Never Any Ending to Paris

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“There is never any ending to Paris and the memory of each person who lived in it differs from that of any other. We always returned to it no matter who we were or how it changed or with what difficulties, or ease, it could be reached. Paris was always worth it, and you received return for whatever you brought to it.”

And that’s it – four weeks, three countries, from Marrakech to Amsterdam to finally here in Paris, and I’m done: done with Northeastern, done with Boston, done with these last four years completely. Which means that this post will bit more of reflective this time around. I could write about the specific French issues with migration, how lacité differs from Dutch progressivism, or how Islam is viewed less as a religion by the French government but as a problem to be contained and managed. You can read some of that here, from when I was last in Nice about two years ago, if you’re curious.  But I want to write, instead, about Paris.

There’s a memory that still stands out to me from November of 2015, back during my second year at university, during the night of the Paris attacks on the Bataclan, as 130 people were shot and killed in the worst attack on French soil since the Second World War. I remember, that night, walking through the Ruggles train station in Boston, hoping break away from the live updates from the BBC and CNN flashing across my phone screen, and hearing, quietly, a whistle float through the air of a tune I knew well:

Sous le ciel de Paris / s’envole une chanson … 

“Beneath the Parisian Sky, a song flutters away…”

The words of Edith Piaf, whistled quietly, sadly, by a French man or woman somewhere on the metro, even as 130 people were killed far away across the Atlantic. Even today, listening to that song reminds me of that memory, one of the strongest I have.

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Place de Victories, Paris

This country, these places – France, Nice, La Côte d’Azur, Paris – mean so much to me, even now, two years since I spent anything more than a handful of days here. France is where the world opened up to me: the cafes, the language, the experience of walking through Paris in the evening as the blue light falls on the streets and the cafes bustle with life and light on every corner. It’s in listening to Debussy’s Clare de Lune and thinking of the crystal-clear waters near Cannes where it was written; it’s in the paintings of Monet of Antibes, or the writing of Albert Camus, Emile Zola, Ernest Hemingway. Besides the States, I have never loved anywhere quite as much as this country — not Bosnia, nor Jordan, nor even Morocco or Amsterdam.

I don’t have the opportunities to visit France as often as I once did, but returning each time reminds me of being nineteen, in Paris, and realizing for the first time that the world was so much bigger than I had ever imagined growing up in the mountains of North Carolina. That Paris exists – that the cafes were real, that the lights at night were just as I had imagined them, and that despite the violence and suffering in world that there is still a place like Paris out there – meant everything to a teenager still putting his first foot into the world. When, the following fall, I listened as over a hundred people were killed in the streets I had fallen in love with only months before, was like watching a kind of innocence die.

A year later, the attack in Nice didn’t serve as such a blow as Paris, even if it this time it impacted to the France I knew best. I guess this was because we all, in some way, were expecting it, just as we were expecting the Brussels attacks, or the Manchester attacks, or the London attacks, or the school shootings in the States. It seems sometimes like the innocence of France and of Europe that came about from the period of relative peace during my lifetime has become, if not broken, then wounded. We expect the terrorist attacks today. We expect the far-right, the anti-immigrant hate speech, the political polarization and division as we lurch from crisis to crisis. The world has grown darker in four years, darker with Syria and the Refugee Crisis, darker with Trump and Le Pen and Putin, darker as the West slowly gives up of this idea that human rights and democracy might still prevail, and that we can still work towards some kind of shared, positive future.

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The Grand Mosque of Paris

Paris is still beautiful, but wary and less open, with the soldiers and their automatic weapons, the constant bag checks and metal barricades. It’s a more guarded city now, and that’s not just in the increased security, but in the people – the French have never been the most openly friendly of cultures, but there’s a new level of tension here that I’ve seen grow slowly in the past few years, a tension reflected in the rise of Le Pen’s National Front, in growing anti-Muslim attitudes, in the ever stronger clinging to the notion of lacité – the intense separation of religion from public life that can be used as a weapon to attack Muslims – as a way to preserve what is specifically French about France. Even France’s  recent World Cup victory hasn’t changed much — a few days of celebration of the multicultural Arab and African-background team, and then right back to the same debates, the same scandals, the same questioning of France’s role in Europe and the moral vacuum left behind by America’s retreat from the world.

Openness, tolerance, inclusion – these notions, which I write about over and over again, are hard, especially when you feel under attack, and especially when people seem to be coming in droves across from Syria, Libya, Somalia, Sudan. But it is sad for me to see Paris like this: to see the city of lights, and romance, and literature turn inwards. I expect my own country to be isolationist, xenophobic and scared, even as I reject it. But Paris is more than that. As America closes its doors, and Britain closes its doors, Paris can become the capital of the world in the way of London or New York are today — but only if it decides to be global, multicultural, and open. Paris does belong, truly, to the world, and so many people in the world, like myself, carry a bit of Paris in them wherever they go. That’s important, and something I don’t want to see this city lose, but embrace.

Paris has gone through more than this. It has gone through the days of terror during the French Revolution and the two World Wars; it has gone through the riots of the ‘60s and the conflict of the ’62 Algerian War. That this city and country will make it through this political era, I have no doubt. But I worry if it will no longer be the same city after this era as it was when I first walked its streets. I wonder, sometimes, if the France I fell in love three years ago with will be the same France in ten years time.

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Museum D’Orsy

I won’t be coming back to France for a while yet – maybe for a few days here and there, but not quite like how I spent entire summers in France in the past. That door is closed, and I’m sad for that. But I’ll be keeping this country, and the memories I’ve had here, and most of all how it has opened the world to me, close to my heart. France will always mean a lot to me, and I wish this country, this city, and these people the best, as it moves forward to whatever future it chooses.

But France’s story is not my story, although I might have believed that for a time, and although I am grateful for sharing this country for a time with the people I knew and loved here. Returning to Paris, even for a few days, was important for me – I needed the closure that came with being in this country again. And now that that closure is done, I’m ready, I think, to give Paris an end.

Then again, there never really is any ending to Paris.

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With the Dialogue group in Paris

One more blog post, and then I’m done. This blog will be shutting down after the next step – the Tour du Mount Blanc in France, Italy, and Switzerland, a nice bookmark to a period that began with a hike in Colorado and will now end with a trek through the Swiss Alps. This was always meant to be a college blog, and now that university is done, it doesn’t feel right to keep it active.

I’ll be writing that last post soon though, so keep your eyes open for it. Until then, thank you for reading.

“If you are lucky enough to have lived in Paris as a young man, then wherever you go for the rest of your life, it stays with you, for Paris is a moveable feast…”  

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The Dutch Example: Islam and Migration in the Progressive Heart of Europe

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Somewhere on a train now in Belgium, en route to Paris. Ten days in Amsterdam and Rotterdam was too little — even over just about a week, I found myself genuinely enjoying the Netherlands in a way that surprised me. The Dutch had always seemed to me to be overly stuffy, direct, and austere, stereotypes that are miles away from the genuinely kind, polite, and positive people that I came to meet. Visiting the twin cities of Amsterdam and Rotterdam, the first old yet cosmopolitan, the other up-and-coming and rooted in a working-class reputation, proved just how diverse this country is for its small size, and just how many nuances there are even in places that seem on the surface homogenous — something I’ve found myself having to re-learn over and over again while traveling over these past four years.

The Netherlands is known as the world capital of peace and justice and as the progressive heart of Europe. With examples such as being the first nation to legalize same-sex marriage, the Netherlands is often cited as a banner for gender equality, progressive social policies, and freedom of speech and expression, In a nation that has its own dark history during the Second World War, including the genocide of its large and historical Jewish community and a own Dutch version of Vichy-esque collaboration governments, the Dutch have in the post-War world since committed to ideals of religious freedom, political refuge, and freedom of thought and speech, more so than most other countries in the world. That’s something that the Dutch are and should be proud of, and celebrate.

But this is also the nation of Geert Wilders and the Freedom Party, a remarkably far-right political party that advocates for the “de-Islamization” of the Netherlands, Euroskepticism, and the near-complete end to migration from predominantly Muslim nations. In the progressive capital of the EU, the fact that one of the most right-wing and radically anti-immigrant movements in Europe has not been created, but found support enough to grow to the largest opposition movement in the Dutch parliament, says much about how Europe has changed in the 21st century, and how the growing opposition to Islam and Muslim Immigration is quickly, and drastically, changing the progressive nature of the European Union.

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New York Hotel, Rotterdam

9/11 changed everything. Of course it changed everything — a world that seemed to slowly, if unevenly, be growing safer, more peaceful, and more democratic suddenly saw a brazen attack on civilians by followers an extremist, hate-filled, and fundamentalist view of one of the world’s largest religions. In the U.S, this shock led to protracted, unnecessary conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq that defined a generation; in the Netherlands and much of Western Europe, 9/11 caused many Europeans to look at the decades-long Muslim migrant communities from Moroccan, Algerian, and Turkish backgrounds and begin to see them not only as immigrants, but as Muslims — Muslims who followed the same religion that al-Qaeda, and later ISIS, al-Shabab, and Boko Haram, claimed to be killing in the name of.

