I’ve been in Belfast for about two months now, and I am happy to provide some updates on my life so far. To provide a bit of background, I’m completing a Master’s in Conflict Transformation and Social Justice at Queen’s University Belfast. While we study conceptual, moral, legal, and political issues that relate to conflict transformation and social justice around the world, there is a focus on the issues between Catholics and Protestants* here in Northern Ireland. I’ve really enjoyed studying a conflict while living in the very place it occurred, as my instructors have been able to pull in real-world examples from Belfast into our lectures almost every week.
However, while I’ve certainly valued my classroom experience, without a doubt the most rewarding aspect of my time in Belfast so far has been outside of it. First, I joined a professional basketball team: http://www.belfasttelegraph.co.uk/sport/classy-americans-sure-to-bolster-belfast-star-hopes-in-all-ireland-premier-league-31575391.html, and while I am not certain how I managed to fool them into thinking I was classy, I know just how fortunate I am to be able to play basketball again. I love basketball, but after tearing my ACL last December I was quite certain my competitive basketball career was over. To find a team in Belfast—filled with great teammates who have all made me feel so at home–has been a blessing beyond words.
I’ve also found a number of opportunities to teach basketball. Basketball, as a relatively “foreign” sport without sectarian ties and filled with extremely tall and goofy Americans with funny accents (such as myself), is often used to bridge community divides here in Northern Ireland. I’ve started volunteering with PeacePlayer, a cross-community peacebuilding charity that uses basketball to unite and educate young people from Protestant and Catholic communities across Belfast. I’m involved with their primary school “twinning” program, where entire classes of children at the Primary 6 and 7 levels (age 8-11) from neighboring Controlled (predominantly Protestant) and Maintained (predominately Catholic) schools are paired together for basketball and classroom sessions. I have my own team made up of students from neighboring Glenwood and St. Clare’s primary schools, and besides really enjoying my time playing with the kids, I have learned so much experiencing the conflict through the eyes of children.
This experience with PeacePlayers has also led into other coaching opportunities. Last week I worked a “Hard 2 Guard” camp for students on fall break, and a couple days ago I was actually offered a position coaching an under-18 youth team. Unfortunately, it doesn’t look like their practice schedule fits with my class schedule, but I’ve really enjoyed the opportunities to share my love of basketball, and it’s comforting to know that I have a way to stay involved in basketball that I truly enjoy and can continue long after my playing days are over. I also think the name “Coach Seymore” has a nice ring to it 🙂
On the whole, however, the reason my time in Belfast has been so special so far has nothing to do with basketball and everything to do with the people. On my second day in Belfast, I met my friend Sam, who loves the NFL and introduced me to his church, LIFE Church Belfast. On my third day, I met my friend Maevis, who snuck me extra food at an international students dinner, and would invite both Rachel (the other Belfast Mitchell scholar) and I over to her house to eat with her family. On the fourth day, I met Jess, who invited Rachel and I to come up to see the beautiful Northern Irish North Coast.
I could go on and on about the kindness and friendliness of the people of Northern Ireland, but this blog does have a word limit. Needless to say, I’ve felt very at home in Belfast, only because of all the people who have welcomed me like family.
*Though I referenced “Catholics” and “Protestants,” the conflict in Northern Ireland had/has very little to do with religion. The conflict is between nationalists, who consider themselves Irish and want Northern Ireland to become a part of a united Ireland, and loyalists, who consider themselves British and want Northern Ireland to remain a part of the United Kingdom. The terms “Catholic” and “Protestant” are convenient terms used because the overwhelming majority of nationalists would consider themselves culturally Catholic, and most loyalists as Protestant.