Teen Exchange Program Teaches Religious Tolerance

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    NEWSLETTERS

    Niall McDowell
    Niall McDowell and Mary Kate Kane in Love Park from the UPD trip to Philadelphia on July 1.

    Some kids spend their summer watching television; others spend their summer at the pool. Some are lucky enough to have a summer job. Niall McDowell and Mary Kate Kane are learning how to end religious and social segregation in Northern Ireland.

    McDowell and Kane are among three dozen teenagers participating in Ulster Project Delaware, a month long program that invites 18 teenagers from Northern Ireland to stay with 18 teenagers in Wilmington, Delaware. The goal of the project is to ease decades of tension between Catholics and Protestants stemming from political, religious and economic-related conflicts in Northern Ireland known as “The Troubles.”

    Growing up, McDowell has seen conflicts on the news and has friends who have witnessed collisions between Catholics and Protestants at events and parades. He finds the conflicts troubling.

    “I understand people want to celebrate the history of [their] ancestors and carry on traditions but both sides of the community can very easily do this in a peaceful way!” he said.

    Mary Kate Kane is an American teen hosting Anna Winter from Northern Ireland, who opened up to her about growing up with tension.

    “One night Anna and I talked about the separations between Protestants and Catholic. While I was listening to her tell me that as a Protestant…there are certain streets that are Protestant only that Catholics would never go on, I was so taken back by what she was telling me. I never really understood how separated Protestants and Catholics are until the night we talked about it,” she said. “I go to a school that has many different religions within [it], but they are not even really given the chance to meet people of the other religion.”

    McDowell agrees the separation is unhealthy.

    “In my opinion people did not fight because of [their] religion,” he said. “I think it is more about areas and that it would [be] much easier if people didn't have an estate full of Catholics or an estate full of Protestants.”

    The program has four Northern Irish leaders who each give a speech throughout the month. Often they detail the conflicts they’ve experienced growing up and try to teach the next generation the significance of tolerance.

    “[The leaders] have shared what it was like to grow up in Northern Ireland when they were younger…” Kane said. “They have taught us to not show hatred but to show peace and understanding to one another.”

    The Northern Irish teens fly home on July 26, but all 36 kids will be left with valuable messages.

    “The project had shown me to understand and accept people for who they are,” Kane said, “no matter what religion or gender.”

    McDowell will go home with a similar message.

    “It’s hard to believe sometimes what is going on around you when the people who some think are different, are not,” McDowell said, “They’re the same as anyone!”

    “We need to mix because it's an easy way of creating peace and friendships!” he said.