Building Peace in A Time of War: Global Volunteers in Ireland
By Lauryn Axelrod
Less than 10 days after the tragic events of September 11, while the nation was preparing for a long and protracted war against terrorism, nine brave Americans boarded airplanes to volunteer for two weeks at the Glencree Centre for Reconciliation near Dublin, Ireland.
For most, the trip had been planned months in advance, motivated by an interest in peace making, the Irish conflict and wanting to help end the problem in whatever way they could.
None knew that such a benign desire would become so much more meaningful in the days before they arrived. None knew the vital role they would play, nor expected that even getting to Ireland could be a challenge with flight cancellations, delays and increased security. But none, amazingly, cancelled their plans.
Global Volunteers (globalvolunteers.org), a US-based non-profit which offers volunteer opportunities in 19 countries including the US, organized the program, whose goal was to give volunteers the opportunity to learn about the Irish conflict first-hand and witness the activities of the Glencree Centre as they work to build peace between Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland. The program runs for one- and two-week sessions year round.
The volunteers — ranging in age from 21 —71, would help in the physical building and maintenance of the center, fittingly renovated from an old military barracks in a beautiful Irish valley, “The Garden of Ireland.” Planting seeds, repairing foundations, and shaping pathways would be the apt metaphor for the hard work of building peace in a country, like our own now, devastated by terror and war.
The Glencree Centre is unique in Ireland: A membership-based association of individuals who subscribe to the object of fostering mutual respect, tolerance and understanding between individuals and groups in conflict, with a view to building peace and reconciliation within the island of Ireland, between Ireland and Britain and beyond.
Glencree offers space and programs in the belief that new ways can be found to deal with conflict in a democratic society. Political leaders, community groups and school children all gather at Glencree to learn, share and work toward conflict resolution and peace. And now, nine Americans, among other volunteers from around the world, had joined the group for two weeks.
These intrepid and committed volunteers worked with staff members and other volunteers on building and maintenance projects, and while they were moving stones and digging roots, they learned just how others around the world viewed the tragic events of September 11, 2001, and how hard it is to strive for peace when there is so much anger, hatred and violence in the world.
They shared their fears and their hopes, and developed friendships that seemed worlds away from the insecurities and suspicions back home.The volunteers also had a chance to visit Belfast to see the consequences of conflict and the efforts of peace in the region, and to attend workshops on the Irish Conflict’s history and current dilemmas.
Most importantly, they had the opportunity to meet with schoolchildren and other groups at the Centre to both share and learn about conflict and peace. Everyone was supportive of the struggles each nation now faced, and questions came hard and fast.
Among the most common, and the most relevant, was “What do we do next?” Perhaps no one knew the answer to ending terror, but it was a cross-cultural effort to understand the nature of peacemaking.
According to Michele Gran of Global Volunteers, people-to-people volunteer service promotes human and economic development around the world. These intercultural programs are vital to waging peace because they bring people together in ways that honor differences, build friendships, and celebrate the similarities we share as citizens of the world. The Glencree program is a clear demonstration of peacebuilding in practice.
Fittingly, 2001 has been deemed “The International Year of Volunteers” by the United Nations. The world saw the volunteer spirit come alive in the ashes of the World Trade Towers as thousands — millions — of people offered to assist in any way they could from donations of blood and money, to their time and skills.
It was inspiring and moving and it proved that the opportunity to share concerns, visions of the future, goodwill and compassion with others around the world is more vital now than ever.
Working together to make our communities and the world stronger, more resilient, more compassionate and more united, eradicates terrorism, hatred and destruction unlike any bomb. Volunteering builds peace, and now, more than ever, peace is needed.
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