In the early 2000s, a man named Pim Fortyn — an ostentatious and incredibly visible advocate for the complete freedom of speech and, most notably, a severe reduction of Muslim immigration, stole the Dutch political scene in the months before his assassination in 2002 by a radical animal rights advocate, who pulled the trigger partly out of fears that Fortyn was fracturing the polite and progressive Dutch society. In 2004, another strong freedom of speech advocate and Muslim-skeptic voice was assassinated in Theo Van Gogh, this time killed not by a left-wing radical but by a Muslim of Moroccan descent, who had come to reject the secular Dutch state and its permissibility for those like Van Gogh to openly express religiously offensive or anti-Muslim speech and imagery.

The freedom of speech stands at the heart of much of the discussion regarding Muslims in the Netherlands today. The two deaths that rocked a nation were so notable because both figures had been such strong voices against Muslims and Islam, using their right to speech to peddle anti-immigrant rhetoric and what some would label hate speech that, while permissible under Dutch law, stoked intense fear, feelings of discrimination, and extremism amongst Dutch Muslim communities. Today, Geert Wilders (a much more extreme figure than either Fortyn or Van Gogh) has argued the freedom of speech and other progressive freedoms are under threat by Muslims, claiming that Islam cannot coexist in a western, democratic nation and thus that society should be “de-Islamized,” with Muslims severely restricted or outright preventing from moving into the country.

For over a decade this has been the conversation: between the advocates for the freedom of religion and multiculturalism as hallmarks of the Dutch state on one side, and the self-styled guardians of Dutch values who believe Muslim to be incapable of sharing Western ideals. At this point, in the Netherlands but also across all of Europe, I’m not sure which narrative will come out on top.

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Amsterdam

There’s an important distinction between the immigration debate in America versus Europe. In America, despite being made largely of people from immigrant backgrounds, our society still holds to very nationalist narrative surrounding immigration: of “our culture” against a foreign culture, of the fears of immigrants diluting what is uniquely “American,” whether they be Latino/a, Muslim, Asian or African. That’s the narrative of Trump, Steve Bannon and increasingly the Republican Party writ large, and shared by the likes of Eastern European “illiberal democracies” like Viktor Orban’s Hungary or the Law and Justice party in Poland.

In Western Europe, the immigration debate is focused instead on the concept of universal values. The narrative is that Europe has fought tooth-and-nail for progressive policies and legislation, from a strong social safety net to the freedom of speech and improved gender equality, which Muslim communities supposedly don’t (or can’t) share. These are the stances of the Dutch Freedom Party, the French National Front, and to a slightly lesser extend AfD in Germany and the Five Star Movement in Italy. Out of political necessity, these opposition groups tend to ally with the Trumps or Orbans of the world, but their only real common ground lies in a shared anti-Muslim, anti-immigration narrative that lies at the heart of their political message.

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Jordaan, Amsterdam

That’s why freedom of speech is so important in the Netherlands. To the Van Goghs or Fortyns of the country, their ability not only to speak their mind, but to openly mock, offend, or insult the Muslim community (and other minorities) is enshrined in the Dutch constitution, and as such cannot be violated. But to Muslim citizens, their words are seen not as free speech, but as visible, painful attacks on their equal place as Dutch citizens, and serve only to make them feel more marginalized, more unwanted, and less likely to reach out and “integrate” to the white Dutch population of the Netherlands.

As an outside observer, it feels like a double standard that is out of place with what the Dutch are at their best: open, tolerant, and innovative in finding progressive solutions to societal issues. But for the Dutch, what is at stake isn’t just the demographic makeup of the country (although that’s a part of it), but of the very universal, progressive values they identify so strongly with — making the debate not just a moral one, but almost existential.

I can understand this; however, there is also danger in the rhetoric in Europe and America today, a danger of making Muslim citizens less than full members of the state, less than full members of society, less than full humans with full human rights. That’s a path we should be very wary of going down, one that is likely to breed only more extremism, more violence, and more polarization in our countries.

Not all Dutch citizens, nor even those of the right of the political spectrum, are are extreme as Geert Wilders and his Freedom Party. Most believe that the values of multiculturalism — that political freedoms and human rights apply to those of all backgrounds, no matter their religion or ethnicity — are as just as important as other universal values. And many in both migrant and non-migrant communities are also reaching out to each other in important ways, whether it’s advocating for LGBTQ issues amongst gay or trans Muslims or creating Jewish-Christian-Muslim dialogue groups. There’s a lot of progress in these little efforts, progress which eventually might lead to a new understanding of what the rights and responsibility of being a citizen really are, and how we can learn to live together even if with different ethnic and religious backgrounds.

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A canal in Jordaan, Amsterdam

This isn’t a guarantee. There is a very real threat that the Le Pens, or Wilders, or Trumps of our world are in fact rising in power with each passing year. The advocates of an open, liberal, multicultural world — like myself — are too often divided and unsure, constantly in doubt of our relevance in this new post-9/11 and now post-Trump world.  Over the last week or so, I’ve watched as the progressive heart of Europe has itself grappled with this choice. And even though the people of the Netherlands are incredibly kind and welcoming and forward-thinking, and do in fact seem to be moving slowly forward towards a more inclusive future, the Dutch might still decide to choose the exclusionary path, the path of walling themselves off from the world and following leaders — like our Trump, like their Wilders — that promise the moon but offer only more division.

The world isn’t destined to move forward always — we can fall backwards, and retreat into ourselves, and undo just how far we’ve come from the recent days of the police state, or fascism, or Jim Crow. I hope that the Netherlands, and Europe, choses not to — just as I hope that America choses to step off the ledge it teeters on now with Trump. The debate surrounding Muslims, and what place Muslim migrants, asylum seekers, and refugees have in Western societies, isn’t just about immigration policies or what is or isn’t constitutional, nor is it merely a temporary political phenomenon — it’s at the heat of a much bigger question, a question of who we are as Americans and as Europeans, and who we want to be.

I’ll leave it on that note. For now, I’m returning back to France for the first time in over a year. Lots of strong memories here, most good, some a lot less so. But I do desperately love this country and its people, and I’m excited to fall in love with it all all over again over this last week.

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From Morocco to Europe

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A bit less than two weeks in Morocco, and already I’m here in the Netherlands. Even compared to other dialogues, this program is a whirlwind: three different nations, three different languages, three different cultures, politics, and ways of life. Sitting here in a cafe in Amsterdam, the shift from North Africa to Europe is proving to be almost as intense as the move from America to Morocco. Here, the streets seem a bit too calm, the people a little too orderly, the level of English almost too easily accessible. Marrakech is crowds and color, street vendors and the call to prayer, the smell of spices and the chatter of rapid Arabic; Amsterdam is quaint cafes and picturesque canals, soft conversations in restaurants and lush green parks. It’s a stark change.

Still, it’s nice to be here in the heart of Western Europe, and to be back in a part of the world where life moves at a little bit slower, a little bit more at the pace I’m familiar with. And Amsterdam is gorgeous — it deserves its place as one of the gems of Europe.

This program isn’t just about Morocco and North Africa, but also about Europe: about how the growing mix of peoples from Africa, the Middle East, Afghanistan and elsewhere is changing the region — its politics, its society, and above all the sense of what Europe and the European Union really is. Take the recent battle between Angela Merkel of Germany and her Interior Minister that almost brought down the German coalition government, or the rise of far-right parties in Hungary, Poland, Germany, France, the Netherlands, Italy and more. The political battles playing out across Europe today aren’t solely about migration, but the mass movement of people into Europe is very much the catalyst for several of the headlines we see today.

The back-and-forth struggle between the populist (far) right and the moderate center may be the current story of our time, but it is the movement of people across borders — something that began long before the current age of Trump and Brexit and will continue long after — that will be the defining characteristic of the 21st century. It’s an important thing to understand, especially as economic disparities, war, and climate change make migration more and more of a permanent feature of our changing world, instead of simply a temporary crisis to respond to as politicians are apt to treat it on both sides of the political spectrum.

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Safi, Morocco

Europe’s migration issue is by no means restricted only to Moroccan immigrants. Turkish, sub-Saharan African, Caribbean, Maghreb and South Asian migrants, as well as refugees and asylum seekers from the former Yugoslavia, Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan, all also make up large immigrant communities within Europe. Nor is it a purely external phenomenon — inside the European Union, migrants from Eastern European including a Poland, Bulgaria, and Romania often themselves move to Western Europe in numbers comparable to those from Africa or the Middle East. But while there are ongoing debates about Polish or Surinamese immigrants, the chief concern in Europe seems to surround Muslim migrants, whether they be economic migrants from North Africa or refugees from Syria.

