An American psychologist who journeyed through her own battle with clinical depression and PTSD is now helping thousands of former child soldiers and sex slaves overcome the unimaginable horrors that they've faced at the hands of militants in Central and East Africa.
Dr. Bethany Haley Williams, founder of Exile International — a nonprofit that provides trauma care to kids who have been "psychologically tortured and brainwashed" — told TheBlaze about the key experience that led her on a harrowing path that she would have never anticipated.
"On my first trip to the Congo in 2008, I met rescued child soldiers and heard stories of girls as young as five who had been raped as a weapon of war – I was never the same," she said. "I made a vow to look the darkness dead in the eye, rather than look away."
Williams, who has spent years helping African children, also warned about the horrific effects that the Islamic State is having on its young victims.
"Children who have experienced war of any kind have long lasting psychological scars," Williams told TheBlaze. "A child’s basic need for safety is shattered at its core level, and systems such as health care and education are torn down."
She continued, "Children not only die from bullets and bombs, but from preventable diseases and lack of basic needs as seen in the most recent migrant child crisis."
Many of those displaced by the Islamic State, she said, are children. And considering the horrors that some of endured, it's no surprise that many of these kids are being profoundly impacted by that they've experienced.
Children who are part of Exile International programs (Exile International)
Aside from the disruption of basic needs, radical Islamic State terrorists have specifically targeted children in horrific acts of rebuke.
Consider a U.N. Committee on the Rights of the Child report that was released this year, detailing unimaginable punishments on Iraqi children, including burying them alive, crucifying them, using them as human shields and recruiting mentally challenged kids as suicide bombers.
"The impact of ISIS on children reaches an even deeper level as children have been specifically targeted in killings," Williams said. "Even recently, it was reported that a group of children were executed for ‘crimes’ such as refusing to fast during Ramadan."
Among the most disturbing stories Williams has heard has been reports that young boys have been carrying out executions and beheadings.
"Boys as young as ten to twelve years old are taken, trained to use machine guns and brainwashed," she said.
Williams, of course, is no stranger to helping children overcome the physiological scars that come along with war. Through Exile International, she said she has had the "beautiful" opportunity to witness healing and growth among many kids in Central and East Africa.
Dr. Bethany Haley Williams with children (Exile International/Facebook)
"We have been able to work with over 3,000 children since the beginning in 2008 in six different countries," Williams said. "Exile International’s long-term programs and projects are in [the Democratic Republic of the Congo] and Uganda,where there are over 1,000 children in weekly trauma care and peace-building groups and close to 200 children receiving comprehensive care: counseling, food, clothing, education and medical care."
In her recently released book, "The Color of Grace," Williams describes how personal anguish in her own life led her to eventually go abroad to help children in need — a subject that she also discussed with TheBlaze.
"I had walked through my own journey of trauma and severe depression, so I knew what a flashback felt like. I knew how 'real' nightmares could feel," she said. "Even though my pain and trauma paled in comparison to theirs … it still connected us."
Williams, a Christian, said that she was motivated to journey with these children in an effort to help them realize that "God had dreams for them beyond their pasts," describing her faith as being "like breath" to her being.
"I don’t know how to separate it from my work in war zones. I see Jesus as I watch little girls dancing in the middle of a country that has been deemed the worst place to be a child," she said. "I watch God come alive through, Baraka, a former child soldier who tells me, 'I was saved in the bush so I could bring the good news to the rebels and to teach them how to forgive.'"
Williams added, "I see redemption at its deepest level. It is not of this world. And, I believe, it is only the beginning."
She said that she had never anticipated providing such long-term care to children in need and originally assumed that she would participate in short-terms missions trips, but that quickly changed as the need became apparent and Exile International began to grow.
Today, Williams is running a successful nonprofit that helps scores of children recover through a slow and steady process that involves art, dance, drama and music therapy.
Exile International uses a "three-tier approach to healing," which involves a program that emphasizes healing and forgiveness, peace-building and then leadership skills. So far, she said that the impact has been profound.
"We are seeing our graduates return to their villages to teach community members about peace and reconciliation. One young man is leading bible studies with the rebel group he was once a part of," she said. "The light of forgiveness and peace they are bringing to their countries is greater than any evil that tried to steal their innocence away."
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