Peace Eludes Children of Fear

Peace Eludes Children of Fear
(Chicago SunTimes - March 12, 1997)

When Roisin Coulter came to Chicago in 1993, she was frightened and homesick before the plane left the ground. A shy twelve year old with large brown eyes and a ponytail, she had never before been away from her home in from Catholic North Belfast. On the plane she met LeAnn Murray, a bubbly, outgoing child from the Protestant Shankill Road. The two bonded immediately, and over the six weeks they spent in Chicago, they became fast friends.

“I didn’t know she was a Protestant,” said Roisin in an interview shortly after returning. “She told me afterwards, but it didn’t matter. She was so easy to get on with, and she always made me laugh my head off. We just wanted to be friends.”

Roisin and LeAnn were one of hundreds of children who participated in a summer program sponsored by the Irish Children’s Fund in Villa Park. Every summer since 1983, families in the Chicago area have taken children away from the narrow streets of North Belfast into their homes for six weeks where they can live without fear of bombs and bullets. Away from the tensions of Northern Ireland, Catholic and Protestant children can meet and socialize without the fear and suspicion they’ve known since birth.

“When you take a 12-year-old thousands of miles away from home and away from the support of their family, what they want most is another person with the same accent and the same age who feels the way they do.” says ICF director Jeremy Roche “Religion goes out the window, and they cling to each other. That’s the beauty of the program.”

Nearly 5000 children from Northern Ireland participate in similar programs all over the United States every year. As innocent victims of circumstance, it is not surprising that so many Americans desire to reach out to children, the universal symbol of hope for the future. Since a tenuous peace was shattered by a bomb that killed 29 people just months after an overwhelming vote in support of the Good Friday Agreement, people cling to that hope now more than ever.

But for the children of Northern Ireland, believing in something they have yet to experience is difficult, if not impossible. When Roisin and LeAnn returned to Belfast after six weeks it wasn’t easy to keep the friendship going, since neither child felt safe traveling to the other’s home. They met once in the neutral territory of downtown Belfast and several days a week at the community center where the Belfast office of the ICF continued the work done in America.

On October 23, just two months after the friendship began, LeAnn was killed in an IRA bomb attack on a fish shop on the Shankill Road. “We were just sick about it,” says Ann Camarano, who brought Roisin into her Elmwood Park home. “LeAnn was a good kid. She was one of those kids who could walk into a room and just fit right in.” The family who LeAnn stayed with in Chicago were deeply affected, and dropped out of the program. They have since moved and lost all contact with the other host families.

“There was disbelief, and sadness, but at the same time an acceptance that something’s always going to happen as some point,” said Gary Rocks, who coordinates the program in Belfast. “Something’s always going to happen sooner or later.”

Five years on, the children who befriended LeAnn are nearly eighteen, and the guarded optimism that permeates the political climate today has yet to reach many of today’s children and young adults.

“From what I’ve seen it’s very much a roller coaster of emotions,” says Roche “They take it in stride, but they’re worried. They want to hope but they haven’t perceived anything concrete yet.”

For Roisin, the Shankill bomb killed more than her friend – it shattered her life at a crucial moment when childhood blooms richest just before the onset of teenage agony. “I was only twelve and all confused. I was afraid to get close to people, and I cried all the time. I grew up quick, but when I got older I realized that loads of other people in this country have had to feel the way I did.”

Despite the hope of these past two years, little has changed in the day to day lives of young people. Unemployment in areas like Ligoniel, where Roisin lives, runs as high as 80 percent. The Catholic and Protestant “Interfaces” that make up North Belfast are still separated by peace lines, visible structures separating one enclave from another. These giant, corrugated tin fences or brick walls have yet to come tumbling down.

There are many places in Belfast Roisin refuses to go. “It’s not safe. And then with the bomb in Omagh . . . It’s always in the back of your mind.”

For Roisin, the recent bomb in the market town of Omagh that killed 29 people destroyed what little trust she had gained. “It brings it all back again. It’s been going on for so long you just can’t believe it’s over. Then when you’re just starting to get hope, it happens all over again.”

The children who participate in the Chicago program meet in Belfast on a regular basis for two years. If they stick with the program they are rewarded with a return trip to Chicago in the third year.

When Roisin went back at the age of 15 she was able to gain some perspective, if not hope. “I started to be able to talk about it more. And I saw in Chicago they have problems with Blacks and Whites – there’s problems all over the world. So I think it’ll always be like that with Catholics and Protestants here.”

Whatever fears Northern Ireland’s children face today, the Irish Children’s Fund remains one of the most successful cross community programs in operation. Studies done by queen’s University in Belfast gauging the attitudes of the children in the program towards other religions showed an increased tolerance the longer the child participated.

“Kids are kids, I don’t care where you put them,” points out Ann Camarano. “Take them out of their old environment, and after a few weeks away from the tension they start to let their hair down.”

But in Northern Ireland, a Catholic child at the funeral of a Protestant killed in an IRA bomb made newspaper headlines. When asked at the time why she thought she drew so much attention she shrugged and replied simply, “I guess they want to know how if feels to have your friend die.”

An entire generation grew up in the violence and chaos known as The Troubles. Their determination to make life better for their own children was a motivating force behind the peace process of recent years. But only when the so-called peace lines separating the two communities come down will the natural bond between these children grow into a lasting trust.

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