Monthly Archives: July 2013

Dropped off at Grandma’s … for good

Los Angeles (CNN) -- After years of struggling with depression, Nikki de Toledo killed herself with a prescription drug overdose when she was 27.

She didn't leave a suicide note, but she did leave her 8-year-old son, Kevin.

Kevin's grandparents, Ginette and André de Toledo, immediately took over custody, because Kevin's father lived abroad and had never been a part of his life.

It wasn't an easy transition, though.

"It was a very difficult time for my parents because they weren't able to grieve," said Nikki's sister, Sylvie. "They were immediately responsible for raising an 8-year-old who also was grieving in his own way. And it was different than the way my parents were grieving. It was a pretty tough time for our family."

It's often the grandparents who step up when a parent dies or is unable to take care of a child for other reasons, such as incarceration, abuse or mental illness. In 2011, there were at least 2.7 million grandparents raising a grandchild in the United States, according to the U.S. Census Bureau's American Community Survey.

But the sudden shift in responsibility can be incredibly stressful.

Grandparents may be living on fixed incomes, and the additional dependents can cause costs to soar. There's also an emotional adjustment when an empty nest is no longer empty.

Nikki de Toledo left behind her young son, Kevin, after she died from a drug overdose.
Nikki de Toledo left behind her young son, Kevin, after she died from a drug overdose.
Kevin was raised by his grandparents and is seen here today with his aunt, Sylvie de Toledo.
Kevin was raised by his grandparents and is seen here today with his aunt, Sylvie de Toledo.

"When that call comes ... your whole life changes," Sylvie de Toledo said. "It's turned inside out and upside down."

De Toledo said she watched her parents, then in their mid-50s, struggle with their new responsibilities. It affected their marriage and their health.

Also, like many children who lose a parent, Kevin had emotional issues that followed him into his teenage years.

"Kevin was a difficult teenager," said de Toledo, a 58-year-old social worker. "The trauma and grief and loss of a parent abandoning you, so to speak ... it's a huge, huge loss."

Around the same time, de Toledo started noticing more of her work clients -- children and grandparents -- dealing with similar challenges.

"The most common thread was that they all felt alone and isolated," she said. "They didn't know anyone in the same situation that they were in."

Determined to bring some of these families together, de Toledo began holding a support group for about 10 of them. When attendance began to skyrocket, she started her own nonprofit, Grandparents as Parents, to help more people cope with the process.

Today, more than a quarter-century later, there are 20 support groups across Los Angeles, and the nonprofit works with more than 3,000 families a year, providing them with financial assistance, legal advice and emotional support.

More than 90% of the caregivers are grandparents, but the nonprofit also assists aunts, uncles, siblings and close friends who have stepped up to care for children when their biological parents can't.

When that call comes ... your whole life changes. It's turned inside out and upside down.
CNN Hero Sylvie de Toledo

"We are a one-stop shop for relative caregivers," de Toledo said. "So many times, the families are completely overwhelmed. The kids come to them with a dirty diaper and a T-shirt that's way too big for them."

Do you know a hero? Nominations are open for 2013 CNN Heroes

When someone calls for help, de Toledo is usually the first person they talk to. She listens to their story and then helps them prioritize their needs so the situation isn't so overwhelming.

"It's sort of like a jigsaw puzzle," she said. "You have to figure out how to put the pieces back together to build a whole, happy, healthy individual child."

Lourdes Aguylar called seven years ago when her daughter dropped off three children ages 3, 9, and 10 months. Aguylar received immediate assistance -- food, toys and clothes -- and with the group's help she later became legal guardian of the children.

Over the years, the group has also helped provide the children with psychological, educational and medical support. But perhaps most importantly, Aguylar said, they have become part of a larger family -- a group of caregivers and children who back each other.

"You know you're not the only one," she said.

More on CNN: Grandparents get tech-savvy to keep in touch

In addition to weekly support groups, there are monthly picnics for families and friends as well as opportunities for the families to attend events together, such as the theater, amusement parks and sporting events.

Sylvie de Toledo also assists aunts, uncles, siblings and close friends who are raising other people\'s children.
Sylvie de Toledo also assists aunts, uncles, siblings and close friends who are raising other people's children.

The nonprofit gets its money through grants, private donations and corporate sponsors, but it also helps grandparents apply for government assistance. de Toledo said many grandparents don't realize there are special programs that may be available to them.

"We have seen countless families who have maxed out credit cards and used all of their savings before they even ask for help," she said.

Even if they do know there is help out there, many don't know how to navigate the system and may need help using online systems or filling out paperwork. So de Toledo and her staff or volunteers will walk them through the process.