Terrorist attacks by extremists in Paris, Nice and Brussels is a part of this; so too are the unique dynamics of immigrant communities, which often suffer both from poverty and from decades of difficulties integrating with original populations. But one way or another, the question of how Muslim immigrants can live in Europe — or even if they should — is central to the migration debate in today’s European Union. And in the Netherlands, it is often Moroccans who find themselves in the crosshairs of this debate.

I’ll talk more about the Netherland’s own unique situation with migration, one that has resulted in recent rise of at least one far-right opposition party, the Freedom Party, in a later post. But it’s also important to know why people are migrating, and why many still are even with an increasingly hostile environment facing them in Europe.

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Riadh in Safi
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A Safi pottery craftsman
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The Koutoubia Mosque in Marrakech

There are two main ethnic groups in Morocco: Arabs, who live predominantly in the cities and along the coast, and the indigenous Berbers (or Amazigh), who live largely in  the Atlas Mountains. For centuries, Berbers have been second-class in Moroccan society, suffering from intense economic hardship, political repression, and even civil conflict ever since Morocco’s independence in 1956. While conditions have improved for these groups in the past decade or so, Berbers still disproportionally suffer from poverty, especially in the Rift region of the north. This makes Berbers particularly incentivized to migrate.

To escape poverty, many Moroccans — mostly Berbers, but Arabs as well — immigrated to Europe, seeking jobs in factories and other industries in the Netherlands, Germany, and France to provide for their families back in Morocco. This process of migration began somewhere in the 1970s and 80s, accelerating through the 90s and into the 21st century, as what were initially temporary workers (and who were encouraged to immigrate by European governments seeking low-wage laborers) became long-term residents. Instead of returning to Morocco, these immigrants instead began to bring their families to Europe in what is known as “family reunification” or, slightly more controversially, “chain migration.”

Person-by-person, this is an entirely understandable choice: to move from a place of no opportunity to one where hard work and following a country’s laws can promise a generous welfare safety net, good wages, and above all the promise of a better future and education for your children. But over thousands of people, and multiple generations, what starts as a series of single decisions becomes a larger movement, as predominantly Arab and Berber communities begin to spring up in Paris, Amsterdam, and Brussels, often separate from the “European” city centers by geography and by non-immigrant citizens by disparities in income and education. It is this very separation where many of the issues we see today — from poverty to terrorism — usually begin.

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To be sure, for as hard as life can be in Moroccan villages, Moroccan immigrants haven’t fled war or societal breakdown like refugees and asylum seekers from Eritrea, Syria, or Somalia. But the reasons for their leaving are still understandable and relatable, and similar to why people leave Central America for the States, or East Asia for Australia. There are real issues that come from migration, but it is also important to realize that the reasons people migrate is not out of the desire to take advantage of a host country, but rather to create a life that is somehow better than the life they came from.

Some of these migrants from Morocco are low-wage earners, but many also are also highly educated doctors, students, academics and teachers. The pull isn’t just economic, it’s so often also the pull of an idea: of a liberal, open part of the world, where people can be who they want to be, pursue the careers that might be closed to them otherwise, and live without fear of persecution. There is immense value in that idea, one that I’m afraid Europe is giving up on as it closes its doors more and more. If Europe, like America, decides that it is no longer a destination for opportunity and freedom, but instead simply a collection of countries that only take care of their own and not those from outside of their borders, I believe that we will have lost something important of ourselves, and who we believe ourselves to be as the “West”.

People migrate not only for jobs or to escape war, but because they — despite Trump and Brexit and closing borders — still believe in the West as something more than just a collection of powerful countries, but as symbols of a more free, progressive, and tolerant world. Of course immigration needs to come with checks and regulations, and of course not everyone who wants to move to the EU or US can. But to give up on the potential for others from outside of our borders to take part in this idea is, to me, to give up on the idea itself. When I hear “America First” or “Britain First” or watch populists force refugees to be stranded at sea for days as they risk crossing the Mediterranean, I don’t just see nationalism or nativism, but in the West giving up on this greater, universal idea that’s special, and fragile — an idea that can very easily fall apart by our fear of those who aren’t exactly like us.

Then again, I might just be a naive, globalist, bleeding heart liberal. But I think I can live with that.

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Making Tajiine in Morocco

In the Netherlands and France, I’ll be looking more into the struggles that migrant communities face in Europe, as well the tensions that we see today between native and non-native groups, tensions which have resulted in both terrorism and religious extremism on one side and discrimination and radical populism on the other. But I think it’s important to get my (admittedly liberal) stance out of the way first before diving into the issues of these two countries. As an aspiring writer and journalist, I’ll try to be as fair as possible; as a person, I know I can also never be fully objective or unbiased in my writing.

I’ll be traveling through Amsterdam and Rotterdam over these next few days, so expect a new blog post in the next week or so. Until then, keep an eye out for pictures from the Netherlands on my Instagram — and thank you, as always, for reading.

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A Moroccan Mosaic: One Week in Marrakesh

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Good to be back to writing on this blog. It’s been over a year since I left for co-op in Northern Ireland last summer, and an awful lot has changing over the following months. To name a few (small) life events:

  • I finished my second and final co-op at a peace and conflict reconciliation center in Northern Ireland
  • Decided on post-grad plans: a Master’s Degree in Conflict, Rights, and Justice at SOAS University of London
  • Completed my final semester of undergrad studies, wrote my capstone (Changing norms of humanitarian intervention, from Bosnia to Syria), and walked during commencement
  • And finally: began my last international experience at Northeastern University, in which I will be traveling over the next through Morocco, the Netherlands, and France

It’s been a long year, for sure. But I’m happy to be here for now, traveling in a foreign country with other students from Northeastern for this first time since Jordan. It’s strange to be on a Dialogue again: I feel more like I tourist than when I traveled solo during my co-ops in the Balkans and Northern Ireland, but it’s also nice change of pace to be with a group of students again, especially those who are themselves just coming out of Freshman year on their first Dialogue. It doesn’t seem that long ago when I was in the same place in Bosnia, when I had not idea what I wanted out of my future, my education, my career.

Not that much of that has changed, but these past four years have gone by faster than I ever could have thought — and it’s a bit bittersweet that it’s all coming to a close.

Morocco won’t be the only destination of this program: in a week’s time, I’ll also be traveling to the Netherlands and France to study North African immigrant communities in the European Union. At a time when the question of migration is central to the survival of the world’s greatest peacetime experiment, and when nationalist, far-right forces that market themselves as wardens against the Muslim world are gaining ground in nearly every nation, it’s an incredibly important time to be engaging with these issues. I’ll try my best to give them their due here on this blog throughout the next few weeks.

A quick note: as the wifi being a little difficult to manage in Marrakesh, I’ll be posting only once a week (rather than the two to three times as in Jordan or Bosnia), but I’ll make sure to make these posts longer and more fleshed-out for it. But enough housekeeping. I’m here to write about Morocco, after all:

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High Atlas Mountains

It’s been two years since I last traveled to Jordan, the tiny Arab monarchy wedged between Iraq, Syria, and Israel. I can still remember strongly the vast deserts and Bedouins and camels; the big, busy cities with building stacked haphazard atop one another like building blocks; the call to prayer that rings out five times a day; and of course, the all-to-real immediacy of nearby wars in Syria, Iraq, and Israel-Palestine.

There are similarities here, in Morocco, to all of that: similarities of religion, of language, of even politics that resemble that of Jordan and the Middle East. But Marrakech, my host city in Morocco, is also a world away from the hills of Amman or the desert of Wadi Rum. There is a shared religion, yes, as well as a shared language, a common history, and a similar culture. But in all of those similarities there is also a “but”: religion here follows a more spiritual Sufi branch of Islam than the more conservative Jordanian practices; Darija, the local dialect, is so different from Modern Standard Arabic or Jordanian aamia that it might as well be its own language (and is a constant frustration to my attempts to communicate, four semesters of Arabic be damned). Even in the largely shared history, culture, and society of North Africa, Morocco is its own different being.

For as often as it is lumped together by the media, the MENA (Middle East and North Africa) region is not a monolithic place – far from it. And though I’ve always known that in the back of my mind, it’s taken this last program, at the final summer of my time at Northeastern, for this to really sink in.

Morocco is its own mosaic of a country, similar to but in so many ways different from those of the Middle East. And it’s incredible.

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Tin Mal Mosque, in the High Atlas Mountains
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Moroccan Souks in the Medina
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In the Old Jewish Quarter

I’ll put this out here right now: Morocco is not the Middle East. In Jordan, so much of the history and culture is shared by its neighbors in Iraq, Palestine, in Syria, born from being at the heart of several Islamic Empires (based in different eras in Damascus, Baghdad and Istanbul), and, later, the colonization of British and French imperial powers. But the Maghreb, as Morocco, Tunisia, Algeria, and (in some definitions) Mauritania is known, is a different region entirely. Being closer geographically to Europe, the Maghreb (or “West”, a name that is also the official Arabic name for Morocco) has always historically been closer connected to Europe than Jordan or Iraq, exchanging goods, people, and culture across the Mediterranean for centuries even before colonization by the French and Spanish.

