Can you imagine being a 10 year old living in Canada and deciding to dedicate your life to war torn communities? That is exactly what happened to Cassandra Lee as she learned about the devastating war of the Democratic Republic of the Congo in 1997. Find out how and why she started her transformational nonprofit, Justice Rising.
“During the height of the war there were so many dead bodies. Bodies in the street, bodies in town, bodies left in empty houses. A truck would pass by three times a day to collect them and throw them in a mass grave outside the city. It passed by at 9am, 12 noon and 3 pm. This was a very hard time for our country.” – Mathe Mboto, Justice Rising Congo Director
I (Cassandra), will never forget the first time I heard about the conflict in Congo. It was 1997 and in the height of Congo’s war.
I was 10.
Mass massacres were happening daily in the eastern region and it was named the “rape capital of the world” with many women literally dying from sexual violence and broken fistulas. Instead of going to school, many children were being taken as child soldiers into the army. Young girls were being abducted as sex slaves for the older militia.
I sat frozen with every news article that I found. My young mind couldn’t wrap itself around the atrocities, “How could this be happening?! Who is responding to these huge injustices?!”
It became my resolve to do something, anything, to stand with those living in war. None of it seemed impossible but instead all I could see was the hope and potential that lay underneath the surface and I was determined to dig it up for myself.
More often than not, most normal kids change their desired professions on a week-to-week basis. Unfortunately, to my family’s dismay, I was not exactly normal.
Fast-forward 10 years and now only a few years out of high school, I had already become familiar with life in multiple war zones. I was prisoner to my passion and through a prompting of my personal faith journey, I had graduated from high school two months ahead of my classmates so I could take my first trip to Africa. I had enrolled in a cultural immersion program in Mozambique and from there launched out to various war zones, starting in the Congo, learning about war from the ground up.
Though the echoes of friends and family warned me about the dangers of young, single, blonde girl traveling to active conflict areas (and honestly, probably rightly so), I leaned hard into my faith and moved in with single mamas in their mud huts in Sudan, lived with child brides as they were rehabilitating in Northern Uganda and lived in Eastern Congo hearing story after story of violence and how it affected families on a day to day basis.
I became very familiar with simple living and tear stained pillows along with bed bugs, worms and every other strange skin infection that can come with dirty conditions the back woods of these war zones! I found that the stories never became easier to hear and after a few years of living in different conflict areas I started to get restless. It was like a broken record circling on repeat and I kept going over the idea of “how could I do more?” I saw so many well-meaning groups putting band-aids on deep wounds of war and I would lie in bed every night stuck on the thought of “how can we really bring change?” How could we see peace come to a generation that’s only known war?
It sounded optimistic but after living in the crossfire of stories of war I knew I either had to quit or come up with a tangible way to see transformation.
I processed my journey through prayers and rivers of tears and decided one day I wouldn’t continue unless I had a strategy that I felt had the potential to transform things. Like REALLY bring change. Something, anything, so I didn’t have to watch mamas die from rape or babies be given guns bigger than themselves.
And that’s when I felt this still small voice during one of my times of prayer whisper “Education”.
“What if you use education to bring change? And not just regular schools, but what if you built schools that reached communities; schools that targeted not only the children but the parents and teachers and leaders in the village? What if you built schools that acted as catalysts for peace and were the vessels to see the beginning of transformation.”
Slightly unfamiliar with the school building sector (and when I say slightly, I mean extremely) I did what any good millennial would do… I went to google:
“How do you build schools in war zones?”
I poured over the search results and saw that education wasn’t just a good idea it was THE idea. Along with water, food and shelter, education is one of the largest needs for children post conflict.
Education reduces the chances of young boys being abducted into the army. It empowers girls with confidence and lowers the chance of rape and early child marriage. It improves health for not only the children who receive the education but for the future generations to come as the recipients and pass on their knowledge to their children. Education also stabilizes families, reduces the amount of unwanted pregnancies and ultimately helps target the orphan crisis.
Not only that, if you increase secondary enrollment from 30% to 60% in a community, you can literally cut the risk of conflict in HALF. (UNICEF)
A fire had been started widthin me and I hardly knew where to go from here as google still didn’t give me a step by step breakdown as to how to actually build and start a school.
During a trip to Congo in 2009 however, I had connected with amazing locals who were passionate about schools. Eventually they became instrumental for me in finding land, hiring teachers and helping us avoid blunders commonly made by unaware foreigners. They became heroes in searching out the areas of greatest need to build our first schools. Many years later they are now the directors and leaders of our projects in the Congo.
At about the same time as I was going back and forth between the western world and the Congo, I met an architect turned investment banker with dreams bigger than mine. He was one of the few people crazy enough to not only encourage me to run into the war zones of the earth but to run into them even faster. Not only that but he was also really cute and having lived around the world himself, understood the bizarre life I had come to see as normal.
We married a few years later and with three schools now becoming four, he came in and helped put together a business model that would take us from those three schools to forty in just five years. Yes, forty.
Edison hadn’t grown up with the same passion from 10 years of age but after a faith encounter in college he graduated from architecture school and instead of using his degree and getting a high paying architecture job, he sold everything and moved to Zimbabwe. A year later his entire world had changed and he began to dream how he could also bring change to areas with the greatest need. Edison isn’t your regular aid worker however. He taught himself investment banking and joined the finance world so he would be able to bring a greater level of expertise and one day business development to the world of 501(c)3s.
After marrying, his passion was to take the momentum that had been started and to see it scale. We also began dreaming to take this model to other war zones. We followed the conflict in Syria since it’s beginning, the turmoil in Iraq and even traveled to North Korea to see what the model could look like there. We finally registered our programs and turned my passion project into a husband and wife lead, registered non-profit.
Justice Rising is still young but is a maturing 2 years old with 7 schools with 1,500 students expected to be enrolled in this coming September (2017). We also have dozens of young people in our leadership development programs, have trained hundreds of kids and families in the WASH (Water Sanitation and Health) programs and train many men and women in our vocational schools.
We’re still primarily based in Congo but after a recent trip into Syria and Iraq, we’re excited to expand our education programs there within the year!
-Cassandra Lee, founder of Justice Rising