Louise Reaves, 60, got in touch with de Toledo to help her navigate the court system and get custody and benefits for her young granddaughter. Six years ago, Reaves' daughter dropped the baby off at her house, promising to return when she got back on her feet; she hasn't come back.

"Sylvie was able to walk me through everything that I needed," Reaves said. "I was able to get medical assistance for (my granddaughter). I was able to get clothing for her ... rent. They helped me get on my feet where I could help myself."

She credits the group with keeping her family together.

"Without me joining (the group), I don't know where we would be," she said. "I'm going to be honest with you. I don't know if (my granddaughter) would be in a group home or a foster home or what. It was rough."

More on CNN: Caregiver lives rerouted, enriched by aging parents

De Toledo said her group has kept thousands of children from entering the foster care system, and they've also kept siblings from being separated.

"We've literally saved families," she said.

But the true heroes, she said, are the caregivers.

"It's really the grandparents and the relatives who are doing this that deserve the recognition for putting their own lives on hold," she said. "I just was able to plant a seed with something that happened in my own family. ...

"From a family tragedy, something wonderful has happened."

Want to get involved? Check out the Grandparents as Parents website at www.grandparentsasparents.org and see how to help.

Escaping New Orleans’ mean streets

New Orleans (CNN) -- Nearly 30 years ago, Lisa Fitzpatrick was the target of a gang initiation.

She had pulled off the highway in Oklahoma City, to buy something at a convenience store, when a car pulled up alongside hers. She noticed two 12-year-olds struggling with something in the back seat. Suddenly, they were pointing a gun at her.

"I saw their faces, and they were terrified," she said.

Then the shot rang out.

The bullet only grazed Fitzpatrick, leaving a scar near her nose, but the incident changed the way she thought about gang violence. She said she later learned from police that the children were told they had to kill someone that night or someone in their family would suffer violent consequences.

"I wasn't the victim that night, I was the collateral damage," said Fitzpatrick, now 50. "The victims were the two babies in the back seat holding the gun. It turned my view upside down about who the victims are. Sometimes, it's the person pulling the trigger."

More than two decades later, Fitzpatrick was living in New Orleans when she once again had a brush with street violence.

Driving home from her job as an executive at a health-care company, she found her street blocked by police tape. Someone her daughter knew had been killed -- the unintended victim of a drive-by shooting. For Fitzpatrick, that was the turning point.

"It was just too much," she said. "Too many young men were lying face down in their own blood. I didn't want it to be normal anymore. I didn't want the children to think that this was normal. I had to do something."

