creative who has developed youth gang and violence prevention efforts in Las Angeles and throughout Central America.

Rhodes agreed that young people who join radical, violent groups are searching for them, largely pushed by marginalization and other risk factors.

“Terrorists are looking for a place to hire them,” he said. “They don’t get recruited.”

What they are often also seeking, said Rhodes, is connection and a sense of purpose.

Many young Syrians living in camps, have lost all their relationships to death or separation and do not know where loved ones have ended up outside of the country, he said, leading to a kind of “mental health crisis.”

Adolescence and early adulthood is a time when people seek meaning and define their social identities.

But deprived of connections, living in chaos and with a world of radicalism at their fingertips, Rhodes said, “I can be searching for my social identity in Aleppo, Syria and a guy in Brighton, England who is searching for his social identity—we can find each other and we can talk. We can be economically marginalized but we are no longer politically marginalized.”

Reestablishing relationships, particularly with adults but also with peers in a supportive environment, Rhodes said, can recreate a lost sense of family, identity and relationships and can prevent youth from seeking out connections and meaning in a radical movement.

Restoring agency & opening pathways

In seemingly dead-end situations from refugee camps to authoritarian societies where young people feel they have no legitimate means to affect change, said Creative’s Jaskot, youth may reason that “if [violent extremism] is the only way you can make a difference then maybe try it.”

Giving youth avenues to regain a sense of purpose and personal agency, Rhodes said, is key to combatting extremism among youth.

“Everyone wants to know that I can do something and the thing that I am doing actually matters,” said Rhodes.

Where few opportunities for education, income, political participation and social status exist, governments and program implementers need to step in with viable opportunities for youth as alternatives to radicalism, panelists said.

Often when programs to reach marginalized youth do exist, they are ill-fitting and ineffectual having been designed by adults outside of the Middle East, said Eric Rusten, Education for Development expert at Creative and co-author of the Youth Speak methodology and toolkit, a youth-led process of investigating an issue that affects them and mobilizing community action to address it.

Rusten said that programming geared towards vulnerable youth must put youth at the center so that those doing the bulk of the talking, thinking, idea-generating and implementing are the same young people who are supposed to benefit from the program.

This leadership is empowering for young people, agreed Rhodes.

“Out of your situation, if you feel like you can tell your story and it is told in such a way that people listen to you, you feel like you are on a different trajectory,” said Rhodes.

By the thousands

Violent extremism among youth is a problem that transcends borders. Marginalized young people from the camps of Jordan to the hearts of major cities around the Middle East and in the West are susceptible to this epidemic.

To be successful, initiatives to combat violence and extremism can’t just “go after the low hanging fruit,” said Creative’s Cespedes. Programs must engage those who are most on the brink of violence and radicalization and even those who are already involved in radical groups.

Rhodes said that although many youth in the Middle East perceive that the Western model for political and economic prosperity and security has failed, this does mean those youth are unreachable.

“We have to figure out how to get in dialogue with people who don’t particularly like us and people we don’t particularly like,” he said.

Effective efforts to counter youth radicalism in the region will also require scaling up programs like Questscope and Youth Speak that have been successful at generating positive relationships, restoring personal agency and opening opportunities for marginalized youth

“You can’t do it on a hundred kids, you’ve got to think in terms of thousands,” said Rhodes.

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