Beginnings in Belfast

Once I made the decision as a senior in high school to attend Michigan State University, I had my sights set on the school’s prestigious study abroad program. I dreamed of immersing myself into different cultures and experiencing an education in a place other than my home country with my peers, and I was enthralled. It seemed surreal this Friday when that magical day finally happened, and I was flying to Belfast for my five week study abroad trip.

I would be lying if I said I didn’t fangirl over European accents as soon as I arrived in the Heathrow airport. I’ve consumed way too much media from the UK to not freak out when I finally heard those dialects in their homeland, I can’t lie!

Truthfully, I knew hardly any background information on Belfast before my arrival. I thought of Ireland as one country, and had to little to no education on the division that Northern Ireland and Ireland have. I’ve enjoyed every moment of peeling the seemingly endless layers of Belfast’s history.

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You think of walls that separate others for differences in religion or nationality as a ludicrous idea that a radical, small minded presidential candidate (cough, cough) proposes, or as something obsolete, such as the Berlin Wall.

In Belfast, we learned that a wall separating others simply for their religious differences is an everyday reality that molds this very city. A 45 foot wall, now recognized as the Belfast Peace Wall, was created to separate the Catholics and Protestants of Belfast decades ago. The wall resonated deeply with a lot of us, as the concept of such a tangible division between citizens is almost unimaginable for many American citizens.

 

The pain and grief that the city of Belfast has coped with (and still copes with) is transparent. The bombings and the assassinations of citizens, solely a byproduct of religious intolerance, is an open wound that Belfast is still working to repair. It is compelling to see how one side of the city mourned deeply over their, say, fellow Catholics who were killed, and the other side commemorates that very assassin of the casualties as a hero.

Our tour guide explained that one man’s hero can be another man’s terrorist. I couldn’t help but contrast war heroes that we are taught of in US history classes, or media pieces such as the film American Sniper, that celebrates an American hero that could easily be seen as an enemy from the opposing country.

What resonated the most with me was the willingness to make a change in this city. Despite the deeply engrained intolerance for the opposing religious group, both Catholics and Protestants are working to create a more peaceful Belfast for their children and grandchildren. They are desegregating the religion in their schools, and are transforming the very wall that physically divides them, to unite them. A wall that once was created to divide the city of Belfast, is the very wall that reminds them the importance of peace and tolerance today.

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Signing the Belfast Peace Wall, among thousands and thousands of other signatures and messages.

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