This lively Mardi Gras scene depicts what many think of when they hear "New Orleans." Chaos and alcohol define the mood, with police standing by.This lively Mardi Gras scene depicts what many think of when they hear "New Orleans." Chaos and alcohol define the mood, with police standing by.
But for many, such as rapper Justin Elliott (aka Hot Bizzle), New Orleans is not a place to enjoy, but one to escape. Elliott's cousin, Joseph "Joker" Elliott, was killed in January during a dispute with a neighbor. He was 17.But for many, such as rapper Justin Elliott (aka Hot Bizzle), New Orleans is not a place to enjoy, but one to escape. Elliott's cousin, Joseph "Joker" Elliott, was killed in January during a dispute with a neighbor. He was 17.
The colorful city, often known for its jazz and gumbo, has had a murder rate at least seven times the national average for the past 30 years.The colorful city, often known for its jazz and gumbo, has had a murder rate at least seven times the national average for the past 30 years.
There are some, still, working hard to make changes. Daryl Durham is the program director for Anna's Arts for Kids at St. Anna's Episcopal Church. This program in the Treme neighborhood provides children with an alternative to spending Saturdays on the streets.There are some, still, working hard to make changes. Daryl Durham is the program director for Anna's Arts for Kids at St. Anna's Episcopal Church. This program in the Treme neighborhood provides children with an alternative to spending Saturdays on the streets.
In January, 26 residents were slain in the Crescent City. Many of the poorest residents are buried in Holt Cemetery, where many signs are handwritten and graves may be dug by hand.In January, 26 residents were slain in the Crescent City. Many of the poorest residents are buried in Holt Cemetery, where many signs are handwritten and graves may be dug by hand.
There's a new neighborhood arising from the ashes in the form of the B.W. Cooper Apartments project. The area gained attention for a high crime rate, and the new apartments sit within minutes of crime scenes.There's a new neighborhood arising from the ashes in the form of the B.W. Cooper Apartments project. The area gained attention for a high crime rate, and the new apartments sit within minutes of crime scenes.
A few miles away, in the Zion City neighborhood, Shirley Elliott sits with her granddaughter Brianne Beasley. Her son was recently arrested in connection with a gang rape reported in the neighborhood.A few miles away, in the Zion City neighborhood, Shirley Elliott sits with her granddaughter Brianne Beasley. Her son was recently arrested in connection with a gang rape reported in the neighborhood.
The historic city is typically recognized for the Saints football team and annual Mardi Gras parades. Since the year after Hurricane Katrina swept through, New Orleans has also become the murder capital of the United States.The historic city is typically recognized for the Saints football team and annual Mardi Gras parades. Since the year after Hurricane Katrina swept through, New Orleans has also become the murder capital of the United States.
But people like Lisa Fitzpatrick, the founder of APEX (Always Pursuing Excellence) Youth Center, don't lose hope. "People ask, 'How do you get kids down to the center?' " she said. "It's not rocket science. Unlock your damned doors -- and a plate of cookies doesn't hurt."But people like Lisa Fitzpatrick, the founder of APEX (Always Pursuing Excellence) Youth Center, don't lose hope. "People ask, 'How do you get kids down to the center?' " she said. "It's not rocket science. Unlock your damned doors -- and a plate of cookies doesn't hurt."
Others memorialize the victims of this city's violence. St. Anna's Episcopal Church has a permanent "murder board" with the names and ages of those killed from 2007 and 2008. A temporary board is updated weekly as well.Others memorialize the victims of this city's violence. St. Anna's Episcopal Church has a permanent "murder board" with the names and ages of those killed from 2007 and 2008. A temporary board is updated weekly as well.
Reminders of death can be found across the area as people honor their loved ones. Fredric Sweetwyne celebrates the life of Jeremy Galmon with a commemorative cross in the Central City neighborhood.Reminders of death can be found across the area as people honor their loved ones. Fredric Sweetwyne celebrates the life of Jeremy Galmon with a commemorative cross in the Central City neighborhood.
For Acquanette Bornes, a resident in the same neighborhood, death is more than grieving for a person. Her neighbor's house is collapsing onto hers, but she is unable to get it fixed because the neighbor has died.For Acquanette Bornes, a resident in the same neighborhood, death is more than grieving for a person. Her neighbor's house is collapsing onto hers, but she is unable to get it fixed because the neighbor has died.
Though New Orleans has many troubling statistics -- including high poverty rates, especially among children -- the mayor 10 months ago called murder "the single most important issue facing our city."Though New Orleans has many troubling statistics -- including high poverty rates, especially among children -- the mayor 10 months ago called murder "the single most important issue facing our city."
Trina Bordley wears a shirt memorializing Joseph "Joker" Elliott, the 17-year-old killed during an argument at his home. She pinches Timeshika Beasley's cheek as they sit outside in the Zion City neighborhood.Trina Bordley wears a shirt memorializing Joseph "Joker" Elliott, the 17-year-old killed during an argument at his home. She pinches Timeshika Beasley's cheek as they sit outside in the Zion City neighborhood.
Some residents blame the high crime rates on a lack of activities to keep youths off the streets. Places like this multipurpose center in Mid-City never reopened after the floods of Katrina.Some residents blame the high crime rates on a lack of activities to keep youths off the streets. Places like this multipurpose center in Mid-City never reopened after the floods of Katrina.
The death and destruction from Katrina left many young people desensitized to violence and death, some locals say. "You learn how to resolve conflict in a way that doesn't involve picking up a gun," Police Superintendent Ronal Serpas said. "It's all a learning process."The death and destruction from Katrina left many young people desensitized to violence and death, some locals say. "You learn how to resolve conflict in a way that doesn't involve picking up a gun," Police Superintendent Ronal Serpas said. "It's all a learning process."
The other side of New Orleans
The other side of New Orleans
The other side of New Orleans
The other side of New Orleans
The other side of New Orleans
The other side of New Orleans
The other side of New Orleans
The other side of New Orleans
The other side of New Orleans
The other side of New Orleans
The other side of New Orleans
The other side of New Orleans
The other side of New Orleans
The other side of New Orleans
The other side of New Orleans
The other side of New Orleans
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Photos: The other side of New OrleansPhotos: The other side of New Orleans

Fitzpatrick quit her job, downsized her life and created the APEX Youth Center. Since 2010, more than 460 children and young adults have come to the center to spend their free time and escape the violence on the streets.

"We offer a space out of the path of the bullet, where a young man can put 6 inches of cinder block between him and violence outside," Fitzpatrick said.

More on CNN: New Orleans looks to shake Murder City title

APEX, which stands for Always Pursuing Excellence, includes fun activities such as basketball, video games and pool. But it also provides mentoring, tutoring and job training so that young people can set themselves on a path to a brighter future.

"We're empowering our young men and women to ... find out what they might want to do," Fitzpatrick said. "We work on finding our passion."

