Category Archives: marginalized youth

Relationship: How the word undermines itself

Relationships are vital to human existence. Taking on numerous forms in families and partnerships and existing in all systems, we are essentially in some degree of relationship with somebody at any point in time. Much of how we define ourself is through relationships.

Here is an example: I am mother, wife, sister, asian, vegetarian, painter, runner, and writer. Some of these categories describe what the person does, but all identify her as someone who is similar in relation to others. At least one other person is like her in some way and sometimes that has more meaning than the activity or classification itself. We even conceptualize and make decisions about experiences and objects in relation to one another, whether buying a consumer product or deciding where to go on holiday.

Human relationships are often hierarchal and have certain responsibilities associated with each person or group involved. The level of hierarchy and degree of responsibility is subjective and determined by those involved. Outside influences such as culture or tradition usually have a significant influence in this decision as well.

Look at the definition of relationship by Oxford Dictionary. Complications arise with definition 1.2 which reads as follows:

“The way in which two or more people or groups regard and behave towards each other.” 

Herein lies the potential for conflict between individuals and groups. How one party regards the other will influence how that party behaves towards the other. Likewise, how one party is being treated by the other will influence how it regards that party. Here are some common examples of relationships where hierarchies do or may exist:

parent / child          teacher / student          politician / constituent      boss/ employee          doctor / patient          prison guard / prisoner partner / partner          perpetrator / victim          clerk / customer          therapist / client          famous person / fan             wealthy / poor         ethnic or religious majority / ethnic or religious minority            educated / non educated       law enforcement / law breaker

With real or perceived hierarchy, either party can easily loose sight that both are human and have shared needs. By putting aside how they are connected, one is better able to see the other as a person. This makes the obvious visible. Perceived or real abuse of power and control quickly diminishes the ability and need to relate and understand one another as humans.

We often forget that our most basic relationship to one another is human to human and not title to title or label to label. Forgetting this simple fact puts any individual and group relationship at risk of conflict. Our humanness always exists in any relationship regardless of the nature of the relationship.

A new word like humanship or personship needs to replace definition 1.2 to help remind everyone of our most fundamental connection—human to human—particular in unhealthy and harmful relationships. How are you humanly treating the other person in the relationship? This question minimizes the harmful impact of real or perceived abuses of hierarchy. It can help stop abuse of power or the mistreatment of others in dysfunctional relationships.

For example, a wealthy person may feel superior in relation to someone poor, purely because of the definition of the relationship, which is in regard to purchasing power. The definition of the relationship alone points out differences of status which can influence differential attitudes and treatment of one another. Another example could be a school principal seeing her role as more important in relation to the janitor due to the differences of job title, position on an organizational chart, and responsibilities. In both cases, the relationship does not erase the fact that both are people.

The word relationship should just describe how two people or groups are connected and not describe attitudes and behaviors towards each other. Why? Because the differing roles and duties—more so when hierarchy exists—inherent in relationships can diminish one’s ability to regard and treat the other as a person. One can be easily consumed by how the roles in the relationship should be played out according to societal norms, disregarding the human element. Let’s revisit some previous examples by replacing the word “relationship” with the words humanship/personship to describe how one regards and behaves towards the other.

My relationship to Mary is that she is unemployed and begging. I pass by her each day on my way to work. What is your personship to Mary? My personship to Mary is one of acknowledgment and concern as she is a person with the same human needs as me. I greet her and occasionally give her some change.

What is your relationship to John? John is our school janitor. How is your humanship like with John? My humanship to John is appreciative and respectful. His contribution to the school’s maintenance and cleanliness is imperative in creating a positive learning environment and I tell him that often.

For the sake of all relationships, the word we use to define how individuals and groups regard and treat one another needs to stress commonalities and humanness and not denote differences or hierarchy. The word relationship, by its definition, undermines that goal as people and groups are in numerous forms of relationships where differences, not similarities, are highlighted. The words personship or humanship keeps our fundamental connection to one another as person to person or human to human. This helps improve any relationship by ensuring positive regard and proper treatment of one another regardless of the relationship. Using either personship or humanship removes the hierarchical structure and superior attitude and behavior that may arise with it.

We are always behaving to fulfill shared basic human needs regardless of the relationship we are in when doing so. Next time you are asked “What is your relationship like with …..?” begin your answer with “My personship/humanship with….” Notice if there is a difference in how you conceptualized the relationship. How did your attitude and behaviors change toward the person or group?

Basic needs bind us all regardless of our relationship to one another
Basic needs bind us all regardless of our relationship to one another

Why are teens drawn to ISIS?

How the public perceives teens after having joined ISIS gives invaluable clues as to why they may have joined in the first place.

The media and the world are asking why teens of the western world would leave their cozy homes to join the ranks of ISIS and aid them. This phenomenon is occurring in numerous westernized countries: United States, Norway, Australia, France, and Austria. I am examining the case of two female teens from Austria, Samra (left) and Sabina (right), who both left Austria in April 2014 to join ISIS.

