Dina with Afghan IDPs
After spending weeks with a group of Afghan teens growing up in a camp for internally displaced people (IDPs), it was my hope that once American teens felt a connection to their brothers and sisters growing up in this warzone, they would navigate the future in a more empathetic way. Realizing their Afghan peers’ struggle to transcend violence, poverty, and isolation might help American students transcend the typical teen angst of homework, fitting in, and feeling validated. Most importantly, I hoped that the awareness of their power as US citizens could help them— at some point down the road— break through the stalemate of this ongoing global conundrum. Foreign policy aside, this young generation would inevitably meet again on the world stage as adults. Getting to know each other now could only help spur some long-overdue creative thinking.
By the time I returned to the US, things were off and running. In just a few years, hundreds of students in classrooms from California to Florida, Minnesota, Virginia, and Ohio were captivated by my narration of the authentic stories of Afghan teens determined to create a better life against the worst odds of all time. Teachers were stunned. They’d never seen their students so invested in Social Studies, let alone the world around them. Middle schoolers had suddenly become engaged in a global community that had, until now, been considered irrelevant to their lives. The plight of the Afghan teens had become personal.
And there was more.
When the class was over, the American students weren’t even content to wrap up. They wanted to meet me, to ask more questions, and to be allowed to help in some way. They understood how blessed their lives were, and how much they had to give. They weren’t content to merely know the problems in Afghanistan— they wanted a role in creating positive change for the Afghan people. Some raised funds to help impoverished Afghan children go to school. Others created video messages of love and support to share on my future trips to Kabul.
No Social Studies curriculum writer could ask for more.
By 2013, however, when I received an email from a middle school teacher in Red Lake— the Ojibwe reservation tucked away in the north woods of Minnesota— little did I know my project was about to reach an unexpected tipping point.
Ms. Boughton’s seventh and eighth grade students had read my reports on Afghanistan and the lives of the Afghan teens. They had questions they wanted to ask the creator of this rather unusual Social Studies program, and they wanted to ask them in person.
I was delighted, intrigued, and on my way to Red Lake right away.
Six hours north of the Twin Cities—through forests of birch, eagles, and endless pines— the Red Lake reservation was located another 30 minutes outside of the nearest city of Bemidji. As I noticed the sparsely scattered homes dotting the wooded landscape, it occurred to me how little thought I had given Minnesota’s native populations since my own middle school days. From their forced displacement to the poverty, the chemical dependency and suicide rates, I slowly recollected the plight of this oppressed community.
A sinking feeling began to creep in.
On the outside, Red Lake Middle School looked like any other American learning institution— with colorful posters, sports schedules, and murals lining the walls, volleyball players filling the gym, skateboarders practicing jumps on outdoor ramps, and a metal detector standing guard at the door. But beneath the surface there was a palpable tension.
According to Ms. Boughton, nearly 100% of the students lived below the poverty line. Before school, free breakfast was provided daily to combat malnutrition. After school, Ojibwe culture classes were offered to help students understand the way of life the federal government had spent the previous century systematically dismantling. Burning sage— the Ojibwe ritual to cleanse negative energy— drifted through the hallways along with full-time security guards. Fighting was commonplace, and only a few years prior one of the students succumbed to his demons and opened fire on his classmates. Suicide claimed the lives of countless others.
But despite their emotional struggles, a group of seventh and eighth graders waited patiently for my arrival.
Gathered in a circle, we discussed in detail about how the war in Afghanistan had forced people from their homes and lands. We discussed the lack of schools and how low education fueled a never-ending cycle of poverty. We discussed how drugs were used to temporarily remedy hunger, cold, and depression. We discussed the Afghan peoples’ determination to prevent the erosion of their culture amidst the interference of outside invaders who didn’t understand or care.
The irony was not lost on any of us.
When it was time to record their video messages to the Afghan teens, their sentiments contained far more than the sympathy of privileged teens growing up on the other side of the world. Rather, they offered a cross-cultural support group that provided a level of care that fundraisers, thoughts, and prayers could never reach. When young people are hurting, they need to feel a bond with those who truly understand their pain—those who can share it and help them move through it.
Another legacy of poverty, foreign policy agendas, and traumatized ancestors, the Red Lake students understood the plight of the Afghan teens like few American teens could. They shared their worries about violence, drugs, the pain of losing loved ones, and thoughts of using suicide as a way out. They shared their anger at the adults in their lives that were letting them down. They shared the pull between their guilty desire to abandon the reservation against the honorable duty to preserve their culture.
Vivienne— a tough Ojibwe girl in a black hoodie— had a blunt message for the Afghan teens: “We come from a hard life too. Every day is a struggle. And it sucks, but when you learn to grow up you could see all the new things that are happening. But I’m trying to realize I do have a future. No matter how much life sucks right now, I know that there’s a future. I keep that in my mind and wake up every day and think, this is the day that I can change everything.”
But while Vivienne’s message to the Afghans was profound, little did anyone realize that soon the Red Lake and Afghan teens would no longer be the only ones engulfed in daily battle. America was at the tipping point of a nationwide mental health warzone that would rock the foundation of young people and threaten the well-being of their entire generation.
Since that time, American teens across all sectors and socio-economic backgrounds have been caught in a mental health explosion of depression
, anxiety, and social isolation. According to research
, since 2009, the number of American high schoolers who contemplated suicide increased 25 percent. The number of teens diagnosed with clinical depression grew 37 percent, and poisoning attempts by girls ages 10 to 12 increased 268 percent.
Two hundred and sixty eight percent?!
PSAs and suicide prevention videos
illuminate the paradox of teens living the “perfect life” in public yet suffering depression in silence. Busy adults are unable to hear their cries for help, and the wait time for school therapist appointments often spans weeks or months. In the past decade there have been 288 school shootings
— 57 times as many as other major industrialized nations combined— averaging of one per week. Trauma continues to seep into every corner of young peoples’ lives as active-shooter drills are now a part of regular school activities.
Between the pressure-cooker of social media, the constant companionship of SmartPhones at the expense of human connection, the stiflingly overpacked schedules, the political wrangling of the climate crisis, and the stress of becoming the next shooting victims, American teens are still mentally submerged in the crisis. Sadly, they no longer have room to empathize with others, let alone Afghan IDPs. Teachers now grapple with ways to help students cope with their day to day lives, and no longer call for our program. Cross-cultural curriculum has been replaced by Social-Emotional Learning (SEL) programs.
But if the Red Lake kids at least know
why they are depressed, perhaps they are the most capable and qualified American students to be the heroes in this shifting, emotional warzone.
Perhaps they are the ones who can save this generation from themselves.
"When young people are hurting, they need to feel a bond with those who truly understand their pain—those who can share it and help them move through it."
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