APEX draws young people from across the city, and the tensions that exist between different neighborhood factions can occasionally flare up. Fitzpatrick's ultimate goal is to teach them to work through those moments without resorting to violence.

"Statistics say that overwhelmingly, the young men being murdered on the street, they know their murderer," she said. "If you go get your people, and I go get my people, all we're doing is perpetuating the cycle. ... So our point here is to stop."

"Our motto is 'Reconciliation, never retaliation,' and that's a hard lesson in an eye-for-an-eye world," she said. "What we do is (ask) ... 'How can we address this differently? What could we do to de-escalate this situation instead of escalate the situation?' I constantly ask questions. ... The young men come up with the answers."

Lisa Fitzpatrick says she was tired of seeing young men getting killed in New Orleans.
Lisa Fitzpatrick says she was tired of seeing young men getting killed in New Orleans.

Sometimes, they'll use words to calm a given situation. Other times, they'll have "dance-offs" or use other artistic endeavors. Whatever the method, Fitzpatrick knows that every situation that's negotiated peacefully gives young people tools they can use in the future.

"I wish I could tell you that I could get them to change their ways, (but) it doesn't work that way," she said. "We give them the space and the opportunity to make that decision. What I have found is that no one has ever really given them the opportunity to make the choice.

"When I ask them why they hang out with (me) every Friday night, they say, 'Because you're the first person who ever let us in the door.' That is an indictment on our society."

Fitzpatrick is motivated, in part, by her religious beliefs. She serves as an associate pastor at a local Methodist church. But she said she doesn't force her religion on the children, and evangelizing is not allowed at APEX.

"Many of the kids ask me, 'Why are you here?' and I'm honest with them," she said. "I'm here because it's the right thing to do, and I feel like it's what I'm meant to do, and that has a lot to do with my faith.

"This is a nondenominational center, but what I bring in is universal. It's about leading a nonviolent life."

When you look at Fitzpatrick -- a 50-year-old white woman -- you might not think she'd have much in common with the mostly African-American males that come to her center. But the reality is quite different.

They say ... 'You're the first person who ever let us in the door.' That is an indictment on our society.
CNN Hero Lisa Fitzpatrick

Michael Lewis, a 20-something young man at APEX, said he felt an "instant connection" with Fitzpatrick after hearing her past. Soon after, he was showing her his own bullet wounds and telling his story.

"I've kind of gone through a similar situation," he said. "I've hung with the wrong crowd and did wrong things, and we all know when it's enough, right?"

Kendall Santacruze, 20, says the direction of his life was changed by Fitzpatrick's message.

"I'm not even going to lie to you: I was on the verge of getting ready to seriously hurt somebody," he said. "Me and my friends actually had weapons. But Miss Lisa, she stopped us.

"Miss Lisa taught me how to deal with my anger; she taught me how to be in control of myself, (not) let others influence you."

Today, Santacruze helps others at APEX, where he sees young people facing the same struggles that he once did.

"I think to myself, 'That's exactly where I used to be,' " he said. "So I mentor them, I act as a role model to them. The little kids who come up to me, they hug me and they say they love me. It brings tears to my eyes at the end of the day, and it makes me happy to know that I'm actually influencing their lives.

"The way Miss Lisa influenced me is the same way I feel like I'm influencing them."

This peer-to-peer mentoring, and the fact that the majority of the young people that come to APEX are referred by their friends, confirms to Fitzpatrick that she's on the right track. While she's still in the process of assembling measurable data, she said she sees evidence of her impact every day.

"I've seen increases in GPAs, kids are getting jobs, recidivism has gone down," she said, noting that the one statistic she is most proud of is that almost all of the young people she's helped are still alive four years later.

"The successes of APEX are not necessarily going to Harvard or getting out of the neighborhood. (It's) when a kid like Kendall can live (here) and make a conscious choice every day to not be involved in the violence, spread the message of nonviolence, and work hard to get other kids to put down the gun. That's the success."

Fitzpatrick and her family have had to make sacrifices to keep APEX open, trading a five-bedroom house for a two-bedroom apartment. At one point, things got so tough that a woman bought Fitzpatrick groceries with her own food stamps.

But Fitzpatrick said she wouldn't have it any other way.

"At the end of the day, my house and my cars, that was sticks and bricks, steels and wheels," she said. "The kids, they give up everything to be here. That's my inspiration. I can't do anything else but be here."

Want to get involved? Check out the APEX Youth Center website at www.apexyouthcenter.org and see how to help.