Samra and Sabina both left Austria in April 2014 to join ISIS

According to media sources, Samra and Sabina are children of Bosnian immigrants raised in Vienna. Stories of teens fleeing westernized countries to assist ISIS are mainly immigrants or children of immigrant families of Muslim faith. Some also convert to Islam prior to going. Considering the extensive and prolonged war between US led coalitions and the Middle East, how accepted and integrated are youth and families of Muslim faith living as expats, refugees, and asylees in westernize countries?

Having worked with teens in conflict with the law for more than a decade, I am naturally drawn to media attention given to teens. Unfortunately, the press teens receive is usually negative, perpetuating harmful teen stereotypes. Here is yet another example of how public criticism on teens choosing to aid ISIS further alienates marginalized youth.

Articles on teens joining ISIS had little insight into my first question. I then became curious about the comments readers were making about teens joining ISIS and particularly about Samra and Sabina. Would the comments be of concern and understanding or hatred and retribution? To my dismay, I was saddened, shocked, and even disturbed by what I read. Some words and expressions are explicit and I apologize, however, I wanted you to read what could be the underlying issue at hand.

Samra and Sabina were described as “weak minded, creatures, dim-witted, unsophisticated, stupid little girls, stupid cows, little Evil/nasty bitches, and dirty little whores”. One female commentator went as far as calling them a “stupid pair of TWATS and brain dead whores.” Another commentator hoped “they returned to Austria in body bags”, while another posted, “kill them and their offspring.” Some blamed the parents and even wanted them prosecuted for aiding terrorists. The hatred in these comments was palpable.

After reading about a hundred or so such comments, I began to feel disenchanted until I saw this post that confirmed my belief about the first question and reconfirmed my sanity and belief in humankind.

“What was happening in their lives before they left their homes? How could they have become so disenchanted with their lives at such a young age, that leaving all and everyone they know was seen as a better life? Questions must be raised at how no one noticed such a change in them. Was there no one talking or taking notice of them. It seems that the only time they felt special to anyone was when fed the ISIS way of thoughts. How very sad for society today. There are probably many young people who are easy meat ready to be converted with empty promises because they have nothing else in their lives to live for.”

This reader was able—with compassion and care— to see root causes of their decisions and trying to take ownership, versus being a detached judge, angry jury, and at times stone-cold executioner. She was looking for a proactive social answer, not a reactive and punitive one. She raises several pertinent questions and the question I had was:  Were these girls and other teens who joined ISIS already disenchanted beforehand, feeling the same and being treated the same as the comments made about them after they joined ISIS? Before engaging with ISIS who was:

Reaching out to them?

Talking to them?

Noticing them?

Making them feel like they belonged?

Making them feel valued and worthy?

Only others (i.e. family, peers, neighborhoods, communities, schools, agencies, and businesses) can answer these fundamental questions. Was society’s response sufficient enough in addressing these existential needs? That is uncertain, however, ISIS was there to fill this void for them.

Extreme groups take advantage of those who feel extremely unaccepted, unloved, and misunderstood because they are desperately seeking extreme ways to satisfy prolonged unmet basic needs. The basic needs of belonging and power (feeling worthwhile to self and others) are very much present in adolescents. If teens cannot find socially responsible outlets to have their basic needs met, then they are vulnerable to extreme and radical groups. ISIS is not the only radical group out there looking for people who are desperately finding a place and purpose.

This happened regularly with the young men I worked with who were either gang involved or seeking gang involvement. They looked to these groups to belong, to feel loved, and purposeful. Some did it for survival (selling drugs and stealing). Many were minorities, immigrants, or children of immigrants living in less than desirable neighborhoods.

Being a “somebody” regardless of how it manifests, is far more desirable than being a “nobody”. Similarly, negative attention is better than no attention. Being neglected, dehumanized, discriminated against, and degraded is severely damaging to one’s sense of self and can have equally damaging repercussions, which brings us back to the public’s comments about Samra and Sabina.

Presuming both are alive and reasonably well (there are rumors of one being dead), how do these comments help marginalized teens— who only later see the gravity of their decision—feel included, wanted, and purposeful? They don’t.

Social workers and Austrian Muslims have joined together to “dereadicalize” young people who have been to Syria, or having thoughts of fighting with ISIS. The goal is to connect them and their families with community agencies and resources to discourage them from extremism. You can read more at www.thelocal.at.

This is a good first step, however, the real impact in helping teens like Samra and Sabina starts with us. What kind of daily interactions are marginalized youth having with you, neighbors, teachers, law enforcement, passersby, peers, and store clerks? Are we, as a community, adequately addressing the 5 questions above, or are we passively and actively inviting and letting extremists do so?

We blame ISIS or other radical and harmful groups consisting of hundreds and even thousands of brainwashing youth, but when a young person decides to join the ranks of any anti-social group we are quick to punish the individual—even the parents—but no one else. If a community of extremists can be blamed for taking advantage of impressionable and alienated youth, why are the communities from which these young people come also not blamed in part for creating an environment that pushes them to seek out, engage with, and ultimately join radical groups?