Europe and the Middle East / North Africa have never existed in a vacuum — in fact, their histories have been mutually tied together for centuries. In an age in which political forces on both sides of the Mediterranean are advocating for separation, whether by keeping Muslims in the Middle East or purging European influence and democratic structures in North Africa, it’s important to remember that there has never been a time in Europe and the MENA region’s shared history where these two cultures have not been closely tied together. And there never likely will be, not matter what politics reactionary leaders might put in place.

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Downtown Marrakech

Morocco is known as the “Moroccan Exception,” in that its history and culture is exceptional even compared to its fellow North African neighbors. Importantly, Morocco has remained independent since the time of the first Islamic Empire (aside from an approximately 50-year status as a “protectorate” under the French and Spanish). While Algeria, Tunisia, and Libya lay under the domain of the Ottoman Empire for centuries, most of Moroccan’s modern history flourished outside of foreign influences, creating a unique, distinctly Moroccan identity and society.

Morrocan kings and dynasties have long ruled Morocco, even through the French/Spanish colonization; Moroccan culture — a mix between indigenous Berber (or Amazigh), Arab, Sephardic Jewish (a society that, unfortunately, has largely disappeared since the Arab-Israeli wars), and European influences — has likewise had room to develop independently from its neighbors, protected from the East by the Atlas Mountains. This is the “Mosaic” of Morocco: a society that is on the surface homogenous, but in detail incredibly diverse, with a strong sense of Moroccan identity pervades throughout, born from centuries as a independent nation. Signs are posted in Berber, Arabic, and French; small but strong religious minorities, such as Sephardic Jews and Christians, still exist in major cities such as Casablanca and Marrakech; and many foods and cultural practices have likewise been adopted as much from the Spanish and French as the Arabs.

This “Moroccan Exception” isn’t just a cultural phenomenon, but a political one as well. During the Arab Spring, Morocco was one of only two countries to experience large-scale protests not to experience a revolution or civil war, but to enact gradual but meaningful political reforms (the other, in fact, being Jordan). Here, a cautiously progressive monarchy serves as the balance point between the religious establishment, parliament, and the people on the streets, slowly moving the country towards a more constitutional monarchy while still maintaining important powers for himself. While no where near a full democracy, with the government having own habits of political repression and media censorship, this “exceptionalism” has made Morocco a remarkably stable nation, and one that isn’t nearly as autocratic as the likes of Syria, Saudi Arabia, or Algeria.

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Alleyway in the Marrakech Medina

As for myself, what I’ve seen in Morocco over the past week is a country that feels very much different than Jordan. It’s not just the red-washed city, with buildings made of orange and pink clay and bricks, or the prevalence of the indigenous Berber culture and language. It’s in the way people are — lively, expressionate, passionate, and fiercely loyal to their family. There’s more color here, in short: souks that bustle well into the night, market stands overflowing with vegetables and fresh fruit, and personable Moroccans who are liable to come talk to you at a cafe or on the street. I love it.

For the past week, I’ve been staying with a host family here in Marrakech: my host father and mother, as well as my host brother Ayoum and his brother, Mehdi. Traveling with them and living with them throughout their daily routine — going to the hamam on evenings, eating couscous on Friday, watching the World Cup or going on a family outing to my host mother’s home Berber village in the Atlas Mountains — has been by far the highlight of my time in Morocco. It’s incredibly how quickly Moroccans are to welcome you into their home, to treat you not just as a guest but as a family member. While the language barrier and the lack of introversion time is challenging, it’s also worth it to have experienced this window on what life is like day-to-day in Morocco.

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My Moroccan host family and Northeastern roommate, Rayyan (left)

There are issues here, of course. While remarkable modern (in the Western sense) and tolerant in many ways, Morocco is also a very poor country, one still struggling with educating and caring for its people even as it develops into one of the most important economies in Africa. Here, there are multinational cooperations making new opportunities in Africa and industries humming with French and German textiles contracts; but there is also a huge unemployed population, a lack of a social safety net caused by IMF free market reforms, a large black market informal economy and widespread government and private sector corruption. Our Dialogue, entitled “Economic and Cultural Dynamics” of Morocco, is looking at these structural problems just as much as Morocco’s unique culture — problems that disproportionately impact minorities, women, and young people, the very demographics that rose up in protest during the Arab Spring and in several smaller movements after, most recently in the Berber Rif region in the North.

Traveling to my host mother’s home village last Sunday brought a lot of this home. The village of around 200, some 30km from Marrakech, is closer connected to Morocco’s large cities than some other villages, but the differences between it and Marrakesh is still stark. Here, people speak Berber instead of French or Moroccan Darija; employment opportunities, outside of a few local shops, are fewer; and families tend to stay large and marry together much more than in the city. While a welcome retreat from the heat of the lower-lying Marrakech, it also went to show just how much of a discrepancy there is between life in the cities and the countryside.

In Marrakech, by host brother — Ayoum — can attend a good university, learn four languages, and pursue his dream of one day being a Moroccan history professor. But those opportunities are much more limited in the mountains, and especially amongst the Berber/Amazigh people, where his mother comes from. If Morocco is to become a middle-income, rather than a developing nation, these issues will have to be solved. But there’s still no telling when that will really be.

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Amazigh children playing soccer in the Atlas Mountains

There’s about a week left to go until I leave Morocco for Amsterdam; far too short to have any real knowledge of this country and the people who call it home, but hopefully enough to have a glimpse into what makes Morocco what it is. I’ll be sure to post another blog post before the Netherlands, as my brief time in Marrakech comes to a close.

So far, this Dialogue and Morocco have been amazing, albeit a bit more challenging that previous programs I’ve been on. We’ll see what my second week in Marrakech, and on to the the Netherlands and France, compare as I wrap up this final summer semester with Northeastern.

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A Farewell to Ireland

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Come November, Ireland grows cold and dark. The light of the day begins to fade at four, and doesn’t return again until nearly nine the next morning. The days can become hard, difficult slogs through the dark of winter, but in the evenings — in the evenings, there are long nights spent playing boardgames by the fireplace with friends. There are hours in a pub in Ballycastle, listening to Irish music while gently sipping your fourth pint of Guinness. There are Christmas markets that open after Thanksgiving in Belfast, and brilliant stars that seem all the more vivid on cold, near-winter nights.

I will miss this place, and all the little bits of joy that can be found here.

Ireland has not always been easy — this last month, especially, has so often felt like a slow crawl to the finish line, determined to complete what I set out to do and yet at the same time feeling desperately ready to return home. But as this co-op and time abroad has drawn to a close, I’ve been trying to pause, and appreciate this island, and my time at this place called Corrymeela.

These months have not only given me a community of friends and coworkers from all over the world – America, France, Colombia, South Korea and Ireland – but have also let me be a small part of this long, difficult path to reconciliation that comes after conflict. They have given me a chance to bear witness to the trails, frustrations, hopes and triumphs experienced by the men and women who do the difficult work towards peace; they have allowed me to meet and work alongside young adults, school teachers, academics, refugees, and people of all kinds of different faiths, all of whom have a place in the ongoing story of Ireland.

For all of that and more, I am grateful — for this island, for the people that call it home on both sides of the border, and for Corrymeela, this place that has served as my second and final co-op at Northeastern University.

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This island is not a monolithic place, no mater what the postcards and travel brochures and romantic movies might show. It is a place of multiple, often competing identities: Republicans and Loyalists, Protestants and Catholics, recent immigrants and multi-generational families who can trace their roots back centuries. There are Dubliners and Belfasters and Derry folk, Leavers and Remainers, people who identify as British, people who consider themselves Irish, and people who don’t fit neatly into any category within the Unionist/Nationalist divide.

It is a place of great natural beauty, of centuries of history, and of a warm people who are among the kindest and most hospitable that I’ve ever met. But this island is also a place of profound violence, of division, of sometimes great hatred and intolerance, and of a deep, lasting memory of trauma. It is a place that still struggles to move forward from its past, that has become shaken by recent world events, and that yet continues to move warily forward into a more and more uncertain future. It is a place that is still healing, still reconciling, still learning how to live in peace with itself. But this is also an island where people can still learn to live together — on both sides of the border — despite differences in beliefs and identity. This is, above all, a place where peace is still possible.

I am reminded often of a brief exchange I witnessed during one of my final programs at Corrymeela: of watching a girl from Cork, one of the most Republican cities in the South, talking and laughing with a Unionist girl from Belfast. Hearing their respective accents bounce off each other – one soft and rolling, the other a little harsher, distinctive of the Belfast streets – reminded me both of how different people on this island can be, and yet how much hope there still is in its future, even if the shine of optimism that came 20 years ago with the Good Friday Agreement has faded. That is true not only of Ireland, but also Europe, the United States, and other parts of the globe going through their own periods of confusion in this rapidly changing world.

