March 2006 Reflection

Hello again–It’s hard to believe that it has been almost six months since I first arrived in Derry!

The last two months have been particularly eventful. In mid-February I used part of my USIT stipend to meet three friends from Georgetown for five days in Krakow, Poland. Krakow is a beautiful–and very old–city. It was full of ornate cathedrals, some dating back to the fourteenth century. There is also the beautiful Castle Wawel, overlooking the city.

While it was difficult to wander through Krakow without knowing a word in Polish, I found that by using some combination of basic French, grunts and gestures, I could find where I needed to go. (Though often people would either respond in Polish or in French with a think Polish accent–which didn’t do me much good.) The two most useful phrases I ended up learning were “jenkuya” and “je prasham” (thank you and excuse me).

One of our main purposes for visiting Krakow was to see Auschwitz. (We all entertained a lot of raised eyebrows when we told people what we were doing for vacation–but we each knew it was something that we had to do). The word that came to mind to describe the experience was “numbing.” The very first thing our guide told us when we stepped through the gate, which mockingly read: “Work and be free,” was that we were standing on a graveyard where 1.1 million people died. The guide relayed fact by fact without emotion, probably numbed by over twenty years of leading these tours. I myself was numbed by the particular stories of torture and murder, and more so by the infinite volume of victims. The two hardest things to witness were a giant chamber filled with piles of women’s hair–which was used to make rugs–and long scratch marks on the walls of the inside of a gas chamber, made by panicking victims attempting to flee the gas.

It was moving for me to see the cell of St. Maximillian Kolbe, the same saint of my home parish in Scarborough, Maine. A Catholic priest, he was killed by starvation and lethal injection, after he took the place of a Jewish man (a father and husband, who survived auschwitz to live through his nineties).

Auschwitz was particularly important to me in my studies because it allowed me to bear witness to a case of mass violence–violence that was condemned and challenged by “never again”–violence that has been repeated in Cambodia, Bosnia, Rwanda, Congo, and Sudan–violence that shows that there is still much that must be done to make “never again” a reality.

I returned to Derry to finish preparations for my SDLP conference on civil rights. Through my internship with Mark Durkan, I had spent five months working on the project–and was rewarded with a successful event. The conference was entitled: “We Shall Overcome, Civil Rights: Past, Present, and Future.” Among the speakers were my friend William Godwin, my course director, Paul Arthur, Inez McCormack, Paddy O’Hanlon, my boss and SDLP leader Mark Durkan, Denis Bradley, Richard Moore, and Nobel Laureate John Hume.

The speakers did a tremendous job at describing and reflecting on the Northern Ireland civil rights movement in the 60’s and current local and international issues to the audience–mainly comprised of secondary and university school students. I think it was particularly effective for students to see civil rights as exemplified by gay rights and disability rights–the former of which we thought might prevent schools from coming. They came, and I would like to think we made a small bit of a difference. At this point I’d like to thank Carie Windham for her hard work, and the rest of the Magee students who helped make this happen. Cheers!

As John Hume was one of the primary reasons I applied to study in Derry, I was particularly proud to introduce him–a Derry man who became a teacher, then a civil rights leader, then SDLP leader, and then a Nobel Peace Prize recipient. He is a hero to me, and I’m sure to many of these Derry kids who hopefully will make their own impact on the causes of peace and civil rights.

John Hume has been very important to the University of Ulster as the Tip O’Neill Chair in Peace Studies. Last week, at his request, John Kerry spoke at Magee about international security. Kerry is the most recent in a line of speakers that have included Garrett Fitzgerald, Hilary Clinton, Kofi Annan, and Bill Clinton. The Tip O’Neill Chair, Magee’s location in history-filled Derry, and its strong Irish History and Peace and Conflict Studies programs, all make Magee a fantastic place to study. I strongly recommend it to future Mitchells and peace scholars.

Of all the things I am grateful for, I am most grateful for the friends that I have made here. Whether it is continuing the weekly quiz night tradition, planning youth conferences over tea in the SDLP office, or laughing over impressions of Derryisms (and yes, I now have a wealth of Derry sayings thanks to the Wile Big Derry Phrasebook Lauren gave me!)–I can honestly say, these muckers are great craic.

Next up, a good deal of studying, and traveling to Scotland, Belgium and England.

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