Building Schools in a War Zone – The Justice Rising Story
A conversation with the co-founders of Justice Rising, Cassandra and Edison Lee.
Cassandra and Edison Lee are the co-founders of Justice Rising. They believe that education, especially in war zones, has the power to transform communities and break cycles of conflict. Justice Rising currently runs 14 schools in the Democratic Republic of Congo, and also has partner schools in Syria and Iraq. We had the privilege of having a conversation with Cassandra and Edison to hear about their exciting journey.
How did God call you to start working in war zones? Why did you start Justice Rising?
Cassandra: I first heard about Congo when I was 10 years old – I felt this strong call to be a missionary. My mom encouraged me to seek God and ask Him where in the world I was supposed to go. I was really praying and one day I got this vision and saw a spinning globe with the word “Zaire” across it. I’d never heard of this place before and I tried to find it on a map, I wondered if it was a city or a country. I couldn’t find it so I kind of just forgot about it, assuming the word came from my imagination.
I kept praying and asking God where I was supposed to go. And finally God said, “Go to your map, look at the center of Africa, and that’s where I’m calling you to go.” Sure enough, in the center of Africa, I saw the word “Zaire” in big bold letters. Congo was formerly called “Zaire”!
The Congo was actually one of the worst war zones and the rape capital of the world. It was the worst place to be a woman – more than 5.4 million people had been killed in wars there. I was 10 years old and reading those stats; I was researching stories and reading about rebels and rebel raids and these warlords attacking these villages and it just wrecked me, knowing this was going on.
So I started asking the Lord, “What should I do? What is my piece in this puzzle?” My parents and I both thought it would be much later in life when I would go there. But when I was 17, going into my senior year of high school, God spoke really clearly again and said, “I’m actually calling you to war zones now. I’m calling you to Africa now.”
I graduated from high school two months early, and two weeks before my 18th birthday I went to Africa for the first time. It was supposed to be for 3 months, to attend the Iris Harvest School of Ministry they hold each summer in Mozambique, so it was supposed to be a short trip. But God just kept extending it.
“We’re training the next generation of young people to create and build real agency for themselves to change the environment around them.” – Edison Lee
Edison: My journey really started when I was in university. The Lord called me to places of conflict and where there was chronic underdevelopment. So, I started going to places like Zimbabwe and Rwanda. I went to places where there was economic and political volatility. The Lord started speaking to me about private sector development and how that’s one of the best ways to bring sustainable change and development to places where there are under-privileged people suffering from poverty and conflict.
It was a natural process for me to then transit into focusing on education with Justice Rising, which is all about building human capacity in local contexts. We’re training the next generation of young people to not just learn how to read and write, but how to create and build real agency for themselves to change the environment around them. From this, we’ve seen how education is really starting to change communities that have been affected by long-term protracted conflict.
Cassandra: The Lord expanded my vision and spoke to me that my calling wasn’t just to go to Congo, but war zones at large. So I began this journey of going between all these different warzones, learning what’s going on, and seeing how people are acting and trying to bring peace to conflict zones. I saw a lot of great things being done, and a lot of questionable things being done. And it made me pursue this thought, “What is my call, and what am I supposed to do to help?”
“We need strategy to disrupt cycles of war.” – Cassandra Lee
After being in war-torn places like northern Uganda, South Sudan, North Korea, and certain parts of the Middle East, I felt very traumatized and was very tired. I said “God this is too hard, I can’t do it. I need your help, I need strategy. I don’t just want to put a band-aid on this massive issue of war and conflict. We need strategy to disrupt cycles of war.”
This seems like a very big goal, but when you’re sitting with suffering people on a day to day basis – when you’re sitting in mud huts with a mom and her two kids, who have suffered years of war – you search out those answers. I said, “God what can I do?” He spoke to me very clearly, and it was almost like there was this excitement from heaven.
God said, “Education – build schools. Build schools that bring peace and catalyze transformation.”
And that’s exactly what we started to do – we started going deeper and deeper into these war zones, planting schools in these areas.
Watch Cassandra and Edison describe their journeys into this ministry in the video below!
What would you say is the focus of your schools? Is it different from regular schools in normal communities?
Edison: I think one of the things we love about the work of Justice Rising is that it’s not just about teaching kids how to read and write. It’s not just about the formal learning environment inside the classroom, but it’s really a mechanism for discipleship.
We teach young people to think differently than they have learned. There’s often a culture of violence and conflict in places of protracted crises, so that’s often the young people’s default response when they are wronged or face some injustice. So when we get to work with students on the ground, we attempt to train them in a very holistic way – it’s not just about literacy and writing and math, but helping them change their responses to violent conflict.
I love what you shared about training the students in a holistic way – helping them see that violence does not have to be their default response. I’m sure you have so many stories of transformed lives – do any specific transformations come to mind?
