- - Wednesday, December 16, 2015

In his Thanksgiving address to the nation, President Obama used his bully pulpit to remind us “all God’s children are worthy of compassion and care.” He was referring to Syrian children seeking relief from the oppressive violence of life in a war zone.

Curiously absent from that speech was an urgent call for compassion for children living in our own urban combat zones, right here in this country. There are children in America today whose lives are as fraught with violence as the lives of children in war zones abroad.

Do you think I’m exaggerating? Let’s take a look at “Sabeen” and “Amara,” composite cases of two 12–year-old girls. One lives in Aleppo, Syria. The other lives in Chicago, U.S.A.

Sabeen is very jumpy these days. She used to be a good student, but now has trouble concentrating. She’s often too tired to get up for school because she has difficulty sleeping and suffers frequent nightmares. Sabeen’s Aleppo neighborhood is a battlefield: Terrifying barrel bombs drop from the sky, automatic weapons sound in the streets. Trauma and loss surround her: Her brother left home to join a militia.

That’s the life of a child in a combat zone that happens to be in Syria.

Here’s one that happens to be in America:

Twelve-year-old Amara is startled by every loud sound, even if it isn’t gunfire, although gunfire is part of the soundtrack of life in her West Garfield Park, Chicago neighborhood. Her classmate, Shamiya, age 11, was killed while playing in a friend’s bedroom. The urban warfare is taking its toll on this little girl: Amara’s grades at school have plunged so far she may have to repeat sixth grade. She doesn’t know why she feels guilty, and has secretly begun cutting herself to get some relief. Her brother says he’s joining a gang.

Although Sabeen and Amara are not real people, their experiences and symptoms are very real, and have been reported in children in combat zones abroad, and violent neighborhoods at home.

It is bad enough to see the harm done to children at the time they are exposed to violence, but that is not the whole story. The impact of violence on children continues long into their future … and may even be permanent.

Exposure to violence has the potential to permanently damage a growing child’s brain. Chronic, extreme stress is toxic to the development of young brains. Damage is evident in the areas of the brain involved with learning and memory, concentration and emotional regulation. The brain damage results in poorer cognitive and academic performance, and more impulsive behavior, a combination that set the stage for future failure, and for problems such as alcohol and drug abuse.

Trauma is cumulative. The more you experience, the more likely you are to develop PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) – a debilitating condition so widespread that the city of Philadelphia has begun to focus on trauma as a major public health issue. More cities should follow their lead.

Nevertheless, despite this alarming picture, we know that many children have risen out of the most horrendously violent backgrounds – war, concentration camps - to live normal, functional, even flourishing lives. Two factors are consistently found to be protective for children exposed to violence: the presence of a consistent, trustworthy adult, and a community safe haven.

The first is most important. It is personal. A good relationship with a trusted, caring adult helps the child develop a sense of security despite the chaos outside. Successful adults who emerge from violent backgrounds inevitably attribute their emotional survival to having had a stable relationship with at least one caring adult.

The second factor, a community safe haven, is a place for children to rest and become calm. Some inner city schools have “safe spaces,” where students can share their feelings and experiences with teachers trained for the sensitive role.

These are Band-Aids. The epidemic of violence that traumatizes our children in inner cities requires presidential leadership. The president needs to care as much about children in American urban combat zones as he does about Syrians. Our children’s futures depend on it.

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