Could you begin by introducing yourself and tell us a bit about the work you do?
My name’s Claire Harris and I’m 26. I’m originally from a place called Fermanagh in Northern Ireland but I now live in the capital city of Belfast. I’ve been involved in peacebuilding for the past 10 or 11 years. Most of my experiences have been outside of the UK and I went on my first one when I was fifteen or 16 when I went to Uganda to work with the reintegration of child soldiers.
It was that experience that got me interested in peacebuilding and specifically the use of violence and the effects of it on societies. So from there I went and worked in Brooklyn with gang members there and I also worked in the Philippines and Brazil with gang members. Meanwhile I was also studying Social Anthropology at University and then went on to get a Master’s in Conflict resolution and reconciliation, so I was able to do work abroad and use the work to also help with research.
Now I’m working with the Belfast Interface Project. I’ve been working there for 2 years now.
Is there a particular way that you work with groups or does it depend entirely on the group?
It depends on the group, but the core of my work is all about relationship building and listening to people. I approach my work from the view that everyone is human, the kind of humanising element of peacebuilding. I really believe that people are in certain circumstances and it’s my job to understand those circumstances and work with people where ever they are at, without judgement and without a hidden agenda if you like. I believe if I was born in the middle of Brooklyn I could easily have become part of a gang because of where I was born.
At the core of it all are relationships and building up a relationship between me and the group as a whole and as individuals. For me relationships are the bottom line of peacebuilding.
It’s important to give people a safe environment. Do you feel that when developing relationships with groups that there is an acceptance of you in the group, or even sometimes you almost become part of the group?
Because I’m female and young, I’ll never really be part of the group. I look so different to them all and there’s a very clear distinction. But at the very start of working with a group I spend a lot of time building relationships with the group. Before we can start any real kind of work I have to earn the right to work with them and they have to invite me to work with them.
When I was working in the Philippines I would sit at the side of the road with the street gangs and get them to teach me their language because I couldn’t speak any. So I asked them to teach me, which in turn rebalanced a bit of the power that was there. They were actually offering me something, teaching me something and I was their student. That made them more comfortable. It wasn’t a case of me going in and telling them “we will do this”. There has to be more of a balanced relationship than that.
In terms of the Belfast Interface Project, what is your day to day role?
My title is Development Officer, so I’m responsible for development of B.I.P. and coordinating the projects they’re doing. At the moment my focus is on youth projects and young people who are using violence or getting involved in interface violence (violence along the borders of what are deemed Catholic and Protestant areas) and/or rioting. I’m involved in youth intervention and youth engagement with young people involved in anti-social behaviour and interface violence. That would be a big part of my job alongside one-to-one mentoring and counselling, trying to give a sort of wrap-around family support package to people. I also do facilitation work with adults.
Recently I’ve been working with interface residents, adults who are living along the peace wall whose houses are being attacked and who are seeing a lot of violence. We bring them together to meet each other and we facilitate those meetings. Some of them have never met or sat down in a room together. There’s a whole lot of work we do. The work is needs lead so it depends on what community I’m in, I think I’m in about 32 communities now.
32 communities? Wow! Are there any particular experiences that stand out for you in the work you’ve done?
I am currently involved in a project with two youth groups in West and North Belfast, a group from the Shankill road area and a group from the Falls. There has been a long history of violence between these groups. I’ve been working with them for the last six months along with local youth workers building up cross-community relationships. We have taken them away on relationship building residential’s, we’ve done a lot of storytelling work between the two groups to try to get them to get to know each other and that group has actually gelled quite well. They actually know each other from rioting at interfaces, that’s how they know each other. They say things like “Oh I saw you the other night on the other side” so that’s how they all know each other. But they have gelled well as a group and we have started talking about violence and I was hearing from them that they thought violence was a flippant thing, that it didn’t really have any impact, that it was just something you did when you’re bored. They were rioting with each other but they didn’t see that as a problem.
From that we realised that we needed to do something with them to engage in their understanding of violence and what they thought about it. Also try and widen their understanding of it. In order to do that we have recently brought in a group of asylums seekers, who I have been building up a relationship with. They are all living in Belfast, mostly from Zimbabwe and their understanding of violence is very different. It’s changed their whole lives. They have had to flee their countries because of it.
At the moment we are spending six weeks with each group, filming them separately as they are still not ready to meet each other yet. When I initially brought the concept to the groups from Belfast, they got really scared of bringing asylum seekers in and I didn’t really understand why they were scared. Eventually, after talking with the group for a while about what they thought asylum seekers were, they told me that they thought asylum seekers were bad people who were sent here because they had linked the word ‘asylum’ to a mental institution. They had had no opportunity to learn about this. Their reality is the street they live on or the community they live in and that’s their bubble.
So that really shocked me and also made me realise that the groups were not ready to meet each other yet, they needed a bit more time to understand each other a bit before they came together. A softer approach, get the group more comfortable with the idea. At the moment we are touring some of the areas that the young people live in with the asylum seekers, to give them some idea of where the young people are from, of the issues they face and the why life is for them, levels of unemployment, kind of an idea of their lives. And we showed the young people from Belfast a documentary showing the history and situation in Zimbabwe to give them an idea of where the asylum seekers have come from. We have been filming them asking questions to each other back and forth, and it has been really interesting, the questions that come out. Things I wouldn’t have really thought about asking but they have taken that on and getting to know each other. The plan is at the moment for them to meet in a few weeks’ time to go on a residential and go through the whole storytelling process. To start pulling out the ideas of violence and getting more deep, beneath just the surface level.
So storytelling is the method you use with this group?
Yes, the residential will be around storytelling but we will also be using art and then giving everyone a chance to share their stories.