Edison: Let me tell you about one of our students – Amani [editor’s note: the name has been changed to protect the student’s identity]. We met him a few years ago, and he actually just graduated from secondary school this June. Before we met him, he was in an armed rebel group for the better part of four years. He had been through so much trauma and forced to do things that no kid his age should ever be forced to do.
He went through an incredible healing journey over the last few years, and it was so great that he was able to graduate from high school. But shortly before his graduation, he heard heartbreaking news about his sister from his home village.
There was a boy that Amani had grown up with, and he wanted to marry Amani’s younger sister. His sister was still quite young, and she really wanted to attend school and get an education. She was still not at the right age to be married, so she turned down the boy’s advances.
Eventually after years of courting her, Amani’s childhood friend felt humiliated and jilted. As a young man who grew up in a place where there’s a culture of violence, he retaliated by raping and killing Amani’s sister.
When Amani first heard that story, it understandably broke his heart, and he was consumed by rage and hate. For a moment he thought, “I can easily go back to my home village. I know exactly where to find a gun. I’ve already been a child soldier – I can easily exact revenge on this boy who unjustly and violently killed my sister.”
But then he really started to think and pray about it. He started to examine where he had come from, how he was about to graduate from high school, and how his life had been completely redeemed by Jesus. He decided that instead of retaliating he would choose the narrow path of peace. He responded in the opposite spirit – instead of violence and hate, he chose to love and forgive.
Kids like Amani are the reasons we do what we do. Amani represents all that we’re really going after in places like Congo and the Middle East. How do we shift mindsets and how do we shift the culture for young people to respond differently to violent conflict? And so that’s been our mission for the last several years, and we’re really looking forward to expanding that vision, not just in Congo but in other war-affected areas.
An incredibly bold vision. What are the biggest challenges in getting education going in these war zones?
Edison: In a war zone there is no shortage of challenges, that’s for sure. One of the biggest challenges to our work on the ground is when we have to combat pre-conceived expectations.
We have to battle the wrong and low perceptions people have of education in these war-torn areas, especially the low value they place on girls’ education. It’s a real big challenge to come against – parents would rather have their young girls stay at home to help with younger siblings or in the fields. We have to encourage parents to see the value of sending their girls to school. We help them see the long-term impact of schooling, not just on their families but on their future kids and grandkids and the community at large.
When you start to educate girls you see a lot of benefits and a lot of positive ripple effects. Community health increases, violence against women decreases, and we start to see massive change in the communities at large. When we talk to communities about this, we really see an uptick in the enrollment of girls.
The great news is that right now we actually have complete gender parity across all 10 of our schools.
Now, how do you actually get a school started? It’s one thing to have the vision to educate the needy, but how do you do it in a way that is truly helpful to the community?
Edison: Part of the process is finding land and identifying where we want to work and start a school, but that really starts with building relationships with the community. We work through relationships.
Once we find a community we are going to work in, we work with the key stakeholders, both parents and community leaders, to partner with them. We never want to be in a situation where we’re forcing our programs on a community, but we go back and forth and find out what they need and we are really receptive to what they want and value.
Cassandra and Edison discuss the impact their schools are making in the Congo in the video below.
What were the early days of Justice Rising like? You have such a fine-tuned organization, was it always that way?
Cassandra: Justice Rising started out very different from what it is today. At the beginning I didn’t have a business plan, I didn’t have a methodology. All I had was the Word of God – I knew that we were supposed to start schools. I didn’t really have any money, so I would just pray in the funds to build a school – every time we got a few dollars I would put it towards a new window or door and I would build the schools whenever the funds came in. We would build half a wall with the money we had, and I would be like, “Jesus we really need the other half of the wall!” So it started very haphazardly, just throwing things together.
Then I met my husband – he comes from a finance background, and loves organization, and he finds the kingdom in organization. He’s brilliant, and he started to see the impact of these schools, and he said, “I bet we can take this a step further. I bet we can expand this impact, and reach hundreds and thousands of kids.” So in 2015 we registered Justice Rising as a non-profit organization in the States.
We’ve come so far in the way we strategize and conduct teacher training and leadership development. We’re not just building these schools out of the hope that there’s enough money to finish the wall. But we strategize and count the costs, and we don’t start building until we have all the money.
Edison: To date we have 14 schools we have built and operate, mostly in Eastern Congo. We’re educating over 2200 students every day and we have over 100 teachers and staff on our team. It’s been a really fun journey to see that growth. Our goal is to build 40 schools over the next few years.
You can find out more about the work of Justice Rising here. Check out the the second part of our conversation with Cassandra and Edison, where we hear about some of the extraordinary interactions they have had with local warlords.