Looking Past Differences

Looking Past Differences

Irish Institute summer programs seek to forge ties in regions torn by conflict

By Sean Smith
Chronicle Editor

Jan Campbell and Marina Milunsky arrived at Boston College this month with what seemed a world of difference between them. Campbell is a 27-year-old mother of three cultivating a political career in her native Northern Ireland, while Milunsky teaches English at a secondary school in Haifa, Israel.

What they share, however, is the hope of gaining a new perspective on their professions - a perspective that may help end the conflict in their respective homelands.

(Left to right) Gareth Walker, Jan Campbell, Joanne Bunting and Fidelma Carolan participate in a workshop as part of the Irish Institute's Young Political Leaders program. (Photo by Lee Pellegrini)

The other common thread for Campbell and Milunsky is the University's Irish Institute, which is hosting a concurrent pair of unique professional development programs utilizing classroom seminars and site visits.

These programs have another, equally important component, points out Irish Institute Director Sean Rowland: providing a venue in which citizens from troubled regions such as Northern Ireland and the Middle East can interact in a non-confrontational setting and build a rapport.

Campbell, consumer affairs spokesperson for the Alliance Party of Northern Ireland, is taking part in the institute's two-week Young Political Leaders Program on Federalism, which brings together representatives from major political parties throughout Ireland, Northern Ireland and Britain to study the workings of the United States government at city, state and federal levels.

Milunsky is one of 28 educators from Middle Eastern and North African countries attending the University of the Middle East Teacher's Education Institute Program, which began July 3 and ends next Thursday. The two-year-old program, founded by Hala Taweel, sister-in-law of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, is designed to promote innovative teaching methods that create an academic environment in which openness, free thought and coexistence are encouraged.

As Campbell and Milunsky began taking part in their programs earlier this month, their native countries were once again thrust into the spotlight. Tensions simmered in Northern Ireland over Protestant and Loyalist marches in Catholic areas, while Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak survived a political uprising on the eve of peace talks with Arafat and President Clinton.

But Campbell and Milunsky said they felt buoyed by what they had experienced thus far in their respective programs at BC.

After a morning seminar on "Leadership and Public Service" last week, Campbell and her fellow participants gathered for an informal luncheon in the Fulton Hall Lynch Conference Center. Between bites, the 16 men and women - representing the Conservative, Labour, Liberal Democrats, Green and other parties - discussed recent election results, public opinion polls and current events back home, often trading good-natured barbs as well as political analysis.

"It's amazing how much people agree on outside of their usual context," observed Campbell. "When you have a chance to really sit down and talk with people from different backgrounds or viewpoints, you discover you're not as open-minded as you may have thought - and it's a very good thing to be reminded that you're not."

As her colleagues left for a campus tour, Campbell recounted the beginnings of her interest in politics. Matter-of-factly, she described witnessing the murder of two men on a street in broad daylight several years ago, and how she had instinctively tried to use her first-aid training to save the victims. It didn't occur to her until later, she said, that the killings were sectarian.

"If you knew the areas where the trouble was, you could generally stay safe," Campbell said. "But as time went on, it became less and less stable; anything could happen anywhere."

Becoming a mother, and realizing how easily children are influenced by their environment, ultimately led her to take up a career in politics. "I just wanted to make whatever difference I could," she explained. "I didn't want my children seeing what I had seen."

Campbell said she looked forward to hearing more seminars - on subjects such as conflict management, communication strategies and community building - and visits to Washington, DC and Baltimore, as well as Boston's City Year program and Codman Square Health Center, among others. The program ends this Sunday, and Campbell will fly back to Belfast to reflect on what she's learned.

"It's all new," she said. "If it can help us look at what we're doing in a new light, then that's a victory right there."

Mulinsky expressed similar enthusiasm for her experiences as she awaited the start of a workshop last week. While that same day her country's elected officials hotly debated the course of Middle East peace negotiations, Mulinsky happily described sharing quarters in Ignacio Hall with a Palestinian woman "who had never seen an Israeli before," and how she had "been the first" to shake hands with an Arab teacher.

During the session, the participants split into small groups to discuss ideas for a lesson plan for the Kurt Vonnegut short story "Harrison Bergeron." A steady hubbub of conversation filled the room, mostly in English but with occasional snatches of Arabic audible.

Each group presented their lesson plan and explained the reasoning behind it. As with the Young Political Leaders participants, there was no small amount of ribbing and jocularity - instead of using a number, one group identified itself as the "Freedom Fighters," a reference to their choice for the story's major theme. But applause and cheers also filled the classroom during the presentations.

Mulinsky offered praise for the program's itinerary, which this year includes site visits to Newton North and Revere high schools, as well as seminars on using technology in classroom and curriculum, methods of assessment and civic education.

"I have no doubt that this will be very useful to me, both professionally and personally," she said.

Sitting several seats away from her, Abdelouahab Bekkouche of Algeria voiced his agreement. "It is an opportunity to see different people, with different ideas," he said. "I am glad to be taking ideas home that will fit into our school programs. But the other idea I take is openness, the concept of globalization. That is something we must adopt."


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