My name is Leif (pronounced life), and I am an American serving in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) Young Adult Volunteer (YAV) program in Belfast. For the next year I will be working with Whitehouse Presbyterian Church in North Belfast and working as an intern for Peace Players International – Northern Ireland (PPI-NI). YAV’s have been serving in Belfast for 23 years and I am the 3rd YAV to be interning with PPI-NI.
I have been living in Belfast for 3 weeks now and working with PPI-NI for a little over 4 weeks. Before coming to Belfast, I did not do much research on the Troubles or the city itself, mainly because I wanted to learn directly from the people who had experienced the Troubles first-hand and from those who live here today. My first impression of the city was mixed. I had a general idea that Protestant and Catholic communities were divided, however I did not realize the extent of the division and segregation. What surprised me the most was how these segregated communities co-opted objects, places and events for political reasons, which only serves to deepen the segregation and hatred towards each other. Although there has been official peace for 17 years now, it was clear to me that those who lived through the Troubles were finding it hard to move on from the past. Whilst it is important to understand why people feel this way, it does raise the concern that the some people are passing down their lived experiences of the Troubles to their children. This includes their perceptions, values and ideas that have been greatly affected by their past experiences.
It is for this reason that I find the work of PPI-NI to be incredibly important. The future of Northern Ireland, and Belfast, is in the hands of its young people, the current generation. If this generation is brought up to believe and practice the same traditions as the previous generation, I fear that there is little prospect for meaningful reconciliation and a genuine shared and peaceful future. By bringing together the youth from segregated communities, PPI-NI creates a safe space and helps to break down the tainted perceptions, values and ideas that have been imposed on them.
The staff here at PPI-NI are very motivated, fun, relaxed, encouraging, and have been very helpful during this transition period for me. We recently spent an afternoon together playing mini golf and bowling. The mini golf was great; it felt like we were in Myrtle Beach, not just because of the Pirate themed course, but also because the sun was out! Apparently that doesn’t happen much here. We were also invited to a dinner hosted by Trevor Ringland, one of PPI-NI’s Board of Directors, and also a former Ireland Rugby player. It was great to see how passionate everyone involved with PPI-NI is about the role PPI-NI plays in the reconciliation and peace process here in Belfast and in Northern Ireland more generally.
Personally, I am really looking forward to working with Belfast’s young people and developing my own leadership skills. I am eager to take everything that I learn and experience, both the good and the bad, back home with me.