This Husband & Wife Team Go Into War Zones To Disrupt Cycles Of Conflict Using Education

Woodnote Photography-DRC

We all love a good “how did you meet?” story to learn the interesting and romantic ways couples get together. For Cassandra and Edison Lee, theirs is a very unique shared goal and interest – helping children living in conflict zones get access to education and be lifted out of poverty. The couple are the founders of a non-profit organization called Justice Rising, which began in 2015 building a school in the eastern part of the Democratic Republic of Congo.

The team has since expanded to serving seven schools in the region with over 1,600 students and employs over 60 teachers and administrators. As political instability continues in the Middle East, Justice Rising is expanding their education-based intervention programs to Iraq and Syria in 2018.

Cassandra was prompted to start Justice Rising after more than ten years of experience working internationally in areas of conflict, hearing story after story on the devastating effects of war on children and immersing herself in the science behind education in war zones. Cassandra saw education as the solution to the cycles of war she saw tear communities apart, and schools as the catalysts for peace. She made it her mission to build schools that targeted not only the children, but the parents and teachers and leaders.

Cassandra and Edison Lee | Woodnote photography

As she was developing a viable pathway for Justice Rising, Cassandra met Edison, an architect-turned- self taught investment banker with similar experience in areas of conflict. After Cassandra and Edison were married, Edison came on board Justice Rising to build out the full strategic vision of the organization and provide the financial logistics to keep their now shared dream alive.

Their mission is to disrupt cycles of conflict and combat extremist ideology using education, especially in areas where the idea of going to school is not a given. Through education-based interventions, Justice Rising answers the critical need of children and families on the ground in areas during and after prolonged conflict and develops infrastructure alongside specialized programs designed to empower children and their families while also creating sustainable jobs and developing community leaders.

Along with their school-building projects, they also work with local organizations and existing schools to build support and funding. Children in areas of conflict are often derailed from education due to cost, military recruitment, or early marriage. Education has the power to insert normalcy into the lives of children in conflict zones, while promoting democratic thinking and economic success, giving these children a brighter, more peaceful future.

Woodnote Photography | DRC

Justice Rising identifies marginalized areas, then works directly with local leaders to build/restore the facilities, recruit and train the staff, and develop the programs the community needs most. For Cassandra, the seeds of an organization like Justice Rising began when she was 10, hearing about the conflict in the DRC. As she grew older and learned more about the problems within conflict zones, she realized the importance of creating sustainable solutions, not just a band-aid solution. That’s where the focus on education came in.

“The impact of school changes mindsets,” Cassandra told us.

War is not an easy issue to tackle, and you can’t just throw money at it via policy, Edison tells us to explain the complexity of the problems they see in their work.

“We need to address local issues first, as that is what perpetuates conflict. It is not necessarily always a national issue,” he says.

From the DRC to Syria and Iraq, each region has their own unique problems, but education is a foundational tool that has become an effective way to uplift families and communities. While they have received mostly positive responses to their work, Cassandra says there are still some barriers they face. photgraphy

“There is still a very gendered mindset toward education. Families prioritize boys over girls in some instances. But through Justice Rising we work to educate communities as to why girls education is important. Because of this, we have reached full gender parity in all of our schools” she said.

What also makes Justice Rising stand out from other organizations is their willingness to venture into active conflict zones.

“Others are focused on low-risk areas and bigger cities, but we go into the harder-to-reach areas because we see there is a huge need,” said Cassandra.

They have seen many students’ and families’ lives transformed by the ability to access education, and continue learning despite a volatile environment in their country. Cassandra says one of the most rewarding aspect of their work is to see some of the children rise as leaders within their communities. She tells the story of a young girl named Rebecca who lives in rural Congo.

“She recently started secondary school and looks so confident. This is a girl who lives in an area that has seen 20+ years of conflict. She told us stories of having to hide in the jungle for weeks at a time. Today she as aspirations of becoming a nurse. Despite knowing and experiencing conflict all her life, she does not see herself as a victim and has hope for her future,” explained Cassandra.

Justice Rising

Edison shares the story of another girl in Aleppa, Syria, who has experienced the kind of tragedy no child ever should.

“She wanted to go and buy sweets one day and asked her dad to take her to the shops. The area they were walking got bombed and her dad died. She lost her leg, but it was her school that came to her aid and helped her get a prosthetic leg and a scholarship to complete her education,” he said.

He went on to say how schools become a vital support lifeline for families and students beyond just formal education, as evidenced by the story of the girl in Aleppo. This is why they partner with existing schools in areas where that makes the most sense.

As we see the unrest in Syria continue to unfold, especially in light of the US, UK and France coordinating missile strikes in response to allegations of chemical weapons being deployed to kill civilians by the Syrian army, Justice Rising are not about to slow down their work. The are currently working toward their Vision 20/20 goal where they plan to support 40 schools and more than 6,000 children by the year 2020. The team are also building 8 more schools in the DRC.

If you want to get involved with Justice Rising and support the crucial work they are doing around the world, be sure to follow them on social media and sign up for their newsletter. To support them financially, donating monthly is a great way, as is holding your own fundraising campaign or event to raise awareness about the work they are doing.

Justice Rising





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