At a time when politicians and media are constantly try to divide us, it gives me heart to see these little bits of human connection that I have seen at Corrymeela. I’ve seen it in Protestant and Catholic teenagers making friendships across sectarian divides on a week-long camping trip; I’ve seen it in refugee and asylum seekers speaking of their struggle to make a life in a new country alongside working-class families from Belfast. This is not an easy thing, this peace. For every bit of hope and every success, there are just as many setbacks and frustrations. But I’ve learned much from being a part of this work, even as I have struggled myself throughout my time here.

Those struggles haven’t gone away; not entirely. But I have worked, fully and to the best of my ability, with this process of peace and reconciliation despite that. I have come to know another country, and tried to understand it as well as I can given the short time that I have lived here. And I have become part of a community — if only for a few months — where I have felt accepted, and welcome, and passionate about. Above all, I am thankful for that.

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Rathlin Island
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Hiking the Moyle Way
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Knocklayde Mountain

This will be my last semester at Northeastern, this coming Spring. Only six months ago, I thought I’d be graduating a full year past that date, but I’ve found myself feeling, if not fully ready, than at least prepared to take the leap and move on to the next thing past university. For now, I am finally home – home, in the hills and mountains of North Carolina, home the Avett brothers on the car radio, home with old friends and family. For a month, I can just try to appreciate all that I have here in these mountains, and for the people and places that have led me into what I have become now.

Bosnia and Serbia are some of those places; as is Jordan, as is France; as is Boston. Northern Ireland is as well, and the people at Corrymeela — the volunteers, interns, staff members, program workers and community members – have become some of those people who I will be forever grateful for sharing these months beside.  Thank you all, for everything.

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Camping on Fair Head — with Chris, Leoni, Selina and Gail
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Hiking the Moyle Way — with Alec Bishop

I’d like to leave with a few of my favorite memories from this time in Northern Ireland. These have been hard months – but they have also been months filled with so many moments that I will be carrying with me as I go forward. To share a few:

Eating pizza in the warm glow of a restaurant in Donegal, as the furnace blazes to ward off the thrashing rain outside, and listening to Irish band after Irish band in a music festival at night. Falling asleep in a tent in the wee hours of the morning, listening to the now-comforting sound of raindrops tapping rhythms on the tarp above your head.

Hiking the Moyle Way, nearly fifteen miles in a day, and feeling the familiar weight of the pack as you let the miles work off the thoughts and stresses of the past few months. Feeling the sun warm on your back on you as you climb your way through the glens, with the thick forest of the Breen woods beyond, and camping under the shelter of the pines.

Drinking with coworkers and friends in a craft brew pub in Belfast after an afternoon exploring the city, and coming home to stay the night with a Romanian-Palestinian family and their two young children, who are already fluent in three languages. Finding yourself speaking Arabic in the midst of East Belfast, of all places, with a family that has taken you in mere hours after meeting you for the first time.

Kayaking across a Lough alongside a group of teenagers from Northern Ireland, and arriving on an island in the middle of the lake to eat lunch beneath the ruins of an ancient stone monastery. Later, taking this same group through the streets of Belfast on a photography project, and witnessing the tapestry of neighborhoods, murals, and walls that make up this incredibly complex city, so steeped in all-too recent memory.

Traveling to Scotland and London, and finding yourself traveling alone — really alone — for the first time. Later, in November, escaping the cold of Northern Ireland to see a friend in Valencia, and speaking Spanish over red wine with study abroad students from Germany, Austria, Italy and France.

There are more. But for all the difficulties of this incredibly difficult year, these moments stand out. And they’ll be what I’m taking with me, as I go back for a final time to Boston and on to whatever is beyond that.

I think that’s it, for now. This isn’t the end for this blog — there are a few more travels, and with hope at least one more international academic experience, before this site will have reached its logical end. Still, it is becoming time to close the door on many things – on Northern Ireland, on Boston, and on a whole section of my life that I was not prepared to end quite so soon.

Farewell, for now — to Ireland, to Corrymeela, and soon, to this entire difficult, challenging year. Here’s to the next, and the things that are still yet to come.

To end on a suitably Irish note:

Goodnight, and joy, be to you all. 

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Solo Traveling in the United Kingdom

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Writing this now in a little hostel somewhere in London. It’s been a long time since I’ve been in a city this big, so full of people and noise and the energy of too many cars, lights, taxis and different languages crisscrossing over one another in the streets: French and English, Spanish and Russian, West African languages mixed alongside Arabic and Chinese. Northern Ireland, even Belfast, is a world away from all this.

But even here, in one of the largest, busiest cities in the world, there are little places and moments of peace. Like stumbling through the city blocks to come across a path by the river that snakes through the Camden neighborhood, as the sun sets the clouds alight over the city, and watching the bikers and families and young people smoking cheap cigarettes move by as the light fades away from the fall evening. Sitting there, your duffle back beside you by the river that has carried you through this last week, and thinking that entire novels could be written about the people that pass by this one little stretch of city. A better writer, perhaps, than you — but still, there’s that itching feeling in your fingers that creeps in thinking of it, a feeling that hasn’t been felt for a long, long time.

“And it all becomes clear for a moment or two. And I’m driven by these moments of discovery, where coldness and cynicism melt away”

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Glasgow, Edinburgh, and now, London — a lot for a week, and a lot of time to stay stuck in your head and thoughts while traveling alone. Hostels, and drowning out the snores of bunkmates with the drone of a white noise app on your phone. Getting stuck in the rain and ducking into a coffee shop to revive your spirits over a cup of disappointingly bitter, poorly brewed Americano. Coming back out on the street, and feeling entirely, totally, absolutely done with Glasgow until the sun suddenly lifts its head and shines light on the beautiful, stone-bricked, tree-lined neighborhood just down the block that the rain had hidden from sight just minutes before.

The difficult part is doing that all alone. The misery of rainy days, the little moments of joy and discovery, the quiet walks, the rows of art galleries and the long, stretched-out mornings in coffee shops. In each of those moments, there is a feeling of loneliness, of lowness, that can seep into everything when least expected. Of turning to one side to make a comment, a joke, even an exasperated sigh — and finding no one there beside you to turn towards.

It is those times that are the hardest; not the rain nor the crowded, noisy hostel rooms nor the ache in your feet from a long day’s walk. It’s the feeling of being alone, alone in a foreign country, in cities you don’t know, with no one there to share in the difficult and beautiful moments of each day with. I’ve rarely had to face that before, and it’s been a hard thing to wrestle with over this week travel.

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Glasgow, Scotland

But despite the loneliness, there has also been space and time to rediscover things that have been unconsciously pushed to the side lately. Writing, again, even if ever paragraph seems a struggle, every sentence a battle for words that refuse to come easy. Long afternoons in coffee shops to sit in quiet, and journal and write and listen to languages float across the room, trying to catch the bits of Spanish, Arabic, and French that I can understand. Letting myself wander through an art museum for hours at a time, pausing before a Monet or a Rembrant and only leaving again when I’ve taken all I can from the picture. Reading Hemingway, Hosseini, Adiche in a bookstore on the street corner by the British Museum in London. Drinking cheap beers in the corner of a pub and listening to the Scottish singer-songwriter at the end of the bar serenade a beautiful, dark-haired Spanish girl as she watches him with her face cupped in her hands.

In all of these little moments, I have felt something like a stranger, quietly observing others but standing apart from the lives going on around me as I move from city to city in the United Kingdom. In Bosnia and Serbia and Northern Ireland and Jordan, there was a purpose to my traveling, to work or study or learn a language, in a way that made me feel connected to the country and people. Here, in Scotland and London, I feel in so many ways like a drifter, wandering from museum to museum, landmark to landmark, another tourist in the crowd yet still standing apart from the throngs taking photos of Buckingham Palace, a stranger even from the backpack-carrying, bearded travelers drinking and socializing in the hostels I spend my nights in.

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New Town, Edinburgh
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Calton Hill
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Edinburgh Castle
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Glasgow

But in these long, quiet days, I’ve also begun to discover a deep, quiet, intense and solitary part of myself that has emerged only when I’m alone.  It’s a part that  needs, desperately, to write for the sake of writing itself — to create, and to fill blank pages without the desire or need for recognition. It’s a part that wants to travel and see more of the world, not just the beautiful and peaceful parts, but those that have experienced fracture and violence, and somehow find out how to be a part of healing this crazy, chaotic, sometimes unbearable world in whatever way that I can. To keep learning, always, whether that be in politics, the social sciences, literature, or in the languages I want to be fluent in: Arabic, Spanish, French.

And, for now, to go on to the next stage beyond Boston, whether that be graduate school or work or simply taking a year to travel and volunteer. To, finally, move from this life and start fresh, with all the successes and failures a new life might bring.

