Game Changers brings 60 Seeds to Ireland to explore conflict transformation
DUBLIN | ALIA LAHLOU This July, approximately 60 Seeds from the Middle East, South Asia, and the United States are coming together in Ireland to learn about past approaches to international conflicts, with an emphasis on peace-building processes between Protestants and Catholics in Northern Ireland.
While focusing on the people, events, and ideas that lead to a “game-change” in situations of conflict and war, delegates at the week-long international conference consider practical ways to apply the lessons they are learning to their own regions. The program represents the first collaboration between the Irish American Peace Foundation and Seeds of Peace.
Arrival at Headfort School | July 10
After many hours of travel—many of our journeys were over 24 hours—and a few glitches, we all made it safely to Headfort School, our host institution in the beautiful countryside of the Republic of Ireland where we are to spend most of our time. The family estate, built in 1770, was transformed into a private boarding school in 1949. A small and welcoming staff team is taking good care of us, and Graduate Seed and counselor Ghassan has been keeping everyone energized and entertained with different team-building activities throughout the day.
Exploring conflict past and present | July 11-12
The first full day of “Game Changers” started with introductory remarks from former Irish Minister of Education and European Commissioner Richard Burke, who was kind enough to deliver a few words of welcome and provide us with an overview of Irish history and identity, setting the context for the rest of our week: an exploration of the lessons of past peace processes and a consideration of practical steps that could move Seeds’ communities toward peace.
The 60 participating Seeds, who hail from the Middle East, South Asia, and the United States, continued the morning with an opportunity to learn about the different conflict areas Seeds come from. Graduate Seeds Sawsan and Tal presented their respective national perspectives and personal experiences regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict; Yama, Shyam and Sana, from Afghanistan, India, and Pakistan respectively, also shared their narratives on the conflicts that touch their communities. The Seeds took advantage of this unique chance to ask each other questions, learn about other conflicts, and understand and reflect on their own conflicts more intimately.
We then divided the Seeds into inter-delegation working groups of about 15 each, which rotated between four workshops aimed at exploring some of the root causes of conflict and building an understanding of history and current issues. Seeds of Peace’s current director of Israeli programs, Eldad, himself a Graduate Seed, led a workshop on the historic role that foreign involvement—such as colonization and military interventions—has played in sparking or perpetuating conflict around the world. Tamer, another Graduate Seed and Israeli program coordinator, and Feruzan, director of Indian programs, jointly led a workshop focused on rights and civil justice.
Mohammed, a Graduate Seed and current director of Palestinian programs, explored the ways in which media can perpetuate or mitigate conflict, focusing in particular on the use of enemy images, censorship, propaganda, and political agendas. Lastly, Ashleigh, director of Graduate programs, and Yama, an Afghan Graduate Seed, presented a workshop on the role that resources—both natural and human—can play in relations between communities. Each encouraged the Seeds to critically assess the roles that different forces and concerns have played in the history of their conflicts as well as how they continue to shape present-day reality.
On Wednesday night, we were lucky enough to tour the capital city of Dublin. The rain did not stop us from enjoying the downtown area and spending an hour in a souvenir shop buying all things green!
The next morning, Professor and Director of the Master of Arts Program in Coexistence and Conflict at Brandeis University Mari Fitzduff delivered a remarkably engaging talk on the historic conflict between Protestants and Catholics in Ireland, theories and models of conflict transformation, and the connections between diverse cases of intra- and international conflict around the world. She left us with a renewed sense of hope, civic responsibility, and passion for change.
Belfast | July 13
Armed with a basic understanding of the historic conflict on the island of Ireland as well as with new insights into sources of conflict, we set off to Northern Ireland. Friday brought a tour of Belfast; we saw everything from the construction site of the infamous Titanic to the murals on the wall separating the predominantly Protestant Unionist Shankill Road from the majority Catholic Nationalist Falls Road.
We were privileged to hear from a diverse range of speakers during our stay in Belfast. Tommy, a former member of the Ulster Defense Association, shared his personal experiences and journey from being a UDA member to becoming a community peace worker, while Michael, a Republican Parliamentarian, touched on how the conflict continues to play out in government offices. Adree shared her work with a community foundation in underprivileged neighborhoods of Belfast, Michael spoke of the role that education can play in perpetuating or mitigating conflict between divided communities, and Gareth, a former Loyalist combatant, shared his story of transformation and the work he continues today with ex-combatant youth.