Girls flee war, find ‘worse’ in camp

  • Syria refugee crisis has led to growing phenomenon: marriages for protection
  • Various stories of sexual harassment and rape in one camp in Jordan
  • Families unable to safeguard daughters marry them off to protect them
  • Syria's neighbours like Jordan can't handle the influx of refugee

(CNN) -- Feet stumbling in the pitch darkness over the uneven ground we make our way with a group of women to one of the bathrooms in the Zaatari camp.

"There is no light, if we come in here there could be a guy hiding or something." one woman says.

None of them want to be identified. They carry fear of the regime with them, even as they seek refuge across the border in Jordan.

But "safety" is a relative term. For Syria's female refugee population, it has meant trading fear of death in their homeland for fear of something many consider to be worse: rape.

There have been various stories of sexual harassment and rape in Zaatari camp -- teeming with masses who continue to stream across the border.

Angelina Jolie remembers Syria refugees
Saying no to child marriage
To be born a girl in Afghanistan is often to be ushered into a life of servitude, where girls have very little worth and very dim futures. Amina is forced to marry at 12, to bear a child though still a child herself -- while her own brother is given her dowry money to buy a used car. But Amina, whose name was changed and story portrayed by an actress out of concern for her safety, has had enough, and she is fighting back.
CNN Films' "Girl Rising" tells the stories of Amina and other girls from around the world and how the power of education can change the world. Learn more about the girls' inspiring stories.
(From 10x10)
To be born a girl in Afghanistan is often to be ushered into a life of servitude, where girls have very little worth and very dim futures. Amina is forced to marry at 12, to bear a child though still a child herself -- while her own brother is given her dowry money to buy a used car. But Amina, whose name was changed and story portrayed by an actress out of concern for her safety, has had enough, and she is fighting back. CNN Films' "Girl Rising" tells the stories of Amina and other girls from around the world and how the power of education can change the world. Learn more about the girls' inspiring stories. (From 10x10)
"What if a girl's life could be more?" When Azmera turned 13, it was time for the Ethiopian girl to be given to a stranger in marriage, like her mother and grandmother before her. But Azmera refused. Azmera is fearful, but she is not alone. She has a champion beside her: an older brother who would give up anything for his sister to be able to stay in school. Together, brother and sister dare to reject her fate.
"What if a girl's life could be more?" When Azmera turned 13, it was time for the Ethiopian girl to be given to a stranger in marriage, like her mother and grandmother before her. But Azmera refused. Azmera is fearful, but she is not alone. She has a champion beside her: an older brother who would give up anything for his sister to be able to stay in school. Together, brother and sister dare to reject her fate.
"Poetry is how I turn ugliness into art." La Rinconada, Peru, is a bleak corner of the world that regularly turns out two things: gold from deep within its mountain, which is immediately sent far away; and despair, which remains. Senna's is the poorest of the poor mining families clinging to that mountain. Every day is a struggle. Yet, somehow, she was given two magnificent gifts: a father who named her for a warrior princess and insisted that she goes to school, and a talent with words. And when Senna discovered poetry, everything changed. "Poetry is how I turn ugliness into art." La Rinconada, Peru, is a bleak corner of the world that regularly turns out two things: gold from deep within its mountain, which is immediately sent far away; and despair, which remains. Senna's is the poorest of the poor mining families clinging to that mountain. Every day is a struggle. Yet, somehow, she was given two magnificent gifts: a father who named her for a warrior princess and insisted that she goes to school, and a talent with words. And when Senna discovered poetry, everything changed.
"Change is like a song you can't hold back." Suma's brothers are sent to school, but her parents have no money for a daughter's education. Given into bonded servitude at age 6, Suma labors in the house of a master from before dawn until late at night. For years, the Nepali girl suffers in silence, until music gives her a voice. A stroke of luck and kindness gives Suma a chance to go to school -- and a crusader is born.
"Change is like a song you can't hold back." Suma's brothers are sent to school, but her parents have no money for a daughter's education. Given into bonded servitude at age 6, Suma labors in the house of a master from before dawn until late at night. For years, the Nepali girl suffers in silence, until music gives her a voice. A stroke of luck and kindness gives Suma a chance to go to school -- and a crusader is born.
"I will come back every day until I can stay." Wadley is 7 years old when the world comes crashing down around her. When Haiti's catastrophic earthquake destroys lives, homes and families, Wadley's happy life with her mother, filled with friends and school, becomes a struggle to survive in a teeming tent city, devastation and grief all around. But Wadley believes she is meant to do something special with her life -- and that the way to begin is by getting back to school. What happens when this irrepressible spirit confronts a system that tells her she is unworthy of an education is an inspiration to the world.
"I will come back every day until I can stay." Wadley is 7 years old when the world comes crashing down around her. When Haiti's catastrophic earthquake destroys lives, homes and families, Wadley's happy life with her mother, filled with friends and school, becomes a struggle to survive in a teeming tent city, devastation and grief all around. But Wadley believes she is meant to do something special with her life -- and that the way to begin is by getting back to school. What happens when this irrepressible spirit confronts a system that tells her she is unworthy of an education is an inspiration to the world.
"Now there's nothing to stop me. Nothing in the world. Nothing in the universe." Mariama describes herself as a typical teenager, which in itself is remarkable. Her poverty-stricken country, Sierra Leone, is still recovering from a brutal decade of civil war. But Mariama isn't looking back; she is the voice of the future. She is the first in her family to go to school and already has her own radio show and dreams of being a famous scientist and a television star.
"Now there's nothing to stop me. Nothing in the world. Nothing in the universe." Mariama describes herself as a typical teenager, which in itself is remarkable. Her poverty-stricken country, Sierra Leone, is still recovering from a brutal decade of civil war. But Mariama isn't looking back; she is the voice of the future. She is the first in her family to go to school and already has her own radio show and dreams of being a famous scientist and a television star.
"He was strong, but I was stronger." An Egyptian girl of 12 whose family can't afford to send her to school has very few options. She can become a street kid; she can become a bride; she can become a target. Yasmin -- whose name was changed and story portrayed by an actress out of concern for her safety -- is lured into the trap of a sexual predator. But what she doesn't become is a victim. Yasmin becomes a superhero. "He was strong, but I was stronger." An Egyptian girl of 12 whose family can't afford to send her to school has very few options. She can become a street kid; she can become a bride; she can become a target. Yasmin -- whose name was changed and story portrayed by an actress out of concern for her safety -- is lured into the trap of a sexual predator. But what she doesn't become is a victim. Yasmin becomes a superhero.
Girl RisingGirl Rising
CNN Films' "Girl Rising" documents extraordinary girls and the power of education to change the world.CNN Films' "Girl Rising" documents extraordinary girls and the power of education to change the world.
CNN Films' "Girl Rising" documents extraordinary girls and the power of education to change the world. Watch it at 9 p.m. ET June 16 on CNN.CNN Films' "Girl Rising" documents extraordinary girls and the power of education to change the world. Watch it at 9 p.m. ET June 16 on CNN.
CNN Films' "Girl Rising" documents extraordinary girls and the power of education to change the world. Watch it at 9 p.m. ET June 16 on CNN.CNN Films' "Girl Rising" documents extraordinary girls and the power of education to change the world. Watch it at 9 p.m. ET June 16 on CNN.
CNN Films' "Girl Rising" documents extraordinary girls and the power of education to change the world. Watch it at 9 p.m. ET June 16 on CNN.CNN Films' "Girl Rising" documents extraordinary girls and the power of education to change the world. Watch it at 9 p.m. ET June 16 on CNN.
CNN Films' "Girl Rising" documents extraordinary girls and the power of education to change the world. Watch it at 9 p.m. ET June 16 on CNN.CNN Films' "Girl Rising" documents extraordinary girls and the power of education to change the world. Watch it at 9 p.m. ET June 16 on CNN.
The benefits of girls' education
The benefits of girls' education
The benefits of girls' education
The benefits of girls' education
The benefits of girls' education
What happens when you educate a girl?What happens when you educate a girl?

