An entire generation of children in the Middle East has grown up under ISIS, adopting its mantra of hatred. As ISIS is defeated in places like Iraq and Syria, millions of children who remain in those regions harbor the thoughts and rage of their former captives.
That's why Tina Ramirez, president and founder of Hardwired, Inc., and a longtime expert in religious freedom, calls for immediate intervention.
"When you're dealing with children that are under 14 that have just been living under indoctrination of hate, violence, and have witnessed it, have sometimes been forced to engage in that violence themselves – that's all they've known. Freedom for them is a foreign concept," Ramirez said.
Children Brainwashed to Hate Others
In some cases, ISIS brainwashed the children in jihadist training camps.
"Those children – when they talk to their mothers – they say 'Mom I'm ISIS. I don't want to be Yazidi.' or ' I'm Muslim. I'm ISIS,'" Ramirez explained.
In other places, ISIS passed on their core beliefs via the classroom.
"In Mosul you have 600,000 children that lived under ISIS for the past three years. 600,000 that were taught every day in the schools, adding up bombs in order to learn math and learning to hate and kill Yazidis and Christians and even other Muslims that didn't believe like them," Ramirez continued.
Horrifying Scene: Students Behead a Fellow Student
Children who survived this life of brutality now often maintain like-minded attitudes. Many see ISIS members as the super heroes of their world. Those who try to help these children say the indoctrination is horribly apparent, even on the playground.
"A teacher that we work with came across a group of students playing a game and when they looked, they were shocked," Ramirez recalled. "And then they told us what happened. They realized it was a group of students beheading another student. They were so terrified they didn't even know what to do. And we've heard the same stories in Lebanon, in Morocco – I mean, this is all over the Middle East."
For the last three years, Ramirez has trained teachers across the Middle East to teach these children about religious freedom. Eric Patterson, dean of Regent University's School of Government, serves on Hardwired, Inc.'s board of directors and says leaders in places like Iraq realize they need help before another hate-filled generation takes the place of ISIS.
Finding a New Approach to Save the Next Generation
"There are many people, including people of conservative Muslim faith, who feel that we've been killing each other over these things for so long that maybe we need a different approach," Patterson said.
And that means making schools the frontlines for children by training teachers to help students learn not to just tolerate each other's beliefs, but to defend them.
"After just a few lessons of learning about religious freedom through simulations and activities in a very indirect way, that forces them to internalize it and to work through some of the questions that they have about this freedom," Ramirez said. "At the end, their attitude has shifted in just a matter of a few lessons."
Patterson added, "The biggest idea is that every human is hardwired for freedom and we believe this as Christians. So that idea is really at the heart of it."
Lessons of the 'Peaceful Garden'
One core lesson, called "The Peaceful Garden," walks students through the process of planting flowers, with different colors of flowers representing different beliefs. Students compare and contrast the gardens that have just one color with those that have many. From there, they talk about the strength of a society that treats all religions with dignity and respect. It may look like just a fun game, but it's deadly serious.
"Until we have a society that embraces religious freedom for everyone, we will only see cycles of religion-related conflict all around the Middle East and around the world," Ramirez said.
She believes that teaching kids now to respect and defend religious freedom can ultimately help to shut down extremism and stabilize societies that desperately need peace.