I’m grateful, if anything, for the time to rediscover all of that.  And though I’d rather not again — not like this, not without friends or family or someone to turn to when things get heavy or seem so unbelievably joyful that its unbearable not to share with someone else — I can still be grateful for the little moments of peace and happiness that can filter through the course of the day, these little moments of self discovery that come only from being alone with yourself.

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Westminster Palace
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On the Thames
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Russel Square, London

About a month, now, until I leave the United Kingdom and Ireland to return home. This has been a long, heavy year, in so many ways. Relationships, politics back home, finding myself again in a foreign country that I know next to nothing of. When I decided to come to Northern Ireland, I imagined this as a nice, easy place to come between my time in Balkans last year and future internships to take place year from now. Instead, this has become a place of forced self-discovery, of wrestling with doubt, of healing and reevaluating how to move forward as some things fall apart. Of finding news joys and community and friendships in all of that.

I’m ready, I think, to move on from these past three, going on four years at Northeastern. They have been unbelievably good to me — full of trips to the Balkans and the Middle East, to spending summer days in the south of France, to calling Boston home and finding a community and a spirit of peace and reconciliation in Northern Ireland. But it’s time to go, and with that leaving of things, to put an end to this blog as well.

This blog changed over the years. In what began as a series of political essays on Bosnia during my first trip abroad has evolved into a place for more intimate thoughts, for putting a lot of this insecurities and difficulties out into the world for the rest of you to read. The politics and international relations are still there, but I feel freer in being able to write about myself in addition to the countries I find myself traveling in.

I’d like to believe that it has become better for it, as Thoughts and Travels reaches its fourth and final year.

Thank you, as always, for reading. 

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In the Hills of Donegal

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Finally made it across the border. Even after almost three months in Northern Ireland, I’ve had a hard time getting out of the little circle of Ballycastle, Corrymeela, and the immediate Causeway Coast area. It’s nice to get out and travel — really travel — for a weekend, even if it’s just a hop across the border to Donegal.

Here in Northern Ireland, Ireland — the country, not the island — is alternatively referred to as “The Republic” or “The South”. Each is a statement: calling Ireland the Republic makes a firm divide between the “country” of Northern Ireland and Ireland itself, while saying the South infers that all of Ireland is forever one country, with only the difference of separate governments on each side of the border.

Despite being in fact north of parts of Northern Ireland, to some Donegal county is still the “South” — the free, unoccupied territory of the Irish state. During the Troubles, Donegal served as a major area for republican paramilitaries who took advantage of the county’s nationalist sentiments to hide from the British army and Irish police, and even today the county still carries a sense of that republican pride.

But protestants and unionists have a historical stake in Donegal, too: the county was once part of the Irish kingdom of “Ulster,” along with the counties of Northern Ireland, and the title is still a favorite substitute for Northern Ireland amongst loyalists circles — despite not all “Ulster” counties being part of Northern Ireland, as is the case with Donegal.

Today, with Brexit bringing borders back into the question, the connection between Donegal and Northern Ireland have once again come into focus, with most Donegal citizens having to travel through Northern Ireland to reach the rest of the South, or to work, shop, or visit family across the border.

The return of borders (possibly as soon as two years from now) could disrupt not just tourism and trade, but also the livelihoods of people on both sides of the political divide, people who have based their lives around the ease of traveling back and forth freely. The consequences of that can’t be known, but few see it as a good thing.

But enough of the politics and gloom — here are some photos of Donegal, one of the prettiest places I’ve ever been:

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It was nice to be in Dunfanaghy for the weekend, just drinking good beer with friends, listening to some music at a jazz and blues festival, and sleeping in late in the morning to the sound of raindrops on the roof of my tent (rain which didn’t let up for nearly the entire weekend). To quote a random Irish man I bumped into mere minutes after arriving in town: “There might not be good weather, but there’ll be good craic.”

“Craic” — gossip, fun, news, entertainment — it’s pretty much a catch-all term here in Ireland. But there was indeed good craic — the beauty of the hills, the friendship of people who were strangers mere months ago, and coffee and eggs on toast in a little breakfast shop by the water. I’ve found myself just…enjoying things like that these days. Enjoying without reservation or worry, which is something I’ve had a hard time doing over the past few months.

It feels good — good craic, in other words.

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Dunfanghy town

Moving forward still, on to the next thing. Applying to a few schools (who, inshallah, I’ll hear back from within a few months), and starting to find out how to wrap up my time in Boston. I’m not…ready for Boston to be over, these days. Seeing a good friend recently that I made during my time at Northeastern made me realize how much I value Boston and being there, and I some days want to just go back and hold on to the life I created in that city, a life that I put years of time and effort and more than a few hard days into making it a home.

The thought of leaving Boston after next Spring is a painful one, but it’s also a decision that I think needs to be made. I can’t stagnate and hold onto a life that is no longer there — even if, at the end of the day, that’s all I really want to do.

I don’t know where I’m going to be a year from now. London or Scotland, maybe, or even Brussels, or Washington D.C. Sometimes, I forget that I’m only 21 years old, and that not everything has to be figured out right at this moment. The world is still so large, and still has so much to see and explore, and life remains open-ended. I need to keep that in mind more often.

For now, I am slowly falling in love with another part of the world in that special way that I fall in love with everywhere I travel to, be it Bosnia or France or Jordan. Learning for the first time again to love a people for their quirks (both good and bad), for their culture and the land they call home, for the music that flows from every pub at night and the good, wholesomeness of the food (even if it could use a little more variety from time to time).

I’ve missed this. You can learn a lot of life in these little ways, merely from being in a place that is not home.

That’s about it for today — not a long post, just a quick update on what’s been going on with my life, and some of the thoughts I’ve been having. There will be more to come as Ireland moves from summer to fall, and the cold and (even more) rain begins to creep in. Already I’m halfway through this time at Corrymeela, and past that — well, I’m still taking this whole thing one step at a time.

Some final words, from Joni Mitchell:

“I’ve looked at life from both sides now,
From up and down and still somehow,
It’s life’s illusions I recall,
I really don’t know life at all.”

There is a kind of peace that can be found in accepting that. Thanks, once again, for reading.

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A Portrait of Belfast

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Every city is its own character. In its tangle of street-corners and boulevards, shops and cafes, landmarks and graffiti-sprayed alleyways, a city finds a way to live, breathe, and move through the flow of evening rush hours and quiet afternoons in a way unique to itself. It’s true of Sarajevo and Paris, Belgrade and Boston, Budapest and Amman, and the dozens of other cities I’ve visited over the past few years. And here in Belfast, it’s true as well.

I’ve traveled in and out of Belfast several times since arriving in Northern Ireland, usually by taking a bus from Ballycastle, one to Ballymeena in central Antrim, and then another from Ballymeena to the base of Hotel Europa, famous as Europe’s “Most Bombed Hotel”. I think I’ve made this journey five or six times now in the past month and a half, in order to get out of the small town environment of Ballycastle and Corrymeela for a weekend to soak up the bars, nightlife, and restaurants of Ireland’s second largest city.

Walking along the streets downtown, or through the Botanical Gardens near Queen’s University, it’s easy to forget the images from the not so distant past of checkpoints manned by British soldiers, paramilitaries totting Kalashnikovs and bombed street corners that painted the picture of a city at war. Like Sarajevo or Budapest, Belfast has strived to escape its darker past, in the past twenty years becoming one of the United Kingdom’s newest, youngest, most vibrant hubs for education, tech, and trade — something made possible by its close connection to the Republic to the South. In Belfast’s city center, at least, there’s a story of growth and renewal that its heartening to see. Outside of the center, though … that’s another, much more complicated, thing.

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In the Cathedral Quarter, Belfast Center

For every new evolution — such as the ‘Titanic Quarter”, which has turned an industrial shipyard used to construct such behemoths as the Olympic or Titanic into a quickly developing waterfront center — there are neighborhoods and streets which still cling to nationalism and sectarianism of the Troubles. Loyalist East Belfast; Shankill Road and Falls Road; The Village and Short Strand. Each of these names belongs to a side of the conflict — to Nationalists or Unionists, Loyalists or Republicans — and the maze of zones where one side belongs and the other is excluded is a patchwork tapestry that winds through the city, marked by flags, graffiti, and murals that clearly marks out the territory of Protestants and Catholics. The guns may have been silenced two decades ago, the paramilitaries disbanded, and the killings stopped. But still the divisions, the sectarianism remains.

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Freedom Corner, a Loyalist neighborhood in East Belfast
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Falls road, a Republican stronghold

I came most recently to Belfast with a group of high-school aged students from rural Northern Ireland who I’ve been working with for the past week or so. Many of these kids have grown up in small towns that are predominantly Protestant or predominantly Catholic, and have gone to segregated Catholic or Protestant schools, and because of that the conflict doesn’t seem to cast as wide a shadow as it would to someone from Belfast or Derry/Londonderry. Some seemed unsure about the particulars of the Troubles, which paramilitary group belonged to what side or the events such as Bloody Sunday, the Omagh Bombings or the Battle of Bogside. To them, all of that is history, a vague and undefined history that belongs to their parents generation, not to their own.