This dark underbelly of crisis has led to a disturbing growing phenomenon: "sutra" marriages, or marriages for protection.

Families who feel like they are unable to safeguard their female family members, their daughters, are marrying them off to protect them.

In a culture where conserving honor is central, everyone says they had no other choice.

In one trailer we meet 13-year-old Najwa. She curls back in the corner next to her husband, 19-year-old Khaled, and her mother, hardly saying a word.

Najwa is the youngest of three, her two older sisters in their late teens are also recently married.

"I swear I wasn't able to sleep, I was afraid for the girls." Her mother tells us. "I swear to God, I would not have let her get married this young if we were still in Syria."

"There were rapes," Khaled adds.

We approach the culturally delicate subject of sex with a vaguely worded question about the age difference and plans for children.

"It's okay, I do not want children now," Khaled says. "I will make it up to her, I will make up for not having a (wedding) party."

Ruwaida dresses brides inside Zaatari -- a business she had back home in Syria. She says that marriage at 13 was rare in Syria, but here she sees it more and more frequently.

Across the board, even for what should be a joyous occasion there is always sorrow. When the brides are children themselves, it's even worse.

We left Syria to escape death and we found something worse than death
Syrian refugee, Mariam

"I feel like I have a child between my hands and she is having to take on a responsibility bigger than she is." Ruwaida says. "I feel like her life is over, her life is ending early."