When you discovered that the group’s perception of asylum seekers was based on a misunderstanding, were you shocked?
Yeah, completely! I’ve travelled so much, I’ve been really lucky that in terms of work I get to travel a lot so I just never thought someone wouldn’t know what an asylum seeker was. I assumed that they may not know the legalities behind it or the depth of it but it showed me how I can still assume things. I just assumed that they would know that these people are fleeing conflict and trying to find asylum in another place. It didn’t even cross my mind that they wouldn’t know what it is. And they were really scared, you know? Just “oh I don’t want to do this” or “why are you bring these people in with us” and whenever I started exploring it with them they were saying “its cos’ they don’t have asylums in their countries so they are being sent here. We have loads of bad people here so that’s why they are being sent here”. They assumed that asylums seekers were here because of the fighting that happens here. It was a real eye opening experience for me to realise the value in travelling and having people from different cultural backgrounds engaging with each other. It was then a really interesting process of engaging with the group on what asylum seekers are and to see them begin to understand.
Did you find from that point that you had a better understanding, or a stronger connection with the group?
Completely! I think it’s really important to be real with the people that you are working with and to be able to say and know that I don’t have all the answers. I’m journeying as well as them. Every time I’m doing any piece of work I’m always learning. It humbles you a bit in the eyes of the group to know that you don’t have all the answers. Sometimes they would look at you and think you do, or think of you as a teacher, form a kind of hierarchy in their minds. It helps the power dynamic I mentioned earlier and kind of helps that re-balance. You’d never want there to be a power dynamic as such, but because it’s life sometimes there has to be some element of it. These young people have been told their whole lives that in the culture we have here that if there is ever another person, or a difference between you and someone else that the answer is violence. The way you deal with fear is violence, because that’s the way their families may have taught them or their community teaches them, and every influence they have is teaching them that violence is a way to deal with your issues, differences and fears.
Because of that, it is a larger process than I first imagined, because of the depth of that message. They would never say outright that they would attack someone because they are different, it’s more of an undercurrent in their culture. Even when the camera was first pointed at them, they were joking, and they zipped their tops up over their faces and tried to be like paramilitaries and were saying things like “we are whoever and we want asylum seekers out”. It was a joke, they didn’t mean it, but still: Why is that the first thing you do? You know, people from other communities would be like dancing in front of the camera or something. But that was immediately what they thought when they saw a camera pointing at them.
Do you think that attitude comes from a historical context, or is it upbringing, or are the roots perhaps socio-economic?
I think it’s a mixture. These guys are 16 to 19’s so they haven’t really experienced a lot of the troubles. They are the post-Good Friday agreement generation if you like, but there still is very much a legacy of the conflict in the areas that they come from, and their families would have been involved and maybe some of their families have been in jail. There is still a culture of that being trickled down and I think that’s quite dangerous because it’s all being fed down to them via maybe family members or community influences and they don’t have experiences to counteract that. It’s all they have to go on. They are meeting members of other communities but then are being fed this information and it must be confusing to them I would imagine. With regards to socio-economic issues; all our interface communities are within the top 50 multiple deprivation indices, with high levels of unemployment and high levels of poverty. I was really shocked when I started working with interface communities at how they were at those levels and the fact that it’s going on in Belfast. That has a real impact on them. It affects their opportunities to engage in further education or in travel. They just don’t have the opportunities to be doing those things. So that’s why community projects like this are really important for them. It gives them a chance to get out of the pattern of their communities and actually transform their communities, and their peers as well.
You’re an advocate of informal education and offering opportunities to people who maybe come from those backgrounds?
Yeah, I mean I grew up here and came from an area where there were a lot of problems, bombs and all sorts of things whenever I was younger. I would definitely of had a narrow mind, not through any fault of my own, just because of where I was from and the things I was seeing and experiencing. It was only travelling and going to university that changed my mind. It wasn’t on purpose necessarily but just through meeting different types of people and hearing different stories. It changed me and that’s why I’m involved in the work that I do. But they really don’t have that opportunity so for me it’s really important. I think there are too many people who go in with a service that they want to offer and then they do it for 6 weeks and then they leave and that’s that. They give them skills and then leave. But it’s more than just skills, it’s about journeying with them and that takes a long time.
I see people coming in and teaching those skills and the young people haven’t been given the capacity to use them. So they can’t see the connection from getting an IT qualification, to going to work in an office. That kind of jump is alien to them. They have been told things like if you’re from a certain area, you’re going to be unemployed, that means you’re going to stay in the area, that means you’re going to have kids young, etc. And that’s what they have been told, and what they believe and it’s about challenging those kinds of attitudes that are in a post-conflict society.
In terms of the work you’re doing, what do you feel are the professional, and personal, benefits to you as a peacebuilder?
Professionally, I think every piece of work I’m involved in, I learn from and I gain knowledge for the next time I do it. Something I’m quite passionate about is documenting what’s being done and trying to produce resources and methods of best practice. There’s so many people doing good work and because we are all so busy doing the work it’s hard to document the work that’s being done. For me it’s something that should be shared and it’s important not to be precious about it and not trying to ‘cover your homework’. In the project I’m doing we are documenting everything so that the model can be used by other people. Peacebuilding isn’t about empire building; you want peace to be prevalent in every society.
Story: Claire Harris is 26 years old and lives and works in Belfast, Northern Ireland. She has travelled and done peacebuilding work in places such as Brazil, Uganda and the Philippines. She currently works for the Belfast Interface Project as a Development Officer, helping bridge divides between local young people from the Protestant and Catholic community, and also attempting to create a deeper understanding between these groups and asylum seekers.
Artist: Victoria Martos