But even as I’ve seen these young people make friends and connections between Catholics and Protestants over this past week, it’s clear that they still live within the divisions set by the Troubles during their day-to-day lives. Watching some of them tense while we walked through a Loyalist neighborhood, while others grew visibly uncomfortable by IRA-glorifying graffiti in the Republican Falls Road, and you realize that even if younger people have become able to reach across and make friendships between religions and national identities, there is still a firm sense of where they do and do not belong.

For them, this is, and will always be, a divided country, and despite their shared citizenship in Northern Ireland, there will always be parts to this nation that they are not welcome in. That is a hard thing to grapple with, and something I’ve been dealing with myself as I work more and more with youth in Northern Ireland and the British Isles at large.

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Freedom Corner, East Belfast
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Shankill Road
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Republican Falls Road
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Falls Road

And there are walls here. Not just mental walls, but physical ones, dividing communities in the name of peace and security while keeping both sides firmly apart through a concrete barrier. Called “Peace Lines” or “Peace Walls”, there are today nearly 50 throughout Northern Ireland — mostly in Belfast, but also Derry/Londonderry, Portadown, and Lurgan. Ostensibly established as temporary structures to create a sense of security for people living close to one another in opposite communities (so-called “interface areas”), many of which experienced the worse of the sectarian violence during the Troubles, today these walls have become seemingly permanent monoliths, as part of the city’s architecture now as the City Hall or Stormont Assembly.

What was once temporary has become indefinite; structures placed to calm sectarian violence now serve to further separate these communities from each other. The comparisons to the “Security Barrier” in Israel-Palestine aren’t too much of a stretch to make, and it’s shocking to see something so militant and imposing right in the heart of the United Kingdom.

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Even in the UK, in Europe, in the Western world — the supposed bastion for tolerance, human rights, and equality — there are walls. There are divided communities. There is separation and sectarianism and fear. And these days, rather than calming and solving those tensions, we seem to be returning back to them — Brexit, Trump, the National Front in France.

Sometimes I want to take these people dividing us today and show them the young adults I’ve been working with these past few weeks, and show them how divisions can be made in the span of mere years, but can take generations to heal. Walls and barriers in the name of security may seem an easy solution — whether it be to keep out migrants from Latin America or the Middle East or to separate conflicting communities in Northern Ireland — but, almost always, they tend to create far more problems than they solve.

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Freedom Corner mural depicting a Loyalist paramilitary group
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Protestant East Belfast
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Republican Falls Road
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Mural commemorating the 1981 Republican hunger strikers

But Belfast is moving forward. I’ve shown only the worst of it here on this blog — because it’s important to show — but I haven’t shown the pubs with Protestants and Catholics mingling together over a shared love of Irish music. I haven’t shown the festivals, or the murals that proclaim unity and reconciliation over exclusion and identity. There is so much that is good and positive in this city too, and so much that is worth celebrating. That goes not just for Belfast, it goes for Northern Ireland as a whole.

When I speak to people in Northern Ireland, they often ask me why I’m here — I could be in France or Spain or Germany, or London or New York, instead of this oft forgotten corner of the United Kingdom. And I say I’m here to learn. I’m here too short of a time to be any real part of this country’s healing, but every part of the world I’ve experienced that has gone through conflict, through hardship and sectarian strife, has broadened my view of the world and strengthen my conviction to be some positive part of its future.

Our world isn’t all European cafes and beautiful mountain vistas and sailboats of the Riviera — although those parts should be celebrated for what they are. It’s the hard and difficult parts as well. It’s the parts that have gone through the worst humanity can inflict upon itself, and emerged from it again, that we can sometimes learn the most from. Sarajevo is that; the refugee camps in Jordan are that; Northern Ireland is that. And that, above all, is why I’m here.

I’ll leave you with one last mural, which I found on the peace wall between Shankill and Falls road. Thanks for reading.

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Thoughts from the North Coast

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There is something about the sea, and the rain that comes and goes in sheets from off the coast, and the golden light of evenings when the sun finally peers out from the clouds, that creates a space for long and slow thoughts here along the North Coast of Ireland. I need this.

Been having a lot of time for thinking, lately. It’s been a month, now, since my last post here — and, well, I’m letting each day come and go as it passes, and in the process trying to let my thoughts do the same. I’ve noticed that I’ve been stepping back from politics, and the intensity of international affairs and political science and academia this past month, in a way that I hadn’t had the chance to in Boston. I’m still reading the news of course, following the ups and downs of what’s going on not just at home but in the world, but I’m trying not to let it devour and consume my thoughts and time the way it so often did back at Northeastern. I’m focusing on the things I can do, here, instead — the act of connecting with others and their healing, of being a part of the community at Corrymeela, of learning to love and appreciate this land and the time I have in it.

When I first started this blog, now three summers ago during my first time really abroad, I knew that I wanted to see the world, and to write about it. Two years, three summers, several countries, and an international co-op later, and I’m finding that, if anything, that that is the one constant that still rings true. There is still more of the world that I want to see, still more to experience, and still more that I need to write on. I’m trying to hold on to that.

But for now, here in Northern Ireland, I’m trying to just — pause — and find out after these three hectic and wonderful and difficult years who I still am, and what it is in this world I find worth traveling to, experiencing and writing about. There will be time, still, to have a hand in International Affairs and helping solve the conflicts in the Middle East, the refugee crisis and everything else going wrong in this world. But right now, I can just focus on being here, and now, and not put too much worry towards what the future might hold.

I have had nothing conclusive come out of any of that — yet — but these long nights and hard mornings and afternoons spent a book as the rain beats relentlessly against the windowpanes is getting me… somewhere, at least.

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Evening in Portrush

There’s something primordial about this coastline, called the Causeway or North Coast here in Northern Ireland. Not just old– the Appalachians back home in the States are old, and they wear their age like a comfortable, welcoming blanket. Here, it feels like you are on the edge of the world, not just in space but in time — as if you’ve stepped back into some ancient, wild, untamed era, back when the earth was still young. It’s not something you see in the rest of Ireland, all domesticated fields and little villages, but along this particular stretch of shore it’s hard to escape feeling that this is a place that doesn’t belong to man, but to nature and to the elements.

Even if there are now dozens of tour buses carrying people as far away as China or India to this little pocket of Northern Ireland to see the Giant’s Causeway or filming locations for Game of Thrones, at the end of the day every visitor and tourist here feels small, merely momentary observers to a land that has remained seemingly unchanged for generations, and yet in the lifespan of the Earth is in fact ever changing, shaped as it is by the movement of lava and glaciers and the sea over millennia.

It’s a powerful feeling, and one that not even a hundred tourists perched on the rocks of the Giant’s Causeway or walking through the Dark Hedges can really steal away. In the end, every person who has set foot on these shores — whether they were the Scottish warlords who built Dunluce Castle or the first Vikings who raided the coast from Rathlin Island — have come, lived, fought and killed, and eventually died, while this jagged coastline has remained. “One generation passeth away, and another generation cometh: but the earth abideth for ever.”

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Dunluce Castle
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The Giant’s Causeway
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Another scene from the Causeway
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Looking down the Causeway Coast
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Walking along the Dark Hedges

I have said it before, but its worth repeating: I am in love with this land, the power in its coastlines and the grace and calm of its fields. There’s something meditative and wholesome about waking up the coast of the North Shore, seeing Rathlin Island in the distance and, further still, the mountains on the edge of Scotland. In the evenings, just walking by the stone walls that line the fields and watching the grass light with gold as the sun dips beneath the hills is enough to lighten the heart, and even on dark days when there is nothing but rain it seems — as a member of Corrymeela said to be the other day — that the whole island is crying. There is something poetic to that.

But even this time in Northern Ireland is only for a moment, and there is still a lot of work left to be done in this world when all of this is over, a world that seems even more fractured now that in was a year ago. But I’m realizing, too, that the work and dedication that has to be put into healing the wounds and mending the divides of our world can not just be in government policy or big, international treaties that end wars. It is in the little things, as well — the telling of stories that mean something, the love and warmth we give to one another in the darkest of days, the sharing of faith between religions and denominations and the coming together of communities despite differences. Those, at the end of the day, are what matter.

Or, in the words of Gandalf: “Some believe it is only great power that can hold evil in check, but that is not what I have found. It is the small everyday deeds of ordinary folk that keep the darkness at bay. Small acts of kindness and love.”

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Walking along the road to Bushmills

It is those small things I have found myself coming back to, as things have become so shaken in the world and in myself. Even as I move through this time in Northern Ireland, and through this final year at university and to whatever lies past that, I’m keeping in mind that it is those little things, the small everyday deeds of love, kindness, and sacrifice, that sometimes matter more than the big issues of politics or international relations.