The same fears exist for those families living outside the camp. On a tour with the Syrian American Medical Society (SAMS) we meet 14-year-old Eman. She has such a sweet young face, flushed with exhaustion as she cradles her baby.

"I wouldn't have gotten married, it's because of the situation." She speaks softly, her eyes filled with regret and pain well beyond her years.

"I told my son not to consummate the marriage, but he didn't listen," her mother-in-law whispers.

She too was wed for protection.

More: Forced to marry at age 14

Farrah Sukkar, herself a Syrian refugee and SAMS volunteer, estimates there has been an increase of 60% in young teen marriages. The added worry not just because of the young age of the girls, but medical as well. Many are having children before their own bodies are fully developed.

The SAMS team goes house to house in Amman and other areas of Jordan trying to determine what aid refugees need, but also to pinpoint vulnerable cases.

One woman we meet has 13 children. Two of her daughters are teenagers and she's so afraid of leaving them at home alone that she hasn't been able to leave the house to vaccinate her baby.

Despite their best efforts, Syria's neighbours like Jordan can't handle the influx of refugees. Aid organizations are running out of funding.

More: Saying no to child marriage

Predators also lurk in areas where refugees are known to gather looking for humanitarian aid. Their desperation is palpable, with aid agencies both local and international unable to meet the needs, and they will latch on to anyone who promises help.

Mariam and her 10-year-old daughter were at a hospital providing free care for refugees when she overheard a man on the phone talking about free housing for refugees. She and the other women there clamored around him, thinking their prayers had been answered.

The man loaded three cars with women, including Mariam and her daughter. She quickly felt that something was wrong.

At their destination, a house in the city of Zarqa, a 45-minute drive from the capital, she refused to enter.

Another man came out, and pointing to her, told the driver, she recalls him saying: "Why did you bring me this one? You brought me an old lady. Then he pointed to the other ladies and asked, 'are you married?'"

Mariam began to feel increasingly terrified as she began to piece together exactly what this house was and asked the man for a glass of water, leaving her alone on the patio. She peered through the window.

"All the girls were scantily dressed." She remembers, her hands twisting nervously. "And I saw two men come in and pick two girls and walk out."

Horrified, she managed to flee with her daughter and the other women with her.

The international community may be unwilling or unable to end the conflict in Syria. But there is a solution to preventing the exploitation of the Syrian female refugee population: more aid.

"We left Syria to escape death and we found something worse than death" Mariam says, hugging her daughter close. "If we had stayed in Syria to die it would have been more honorable. There death is fast, here it is slow."

More: Child bride: 'I was sold for $1,000

How to help: Combat child marriage and barriers to education

What happened to Malala’s friend?

  • Shazia Ramzan, 15, was shot by the Taliban in Pakistan, alongside Malala Yousafzai
  • Concerned for her safety in a country plagued with violence, her family supported her move to Birmingham
  • On July 12, the day of Malala's sixteenth birthday, the United Nations will hold Malala Day
  • A youth resolution will be passed demanding world leaders to ensure every child goes to school

Editor's note: Gordon Brown is a United Nations Special Envoy on Global Education. He was formerly the UK's prime minister.

(CNN) -- Today we can tell the remarkable story of Shazia Ramzan, a 15-year-old Pakistani schoolgirl.

Last October Shazia was travelling home from school with her friend Malala Yousafzai when a Taliban gunman boarded their bus and shot both of them. Malala suffered head and facial injuries and had to be rushed to hospital in the UK. Shot in the neck and arm, Shazia spent a month in hospital while her deep wounds healed. Both were attacked by terrorists who wanted to stop girls going to school.

READ: Malala's global voice stronger than ever

Shazia dreams of being a doctor. Fighting back from her injuries, she attempted to resume her schooling at home in the Swat Valley. So keen was she to return to school at the earliest opportunity that she ignored continuing threats to her life from the same Taliban terrorists who shot her and Malala.

Gordon Brown

For months she has had to be escorted to school each day by two armed guards. Her home has had to be protected by police. Sadly, the more that Shazia spoke up, the more the threats escalated, making it difficult for her and her family to remain secure.

And in the past few weeks violence has escalated across Pakistan. A female teacher was gunned down in front of her young son as she drove into her all girls' schools. A school principal was killed and his pupils severely injured when a bomb was thrown into a school playground in an all-girls school in Karachi just as a prize giving ceremony began.

Only ten days ago, in a massacre which will long be remembered as the single worst terrorist assault on girls' education in recent years, the bus in which 40 female students were travelling from their all-girls college campus in Quetta was blown up by a suicide bomber. 14 girls were killed. So violent was the terrorist attack that another group followed the injured girls to hospital and opened fire on them again.

