I cannot believe that I arrived over 4 weeks ago! I feel like I returned to the Emerald Isle in a dead sprint, but I would not have had it any other way.
When I arrived to Europa Bus Station at 8am, I was directly sent to North Belfast to partake in the second half of a 4-day B.I.G. camp- the Game of Three Halves. I had lived in Belfast before, so I was somewhat aware of what PeacePlayers was like and had an inkling of what coming here would entail. I mean I had refereed at Jingle Ball and attended a coaches training but seeing basketball alongside other popular sports as a tool to unite kids from all parts of the city, is something else. It was incredible to watch these kids so easily leave their divisions off the field/ court and just have fun together. It seemed so natural despite their history. And yet I knew it was off the backs of all the current and previous NI staff, who have strived for almost two decades to alter the face of community relations here. I am beyond humbled to be part of the team as an International Fellow at PeacePlayers Northern Ireland.
A few of the coaches and young people recognised me from my volunteering last year, while other kids were beyond thrilled to simply guess what part of the city I would be working in. To explain, PeacePlayers – NI works in East, North, South, and West Belfast, as well as outside Belfast city lines. We strategically hold programmes within each side of the city before encouraging all sides to come together for one big event. This not only allows the participants within each side to unite as a team out of pure vicinity, but also helps bridge divisions that are rampant within smaller communities. Plus friendships are typically easier to build if you share a neighbourhood. Despite learning that I would not be working in North Belfast nor a collegiate athlete in basketball, I was treated no differently; as if I was born a street away rather than 4800+ miles away. Having these young people so quickly accept me and want to chat solely based off knowing I was the ‘new fellow’, is the simplest way to explain how the PeacePlayers family functions: with wide arms and full of joy.
Genuinely, the PeacePlayers family is unlike any other group I have been a part of. And I can most certainly vouch that this applies to all PeacePlayer cities around the world. There is an ease and inclusivity to the banter and a candidness that the participants display, which does not seem to exist outside the PeacePlayers space. For example, we had a 3-day residential last week and the team I coached was called Silly Salmons- amazing team name if you ask me! My team was all about having fun on the basketball court while diving into the seriousness encouraged during the ‘Community Relations’ sessions. On the first evening, we were debriefing the day and what they were looking forward to, wherein one team member described how PeacePlayers was their space to be vulnerable. They continued saying that the following day, would be a chance for them to admit some of their current struggles and how badly they needed this space to open up. Others immediately echoed these thoughts- this was not the first time I had heard these sentiments in the past month. Having previously worked to empower young people to be brave in particular settings, I am inspired and so aware of the privilege being with here will offer me in the coming months. Quite simply, it is clear this is the path for me and one I am so looking forward to learn on.
In all, everyone not just the youth, have been so warm as I have settled back into my Belfast life. Being here with other fellows has been so helpful, as they have been able to show me the ropes and answer my never-ending questions. I will leave it to you to come visit this indescribable PeacePlayer family, no matter the location. Until then, you can find me eating the best potatoes in the world (sorry my Idahoan friends!).
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