Skip to main content

Robert Örell is the program director of ExitUSA, the flagship intervention program at Life After Hate. He has more than 18 years of professional experience in the field of countering/preventing violent extremism. Robert is a social worker, international speaker, and expert on radicalization, disengagement, and interventions.

What’s one of the biggest changes you see in the types of cases ExitUSA is taking on?

What made 2019 so different is that more families are asking for help. These cases can be some of the most intensive we receive. In the last several months, for example, we helped a family whose teenage son ran away from home and — the family fears — joined an armed militia. We also helped a family who was dealing with a teenage son who after being bullied sought community and comfort online, falling deeper into white supremacist ideology.

How do families respond to these types of situations?

Family members, especially parents, often describe a situation that escalates so quickly it seems impossible to reach their kids before it’s too late. This leads to conflict, confrontation, and non-constructive dialogue. And that’s exactly what’s so hard for family members under distress to do: Respond constructively, so they don’t push away or further alienate their children.

Watch: A Way Out From Violent Extremism | Robert Örell | TEDxVilnius

How do you begin to coach that?

What we see as most helpful is when families approach the problem from a place of trying to understand why and how their children became involved, how the influence of radicalization changes relationships, and how it divides families. People will say that it appeared as if their children were drawn into a cult. And indeed there are similarities.

We must be very precise in how we manage these now very-strained relationships, so we don’t push people further into violent extremism. So, our approach is to focus on building up those family bonds. We must focus on what is healthy, what is working, what is good. We often recommend getting other family members involved, especially those who have had a positive impact in the past.

What happens if the relationship is already so damaged?

Particularly with families confronting missing children, or children who have left the home, we try to remind them to focus on three key messages and repeat them as often as possible: We love you. We miss you. You are always welcome back.

What are some common themes that run through the cases you see?

Radicalized individuals often isolate themselves from society, family, and friends. Their impulse is to invalidate all outside information, and they often respond combatively to feedback or efforts to engage them, especially when it comes to questioning their decisions.

Violent extremism promotes violent solutions to problems, conflicts, and stress. If we start from that understanding, we can meet people with compassion for who they are and where they come from in a nonjudgmental, non-confrontational way. The best strategy is to focus on strengthening positive growth, empowering the individual so that they know they have the capacity to change, rebuilding past relationships, and above all else, building a new social identity.

How can people help?

Ultimately, what we want to prevent in all cases is allowing the hate to become the only community for the individual. If it’s the only place where they feel like they can be with friends, or have their basic needs met, or even where they can get feedback in general, then we won’t succeed in getting that person out.

As a community, we need to work together to promote cooperation and positivity for individuals at risk of — or already involved in — violence and hate. Those who successfully leave behind hate groups are motivated to reconnect with themselves and with society. So it takes a willingness on our part to accept them back.