Malala Yousafzai returns to school for the first time at Edgbaston High School for Girls in Birmingham, England, on March 19. The 15-year-old said she had "achieved her dream."Malala Yousafzai returns to school for the first time at Edgbaston High School for Girls in Birmingham, England, on March 19. The 15-year-old said she had "achieved her dream."
Malala was one of seven people featured on the cover of Time's 100 most influential people edition of the magazine in April.Malala was one of seven people featured on the cover of Time's 100 most influential people edition of the magazine in April.
The teen was discharged from Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Birmingham, England, in February.
The teen was discharged from Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Birmingham, England, in February.
Malala Yousufzai, 15, reads a book on November 7 at the hospital.Malala Yousufzai, 15, reads a book on November 7 at the hospital.
Malala talks with her father, Ziauddin. She was attacked for advocating for girls' education in Pakistan.Malala talks with her father, Ziauddin. She was attacked for advocating for girls' education in Pakistan.
Malala sits up in bed on October 25 after surgery for a gunshot wound to the head.Malala sits up in bed on October 25 after surgery for a gunshot wound to the head.
Malala recovers at Queen Elizabeth Hospital on October 19 after being treated. Malala recovers at Queen Elizabeth Hospital on October 19 after being treated.
Pakistani hospital workers carry Malala on a stretcher on October 9 after she was shot in the head by the Taliban in Mingora.Pakistani hospital workers carry Malala on a stretcher on October 9 after she was shot in the head by the Taliban in Mingora.
Malala's road to recovery
Malala's road to recovery
Malala's road to recovery
Malala's road to recovery
Malala's road to recovery
Malala's road to recovery
Malala's road to recovery
Malala's road to recovery
Photos: Malala\'s recoveryPhotos: Malala's recovery
Brown, Yousafzai partner for education
Malala's story inspires film
Post-shooting, Malala starts school fund

Despite the public revulsion against the violence, the attacks have continued. Only this weekend two schools were blown up, while another two girls were murdered for posting a video in which they were filmed dancing in the rain.

It is because of events like these that, with her family's support, Shazia feels forced to leave the country if she is to have the education she needs. Tomorrow she will resume her schooling in the UK after being flown over to Birmingham last weekend and reunited with her lifelong friend Malala.

I first spoke to Shazia last November, a month after the attempted assassination. She told me then of her determination to persevere and to speak up for a girl's right to education. She called education the light that brightens up girls' lives. And when I met her off the plane from Islamabad on Saturday night, she told me that she wanted every girl to have the chance of an education. Her dream, she said, was to build schools so that every out-of-school girl could develop their talents and fulfil their potential.

According to UNESCO, 700,000 school-age children in Malala and Shazia's home province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KPK) are not at school today - and 600,000 are girls. They are some of the 32 million girls worldwide denied a place at school. In total, 500 million girls of school age will never complete their education. This makes the battle for education for every girl the civil rights struggle of our generation. And until we provide both the resources and security for girls to travel to school and feel safe from the Taliban, then many of Pakistan's schools will remain closed.

The biggest force for change today is the courage of Malala and now Shazia and girls like them, who are no longer prepared to acquiesce in their subjugation. It is their courage that we will celebrate when at the United Nations on July 12th, the day of Malala's sixteenth birthday, we will hold Malala Day. A youth resolution will be passed demanding that world leaders provide the resources to get every child to school.

READ: Malala's first grant will educate 40 girls

Now with a new petition launched by Malala on A World at School, young people themselves from around the world are becoming more vociferous in fighting for their right to education than the adults who for centuries have been charged with delivering it.

Go not just to Pakistan, where I met many of the million-strong Malala demonstrators demanding a girl's right to school. Travel to Bangladesh and you'll find girls who have created 'child marriage free zones', preventing themselves being kept from school in a loveless marriage they did not choose. Visit Nepal, where girls are fighting child slavery with the Common Forum for Kalmal Hari Freedom. Attend the marches in India led by child labourers, demanding not just an end to this form of slavery, but the delivery of their right to learn.

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A woman like Malala

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We saw how in the wake of the attack on Malala and Shazia, over three million people -- including a million out-of-school Pakistani children -- signed petitions calling for children to be able to go to school. This powerful movement is supported by international campaigns such as Plan's Because I am a Girl and Girls not Brides, started by Nelson Mandela's The Elders group.

As we shift from the 20th century movement of women's emancipation to the 21st century campaign for women's empowerment, girls sense that the future is theirs. And it is this new liberation movement, led by girls, that we will celebrate in ten days' time when Malala addresses the United Nations.

READ: Gordon Brown: 32 million girls not at school, we must push for change

November 2012: Malala spurs school-for-all vow, now deliver

October 2012: Millions of children face Malala's fight for an education