Our group was reunited yesterday in the Newark airport before our red-eye flight to Belfast. Ryan, our site coordinator, accompanied us for the journey. Although I only had a few days of vacation at home to spend with friends and family, I was so excited to depart for Northern Ireland. We boarded the plane and soon after I closed my eyes to get some sleep, we landed! I rubbed my eyes, claimed my two over-packed suitcases, and was soon greeted by Robin, our program director. From there, Robin led us onto a public bus into the city center. Along the way, we passed picturesque green pastures and sheep, all the while driving on the opposite side of the road.
We arrived at the bus station and hopped in some taxis to Farset International, our home for the next few weeks. During the cab ride we drove through lively downtown Belfast, lined with shops and restaurants, and the stunning City Hall. We also saw our first taste of Belfast weather: drizzly rain. When we arrived at Farset, we were given a warm welcome by the staff members, including Ruth. We learned how Farset was created to serve as a meeting space for cross-community peace making. All the profits are funneled into the community.
Our group was treated to a traditional lunch at Farset- eggs, sausage, bacon, potato bread, and beans. They were very accommodating to those of us with dietary restrictions, which was a nice relief as a vegetarian. One of the first things we have noticed so far is the heavy Irish accent and the abundance of cursing, which always makes things fun.
Next, we met with M.K., a PhD student at Queens University, who helped set up our itinerary. M.K. has provided us with many great resources for things to see and do in the area. She has lived in Belfast for the past several years studying The Troubles with an anthropological perspective, and gave us an introduction to her work. She also shared her background story of how she first came to Belfast for her undergraduate dissertation. When M.K. first arrived in Belfast, she had nothing more than a list of people’s names she wanted to speak with for her research project. She was completely on her own with no housing accommodations arranged for her or local contacts to assist her. With that, M.K. encouraged us to be appreciative of the opportunities and resources DukeEngage is providing for us. From the many people lined up to meet with our group to our awesome volunteer placements and the organized group trips we will be embarking on, the careful planning and coordination that our leaders have done is very apparent. Another highlight of the day was a historical tour of the area. Our guide was Gordon, who was very knowledgeable and engaging.
Despite the jetlag that began to kick in, our group really enjoyed this tour. It’s very interesting to see how the city is systematically divided between the Catholic and Protestant parts of town. We observed the soaring “peace walls” that separate Catholic and Protestant neighborhoods, constructed to prevent riots. While in the Protestant side of town, he pointed out the many churches of different denominations, showcasing the lack of unity that exists even within one side. Nevertheless, Gordon emphasized that the Conflict is not as much about religious differences as much as it is about diverging perceptions of national identity between Unionists and Nationalists. We got to see some of the many murals throughout the area, representing different perspectives of the Troubles. Some of these murals are from paramilitary organizations and convey violence. These are somewhat off-putting to view.
We also saw some memorials for the Titanic. This year is the 100th anniversary of that disaster. As our tour guide Gordon noted, “Belfast is often remembered for its tragedies,” which I thought was an interesting point.
We had a lovely group dinner together, where some of the dishes included a homemade meat pie, potatoes, leeks, and chips. We were able to reflect on our experiences so far as well as continue to get to know one another. Hopefully there will be many more great group dinners to come.
We capped off the night by visiting a local pub, where we enjoyed both sampling beverages and having conversation. As Robin informed us, pubs are not all about drinking alcohol, they are very common social space.
Today was truly incredible and I am so excited to meet with our placement organizations and partake in all the other events scheduled.