SALT LAKE CITY — Youths from Northern Ireland came together in Utah to accomplish a goal that a decade earlier would have been unthinkable: friendship.
The Ulster Project is one of the efforts being made to help Catholic and Protestant youths in Northern Ireland overcome their religious differences and work toward greater cohesion.
"I think the main aim from this is to bring the two religions together and to conquer some of the conflict in Northern Ireland and to help us to be more open-minded toward other religions back at home," said Chloe Hagan, one of the teens from Northern Ireland.
Twelve teens, with an even mix of Protestant and Catholic members, have spent the past three weeks at ropes courses, the Olympic Park, serving those at Kauri Sue Hamilton School, and St. Joseph Villa nursing home and rehabilitation center. They have also engaged in serious discussions called "discovery" in which they answer tough questions to break down walls that once existed.
The youths come from the same town, Omagh, but few knew each other before becoming involved in the Ulster Project. Although the conflict between Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland has abated, a chilly cordiality exists for many, explained Dick Sullivan, program director for the Ulster Project in Utah.
During his visits to the country, Sullivan said he would often see people pass each other in the street without acknowledging the other. Youths in the Ulster Project had similar experiences, with many acknowledging that the project has allowed them to shed their former perceptions of dismissing those of the other religion.
"They're unlearning all that stuff," Sullivan said.
The Ulster Project has began in 1985 as one solution to the Troubles between Protestants and Catholics in Northern Ireland that lasted from the early 1970s until the late 1990s when the Good Friday Peace Agreement was signed.
Teens from towns in Northern Ireland go to homes in the United States for one month, stay with a teen their age and participate in activities that help them learn leadership and conflict resolution skills. The aim is to help the youths learn to trust and work with those across the religious divide.
It is also designed to help them get past the fear of the unknown other.
"Sadly, in Northern Ireland, still a lot of our young people grew up separately. They go to different schools. They go to different churches, so they don't have a lot of opportunities to actually interact with each other, and so this project allows them to do that," said David Bell, 28, an Ulster Project counselor from Northern Ireland.
The youths in Northern Ireland started meeting in January to help promote unity and cohesion. Group dynamics have changed since the first meeting when none of them talked to each other to a few months later when it was difficult to keep them quiet, Bell said.
Salt Lake City has been an ideal place to host the youths, according to Bell, because so many religions co-exist even with the presence of a dominant religion.
"That gives us real great discussion topics and really good opportunities to learn from each other," he said.
The teens heard about the project from friends or family members who participated in the past, or received information about the project in their congregations.
American host teens have also benefited from the program, helping them understand the difficulties of another culture and to challenge their own biases and perceptions.
Earlier in the week, American teen Anna Schlehuber, 15, and Hannah Devlin, 15, of Northern Ireland, both stood in polka-dot shorts with one arm around the other as their group helped residents at St. Joseph Villa with crafts. The two met online before Hannah came to stay at Anna's home. They said they have come to appreciate the commonalities they share.
"We have equal rights. We're no different than each other, and religion shouldn't have a part in saying who we are," Hannah said.
Monday evening, after a weekend of river rafting, members of the group and their American host families will meet Norman Houston, director of the Northern Ireland Bureau. Houston has been a diplomat in the United States for Northern Ireland twice in past decade and says he has seen the country change entirely.
The Good Friday Agreement saw a gradual improvement in the political environment. The economy is on the rise, the country has hosted international sporting events, its politicians consult countries such as Iraq and Afghanistan on peacemaking, and Queens University in Belfast is a hub for those studying conflict resolution, Houston said. These improvements are in part because of programs like the Ulster Project that help people overcome their differences while they're young, he said.
"This younger generation has the opportunity to inherit a new, forward-thinking small part of Europe and to see things in a very different light," Houston said.
Those involved in the project see the future of Northern Ireland as being bright and full of cooperation. One effort toward this is bringing many of the religiously segregated schools to the same campus, something that will take place in Omagh in the next few years.
"These kids are growing up in a newer world," Bell said.
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