It is in those little things that I have also just maybe found something worth writing about, when my efforts to write about the big, important events and conflicts that dominate the headlines have so often fallen flat. Writing about things like rivers and fields, about seasons, the mountains and the North Sea, and about the people caught in this mad, crazy world that is full both of pain and suffering and joy and love in equal measure. The little things that we so often forget to look at, so focused on the larger picture — the little things that I myself have forgotten to see these past few years.

That’s not to say I’m straying from my studied in International Affairs. I still want to learn Arabic and French, and to travel to the Middle East and other parts of the world that have experienced fracturing, conflict and hardship. But there is so much beauty in the small things, and at the end of the day, sometimes it’s those small things that shine the only light that matters when things seem their darkest.

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The North Coast

So, that’s where I’m at. Writing in notebooks about birds and seasons and moving forward and this island of Ireland. Finding out how to use my words and my travels to create something good and meaningful as the world changes and grows dark. And, above all, figuring how to be a better person, and to move forward each day while leaving hard feelings and pain behind.

The last of those is the hardest, but also the most important. I’m not there…yet, and there are still many, many more days — some dark — ahead, until I find out how to find peace within myself and with others. But that’s okay– it is, after all, what these six months in Northern Ireland are maybe meant to be.

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Healing in Northern Ireland

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Finally here.

Much changes in a year. I wrote those words a year ago, just around this time last July, while looking over the city of Sarajevo as the sun set beneath the hills and washed the city in that beautiful orange glow I would come to love. In some ways those days don’t seem so long ago — I can still clearly remember walking along the river that cuts through the old town, or grabbing a sandwich at the little bistro down the street during my brief lunch hour away from work. It feels strange now that these memories are nearly a year old. They seem to exist in that tenuous middle ground of seeming so recent yet at the same time so far away, as if they were experiences that belonged to another person.

Life moves forward quickly, at times too quickly. Things that once seemed sure in the Balkans have since fallen apart, and new thoughts, relationships and experiences are only slowly rising to take their place. As I discovered in Sarajevo a year ago, I am no longer the person I was last summer, and that has come to both surprise and strangely sadden me — I feel both wiser and older, and these days strangely less sure of the ground that I stand on, or the direction I find myself going forward.

But starting over, taking a step forward even after stumbling several steps back — there is something to say about that. And this land, this island, is a healing place. A place to reflect, to heal, to begin again. A place to put the floating sensation I have experienced these past few weeks, of merely drifting in and out of each day, firmly behind.

I feel a strange affection for this land, which I have never before seen or set foot on. It too is healing, slowly moving forward from its past towards an unclear and still yet uncertain future. It is a beautiful country, one of the most beautiful that I have ever seen: a country of rolling green hills and rugged coastlines, of sheep grazing in the fields and little towns along the shore. Every day, I wake to the waves crashing against the rocks, and drink my morning coffee to the salty sea breeze rising up over the cliffs. It’s enough to make you never want to leave.

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Walking along the Antrim Coast

But this is also a country, like Bosnia or Serbia, with a lot of pain hidden just beneath the surface. Those who lived through the ’70s or ’80s would remember The Troubles, when (largely Catholic) nationalists clashed with (largely Protestant) unionists, and names like the IRA and the Ulster Freedom Fighters occupied the front page of the world’s news with bombings, assassinations, and other acts of terror and hate, claiming the lives of thousands. But for my generation — the post 9/11 generation — these events have become distant, far-off things, like the fall of Yugoslavia existing firmly as history, rather than in the memories and experiences of real, living people. And as with Bosnia, the world has seemed to have since forgotten about Northern Ireland and its conflict, our attention now so focused on the refugee crisis in Europe, the wars in Syria and Iraq, the Trump Administration in the States.

Meanwhile, the act of healing — called in some circles reconciliation, or conflict transformation, or resolution — has fallen by the wayside, incomplete and unfulfilled even as the world lurches forward from one headline, one conflict, to another.

I saw it in Bosnia, and I’ve seen it here. And something tells me that Rwanda, or Cambodia, or the Caucus nations along the Russian border all carry a similar story: of incompleteness, of needing always more time, more work, and above all more attention and resources from the world at large to become whole and healed once more.

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Corrymeela’s Ballycastle Campus

Which is why I’m at Corrymeela. Founded just before the Troubles began by Ray Davey, an army chaplain who witnessed the bombing of Dresden during WW2 only to return to Northern Ireland and witness the beginnings of a new conflict between Unionists and Nationalists, Corrymeela has for fifty years used a combination of faith, conflict theory and community building to be a part of Northern Ireland’s peace process, creating an open, nondenominational center for people of all faiths to learn, heal, and move forward together.

It’s refreshing to be in a place where people care so much for the work that they do. Some are here on religious grounds; others, like me, have come to be a part of the center’s work in peace building and conflict resolution; and still others come to be a part of the community here, which has developed over decades alongside life in nearby Ballycastle. Yet nearly everyone seems to believe in the work Corrymeela does, and has some desire to be a positive part of the future of this land.

This is a healing place. Every morning, a nondenominational faith service takes place in the Croí, or “heart”, defined by a long, sometimes twenty minute moment of silence to pray or simply reflect. During the day, I’ve found myself with groups that come to the center to learn from the community, such as Youth Scotland, a group of  high-school aged kids from Glasgow and the Scottish Highlands that I had the opportunity to work with last week. Working with high school students about sectarianism and engaging them in tough topics such as hate or how to break down the walls that develop between people is exhausting, but rewarding at the same time, especially given that Scotland has been lately struggling with it own divisions, whether it be because of immigration or the ongoing question of whether or not to remain as part of the United Kingdom. These kids are their country’s future, the ones who will be engineers and teachers and politicians, and helping them grapple with these issues feels important and valuable to me.

It’s work that I’m happy to be doing, and has been giving me an outlet to just work on something that I’m passionate about, something that seems to be making a small difference, even if it seems sometimes so small against the ongoing politics of Northern Ireland and the United Kingdom.

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The University Quarter in Belfast

Politics color everything here. In Belfast, some streets fly the Union Jack and the even more contentious Ulster Banner, symbols of their political ties to the United Kingdom, while a few blocks over the Irish Tricolor will be hanging from every post. Murals on street corners depict pro-Nationalist or pro-Unionist leanings and define who is or isn’t welcomed in certain communities, while politically charged marches such as the Orange Order’s July 12th parade, which celebrates the English King William of Orange’s conquest of Ireland, only serve to further cement this country’s divisions.

Even with the work of Corrymeela and several other well-meaning NGOs and faith organizations, politics — so often based on identity and religion — all too often still take priority, to the detriment of the country’s healing. Brexit has only caused these problems to amplify, with the British Conservatives allying with the unionist/protestant DUP after the last snap election, and the prospect of a hard border with Ireland a very real future possibility.

Healing takes time, whether it be in Bosnia or Northern Ireland. And, whether people intend for it to or not, the sudden jolt of divisive politics can send slow, hard-earned progress back years, or even decades. Brexit and the recent DUP alliance is still too recent to be able to tell how Northern Ireland’s peace process will be affected, but for now many on all sides of the political spectrum here are looking apprehensively towards the future.

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Botanical Gardens, Belfast

But despite the challenges, I want to be a part of the healing here, even as I find myself needing this country, this time abroad and away from Boston and the States, to heal myself. Even if it’s something as small as helping a few Scottish kids talk about sectarianism in their own country, I need to work, to do some kind of good. Too long have I been sitting in classrooms in Boston, learning about the problems of the world but feeling unable to really change anything. At least, here, I feel like I can make some kind of difference, if only for a little while and only on a small scale.

Bosnia, Jordan, Northern Ireland, the States — so much of the world that I have experienced has witnessed pain, and sadness, and hardship, and as each month passes it seems more and more sure that we are beginning to spiral into another, even more difficult phase of history. We too often don’t realize, with our politics and our actions, that it is so much easier to cause pain and to create divisions than it is to heal those wounds and bring people back together. I’m afraid, these days — afraid that the world we live in today is becoming defined more and more by destructive actions, actions that we will one day come to look back on with sadness, and not a little bit of regret and shame. Actions that will cause more Northern Irelands, or Bosnias, or Syrias.

Yet I still believe that, if enough good people are dedicated to making the world better, to healing rather than dividing, tolerance rather than ignorance, love over hate, we might still make it through these coming years. It’s something that’s been on my mind, as the world seems to grow slowly darker and sadder, the future more and more uncertain.

As is this: Love, and be kind. Love, and be kind. Love… and be kind.

That’s all there is, and all there ever needs to be. And here, in Northern Ireland, those two words are what are driving me as I myself heal, and move forward, and try to be a small part of this country’s own future and healing.

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Wind in trust
Wind in sleep
Wind in knowing what thoughts to keep
It’s not that damn impossible
Little wasteland farmer…