The Karen people of Myanmar wear one of the best illustrations I know of belonging and community. Their traditional outfits have long strands of colorful threads hanging loosely down their sides. When I first saw them, and later started wearing the outfits myself, I found the strings unpractical. It wasn’t until they told me what the threads represented that I started appreciating the strands that usually tangled after wearing the shirt for a while.
"Try tearing one string apart," my Karen friends suggested. I did, and it was easy. "Now put a few of the strings together and try tearing them apart!" It was impossible. No matter how hard I tried, I could not break a handful of strings. One was easy, many was impossible.
"This is how it is with us as a people" the Karen explained. "It is easy to break one of us, but together we are very strong. We must always be together as one."
Ever since then I have liked the tangled strings. Tangled or not, they symbolize the importance of belonging.
Somebody asked: What is the opposite of loneliness? Is it belonging? I think the answer to the question is: Yes, it is. As humans, we need to belong, to one another, to a community, country or culture. It is fundamental to our well-being.
Researchers from around the world agree that isolation, loneliness and low social status can harm a person’s intellectual achievements, immune functions, and health. This kind of isolation and loneliness often happen as a result of the traumatic events a child has experienced. Pain, shame, confusion, fear and shock are all feelings that can lead a child to feel removed from his or her community.
On the other hand, feeling a sense of belonging has great positive impact. Our happiness is tied to the feeling of belonging to a greater community. A study published by the Journal of Substance Abuse Treatment investigated the effects of belongingness on adult mental health, outcomes of childhood trauma, and risky alcohol use. The results of the study suggested that a feeling of belonging in childhood may serve as a protective factor for difficulties with mental health and adverse outcomes of childhood trauma later in life.
"Belongingness," they said, "has been associated with improved confidence and well-being. It plays a large role in resiliency research, which explores 'invisible factors' that may improve an individual’s ability to thrive through stressful life events, such as childhood trauma."
This is why a primary focus of Novi is belonging. It is important for us to work with local communities in order to strengthen a sense of belonging the community has to its children. This we do by establishing relationships with community leaders, teachers and other adults with influence in their communities. We also arrange sport, music, art, dance and drama camps for the communities we work in. Belonging happens in local communities. It also happens when children from different backgrounds meet to play, learn and talk together. We are convinced that belonging is the best remedy we can give children who have suffered the traumas of war.
Together we are Novi. You belong here too.
Hanna is from Kharkiv. Last week, she went back to her war-torn home.
When evil-doing comes like falling rain, nobody calls out, ‘Stop!’