SALT LAKE CITY — The religious and political conflict in Northern Ireland has killed thousands. A divide remains but the Ulster Project is working to change that.
In 1975, Canon Kerry Waterstone, an Anglican priest from Connecticut, created a non-profit, believing that teaching teenagers about friendship could change a country.
Every July, 24 young people — 12 Catholics and 12 Protestants from Omagh — come to Utah as part of a project to break down religious and cultural barriers. They live with Utah families for a month and share experiences with their hosts and young people from their own community whom they do not know.
The Salt Lake project began in 1985. The city the teens come from is significant because it is the site of the worst domestic terrorism in Northern Ireland’s history. On Aug. 15, 1998, a car bomb exploded in Omagh’s main shopping district, eventually killing 31 and injuring hundreds. A splinter group, calling itself the Real Irish Republican Army, claimed responsibility but no one was ever convicted of the crime.
Utah Ulster Project chairwoman Les Sage has been a part of the project for more than 20 years. She has seen changes in Northern Ireland over the years.
“When I first started this, going over there, with soldiers and the barricades, and now there is none of that,” Sage said. “The soldiers are gone. The check stations are gone. The kids are more open toward each other.”
Counselor Jemma Walker knows what the teens who are in Utah are going through. Six years ago, she took part in the project and spent a month in Atlanta. Now she is back helping teens make new friendships. Outside the project, they wouldn’t have been friends, she said.
“In Northern Ireland, the Catholics and Protestants fight, quite a big divide still,” she said.
The project allows them to build bridges. “It helps, especially the kids from Northern Ireland, it gets them to see that we are not all that different,” she said.
Stephen Rodgers came to Salt Lake City in 2003 as part of the project. He said the project helped him a lot, and he was honored and privileged to be asked to come back as a counselor.
Since he took part in the project, he has seen changes for the better in Omagh. “It’s just gotten better as the years go on,” Rodgers said. “It’s just less of a problem (religious differences), and people don’t see it as much of a taboo. It’s a good thing.”
It’s progress. In fact, Omagh has an integrated school, where kids of both religions attend. They play on sports team together. There is now an orchestra for the young people.
For Ian Gorrell-Brown, of Salt Lake City, the project is an eye-opener. “I was aware that there were difficulties over there,” he said, “but I didn’t realize how serous they were, like bombings, killings and just all of the other problems that are actually going on.”
He was working at the Utah Food Bank with Gerad Duddy of Omagh, who also found out about the project through his teacher. He said his experience has been really good so far.
“We’ve had really good activities, and we’ve had some charity work we’ve had to do, but everything we’ve had to do has been really good,” Duddy said.
This project not only helps build bridges, it also helps build longtime friendships. Rodgers and Walker have remained in touch with the teens they worked with years ago, and Gorrell-Brown and Duddy plan to remain friends long after their month-stay in Utah is over.
“We’ve been friends this whole time, and we’ll probably stay friends after the project ends,” Gorrel-Brown said.
Kate Losser is also hosting. “I’m planning to go over next summer, hopefully," she said. Kyra McKinley, her new friend who says they are now more like sisters, agrees. “I think we’re calling it the Utah Project.”
The girls laugh, thrilled that social media will bridge the separation until then.
Les Sage said these young people’s parents hope their children will live in a united Northern Ireland, where there is no division by religion.
“These kids are leaving the United States with a more open mind and they go over there and they mingle more and I’m positive, personally, that they will raise their children with no barriers,” she said.
Contributing: Viviane Vo-Duc