Our hosts are all active in their communities, and while they remain in profound disagreement about certain issues, they insist on the importance of cross-community work and the necessity for a peaceful transformation of the conflict. Their life stories and words of wisdom and encouragement left our Seeds with deep insight into the type of work that diverse communities undertook in Northern Ireland as part of the peace process—one that we have come to learn is multifaceted and continuing even 15 years after the signing of the Good Friday Agreement, the peace agreement that officially ended The Troubles in Northern Ireland.
Engaging with narratives | July 14
An early Saturday wake-up and a short bus ride soon had us in the beautiful northern town of Derry/Londonderry, where our exploration of the conflict in Northern Ireland—and of our own conflicts—continued. We learned about the dynamics of division and unity that exist within the city through two guided tours, one with a Protestant Unionist and one with a Catholic Nationalist. The two narratives of identity, struggle, and power had the Seeds in genuine reflection about the roles that narratives play in their own lives.
We spent the afternoon at The Playhouse, an arts space in the old downtown area, hearing from a group of three community activists who spoke on the value of working across divides and engaging with the most difficult issues and constituencies. The day in Derry/Londonderry ended with an interactive workshop where we explored the power of personal storytelling and witnessing through theater.
Our ride back to Headfort featured beautiful scenery, farm animals left and right and, finally, some singing and dancing as we drove through the gates of a place some of us now refer to as our Irish home.
Reflections | July 15
We used our first morning back at Headfort to debrief our packed two-day trip in Northern Ireland. Through quiet personal writing, one-on-one sharing, and larger group processes, we reflected on the many things we learned, saw, and felt in Belfast and Derry/Londonderry. Seeds shared that beyond just learning about the conflict in Northern Ireland, they also noticed similarities and differences when comparing it to their own conflicts. This prompted a diversity of complex feelings and questions and, for the most part, left our Seeds feeling hopeful about the situations back home.
Our afternoon consisted of delegation meetings, a good long game of Capture the Flag, and an Open Space session that encouraged our Seeds to organize and lead their own activities. These ranged from lessons in basic German, traditional dances, world accents, and martial arts to a discussion about the importance of education and a time for ‘honest conversations.’ Open Space allowed the Seeds to share their many talents, to learn from each other, and to demonstrate and enhance their leadership skills.
Looking ahead | July 16
With only one full day left together, we made the most of our collective brain power to start talking about a difficult yet crucial question: What comes next? What do we do after the seminar? How do we take the lessons learned here and apply them to our own contexts? What are some concrete ways in which we can engage one another and our communities and create positive change?
During a group brainstorm session, we looked back at the many concrete measures of peace-building that were taken in Northern Ireland and categorized them into five main groups. These diverse players and fields—media, politics/economy, the public, youth, and outside influencers—have the potential to positively affect conflict and bring about comprehensive peace. We thus deemed it important to explore them more profoundly. Seeds chose the committee of most interest to them and, in inter-delegation groups, came up with different project ideas within the field that could potentially bring about change in their own communities. They then presented these ideas to the larger group and received applause, positive critique, and encouragement. Some of the ideas presented included mixed schools in Israel and Palestine to combat the discrimination and stereotypes children learn at a young age, a video campaign featuring people’s stories about meeting ‘the other side’ for the first time, and many other context-specific projects our Seeds plan on starting soon or sometime further down the line.
After another creative Open Space session, we were ecstatic to video chat with Leslie and Wil from Camp. Camp and lake nostalgia settled in under sounds of ‘awww’ from the 60 Seeds and 15 staff members present, many of whom are Graduate Seeds themselves. Especially happy were members of the Blue Team after Wil announced who had won Color Games. (N.B. the author of this post maintains the inherent superiority of the Green Team, regardless of who jumps in the lake first.)
We celebrated the end of our week together with a big BBQ outside, for which the sun and rain were pleasantly cooperative. One of our Irish host’s children treated us to a stunning bagpipe performance, the chef made Neveen, a Jordanian Seed, a large chocolate cake for her birthday, and Seeds took the time to spark conversations they hadn’t had yet, to take pictures, and to simply enjoy one another’s company.
Departure | July 17
Departure days are always difficult at Seeds of Peace. Our day started with the American delegation leaving us on a 6 a.m. bus and ended 12 hours later with final goodbyes to Headfort as a bus of Pakistanis and a few staff members drove away. It’s hard to believe that the Game Changers Seminar is over. We are grateful to have learned all we did and to be returning home with newfound knowledge, insights, skills, and friendships. We’ve had an incredible experience and hope you’ve enjoyed it vicariously through these reports and pictures of us. This is what 80 members of the Seeds family learning about comparative conflict in Ireland looks like!
GAME CHANGERS PHOTOS
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