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By Neha Sud '05 and Gerry Boyle '78
While the world's statesmen struggle to bring peace to stubbornly strife-ridden parts of the world, Elicia Carmichael '01 works to do the same-10 kids at a time.
Only two years after graduating from Colby, Carmichael is at the helm of Friends Forever, a nonprofit, NewHampshire-based organization (www.friendsforeverusa.org) that brings together teenagers from opposite sides of conflicts in Northern Ireland and Jerusalem. Like its larger counterpart, Seeds of Peace, Friends Forever transports these young people to New England, far from the ethnic and religious enmity that has wracked their homelands.
Catholic and Protestant, Palestinian and Israeli, approximately 80 young people participating each year stay with volunteer host families. They come to the U.S. in groups of 10, with two adults from their communities. The result is what Carmichael calls "the life-raft effect."
"The kids are in a foreign culture," she said. "They don't understand how to order from a restaurant or why the roads look like they do, and they bond when they try to understand these things together. It makes them gravitate towards each other as a comfort zone."
Carmichael knows the feeling. As a Colby undergraduate she traveled-sometimes alone-to remote areas of Nepal as part of her research into the plight of bonded laborers there. The New Hampshire native was able to find common ground with the Nepalese workers, and she's learned that basic values bridge cultural boundaries.
That's the case with Friends Forever, which plays host to the teenagers and adults for two-week retreats. The visits are followed by a year of community service projects, weekend treks and other activities meant to sustain the bond and nurture relationships. Participants work with the next contingent before the subsequent group leaves for the U.S. Joining with YMCAs in Belfast and other Northern Ireland cities and in Jerusalem, Friends Forever uses reunions and other activities to sustain and even strengthen the bonds formed in the U.S. The intent is for the erstwhile enemies to come to trust and even become fond of each other and for stereotypes and misconceptions to fall away.
The bonds don't weaken, even as increased tensions mar life in the teenagers' home countries, Carmichael says.
In fact, heightened conflict often results in increased participation in programs like Friends Forever. At Seeds of Peace headquarters in New York, Rebecca Hankin said participation in the Middle East has grown as the conflict there has worsened. "Our kids get more excited and dedicated and passionate about getting more involved in our program," Hankin said.
Despite the spreading violence in the Middle East, Hankin says her organization, which brings 450 teenagers from conflict areas to a camp in Maine each summer, has seen increased applications from the hardest hit area, including the West Bank territories.
"We haven't had kids drop out," Hankin said. "Our Center for Co-Existence in Jerusalem, where we run programs year round, is still very active."
At Friends Forever, Carmichael says the teenagers sometimes have to convince their parents that the program is worth trying. In some cases parents have no contact with the other side in their region's conflict but recognize that their children will have a more promising future if they can bridge the gap between them and their "enemy."
"Most of the kids come here never having talked to anyone who was Catholic or Protestant, knowing nothing about the other side or knowing only what their parents have said," Carmichael said.
Many of the participants are from small cities and towns where the influence of a program like Friends Forever over time is significant despite the relatively small numbers of teenagers served each year. That power does not go unnoticed, and it is not always welcomed. "The paramilitaries know who [the partner organizations] are," Carmichael said. "Some of them have been threatened for their work but they keep doing it."
One of those threatened is Jim Lynn, youth director for the Ballymena Central YMCA in Ballymena, Northern Ireland, who has worked with Friends Forever since 1991. The Ballymena programs draw teenagers from areas that are exclusively Protestant or Catholic, often offering young people their first opportunity to meet someone on the other side of the sectarian rift.
"We're in the center of what is known as 'no-man's land,'" Lynn said at the YMCA recently. "It's neither Protestant nor Catholic."
The Ballymena YMCA maintains its connection to Friends Forever despite being located near areas controlled by Protestant or Catholic paramilitaries. Lynn said that in spite of community pressures and increasing strife in the past couple of years, families and young people still quietly come to him to ask if they can take part in the Friends Forever program.
"Last year I had as many good kids turned down as kids who went," Lynn said. "I always say, 'it's not because you weren't good enough but because there are too many.'"
The hundreds of Ballymena-area teenagers traveling to the U.S. with Friends Forever are making their mark, he said: "Not a hundred percent, but kids all the time will say to me, 'That was the greatest thing ever happened to me. . . . It was something that formed my opinion for the future.'"
At the Belfast (Northern Ireland) YMCA Colin Taylor reports successes, but he acknowledges a few disappointments where the divides have not been closed, despite the best efforts of Friends Forever and his organization. "It is often a situation where the investment is made, support and encouragement given and then it is up to the individual and group what they do with it," Taylor said.
Carmichael says she firmly believes the program is bringing about positive change. A recent 15th anniversary party for Friends Forever participants in one town in Northern Ireland drew 300 people, the largest Protestant-Catholic gathering in the community's history. And she points out that she is the only full-time employee of Friends Forever, that it is truly a grassroots organization, relying on 400 dedicated volunteers. She was one of them before taking on the job of director.
"We're not claiming to make world peace but we definitely make a huge impact on these kids, and we make a huge impact on their families as well," Carmichael said. "And then it goes out from there. It's like a ripple in a pond."
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