This trip has been profound in many ways. I would say if you want to learn compassion through opening your heart to the world around you come to Belfast. One would be hard pressed to remain unmoved when coming in contact with the intense emotions of the city. Each person in our group came here with their own expectations fueled by their interests in the field of Psychology. They also more covertly brought along their own worldview, some of which they were aware of and some parts of which they were not. I brought a history of travel throughout the world, an appreciation of other cultures and a desire to understand the people of Northern Ireland, or the North as many refer to it. But, as is many times the case, when you start to think you are completely open to an experience and comfortable with the unknown you are tested. In my case I was tested with the reality that my heart had become closed. By focusing on my studies I had become distanced through knowledge and had unknowingly closed my heart. When I first arrived in Belfast I felt confusion and anxiety as I began to meet all the amazing people here. I was profoundly touched by their courage and resilience in the face of the reality of loss. I appreciated their ability to strive for more and hope to achieve a better future for their children than what they had experienced. But even in my acknowledgment of those things I was still amazed when I felt my heart open again and the compassion I saw around me. as that happened.
Unfortunately, I will not be sharing the same experiences with you that my fellow colleagues have been sharing the past few days. How can you integrate into a community without getting the FULL experience? I took it upon myself to be admitted to the local hospital for an overnight stay in order to get an inside look at the national health care system. Kidding…it was completely unexpected and I, unfortunately, really had to take part in an overnight stay in the hospital here in Belfast for an unforeseen surgery. Things went well and I have already been released from the hospital so no worries. The experience was something that could absolutely never have been taught in a classroom and I fully witnessed the bitter end of N.I’s health care. I’m going to take this time to paint the picture for you and do a little comparing and contrasting of the health care systems. This blog is in no way intended to bash one system or the other, it is simply a pros and con’s opinion of each and based on your personality one may seem more endearing than the other. I ended up at the A&E (emergency room) at 11:30AM Monday morning with a waiting time of 7 hours and 30 minutes. And we think waiting 2 hours to be seen is bad? Due to the “seriousness” of my condition I was able to be seen in a measly two hours and 15 minutes. After being examined for literally 10 mintues, I was asked to sit in the corridor of the A&E to wait for the surigical team, in which I sat in pain for another four hours. For the most part, no one would even make eye contact with me and I couldn’t help but wonder if my lack of treatment had to do with being American, until I saw a young kid who waited just as long as I had that eventually came out of his cubicle with a knee high cast on and crutches. He obviously sat for hours, with a broken leg. I was then moved to the surgical A&E (I’m pretty sure they were sick of the impatient Americans asking questions every 5 minutes) where I sat for at least another 6 hours until I was see by a junior surgeon who had to consult with his senior surgeon…which took another 3 hours. Needless to say from the time I walked into the A&E to the time i was in my room in a bed I was there for 11 hours. My “room” consisted of me and five other women who were there for similar issues. I was not expecting 5 roommates, I’m spoiled, don’t we get our own rooms? Sounds miserable, right? Well here’s the upside. My experiences with hospitals in America have been somewhat less than satisfactory. Doctors are usually hard to find and they usually do not come to see you until later in the day, so you sit around wondering what is going on. I’ve also felt at times, people have been kept in the hospital longer than needed which sometimes can slow down the healing process. Laying in a hospital bed for three extra days can’t be good for blood flow or your mental health. I was woken up at 8AM Tuesday morning by a TEAM of doctors giving me the plans for the day. I was on an emergency list for surgery so it was hard to say when exactly I’d get in, but by 11AM I was being prepped for surgery. As far as my excessive amount of roommates, I am in a country with no family and a group of people I have only had the pleasure of really getting to know for 2 weeks, those women in my room were the highlight of my stay. I had wonderful conversations and was able to make light of the situation. Yes, privacy is nice, but what’s better than a genuine heartfelt conversation with someone when you are feeling nothing but loneliness and fear. I had surgery Tuesday morning and was released that evening, they don’t mess around here. And after all of that…my stay is cost free. So you wonder is 11 hours worth not having to pay a dime for care that would have been just as good elsewhere? Not to mention, the nursing staff walked around the hospital singing and as happy as I’d seen a nursing staff in my life. However, my personality doesn’t contain a whole lot of patience so I think I’ll stick to the quick and easy way of the American health care. But I will say, my experience with the national health care system left me pleasantly surprised. Knowing what I know now, I would do it all over again. And a special thank you to our wonderful TA who spent countless hours with me in the hospital, without you I would have lost my mind.
Today we had the opportunity to visit with the Lord Mayor of Belfast, Niall O’Donahue! He is the youngest Lord Mayor in the history of Belfast, and the first from the Sinn Fein party. While there, we were fortunate to have tea with him and learn about his initiatives to raise awareness to the issue of the high suicide rate within Belfast. Due to his young age (25), he is keenly aware of the high rates of suicide amongst young adults. Unfortunately, since his post is largely ceremonial, he holds no executive power to enact legislation to combat the problem. However, he shared with us that his office recently put together a “Celebrating Life” conference to promote appreciation for mental well-being and begin a change in the way suicide is seen within Belfast. Following our meeting with him, we were given a tour of City Hall. What an impressive building! I am extremely grateful we had the opportunity to partake in this experience. It was great to meet the Lord Mayor and see what the government is doing to understand and change the issue of suicide in Northern Ireland!
We had tea with the Lord Mayor of Belfast this morning. Meeting him was marvelous. He was very candid and funny and put us all at ease which was quite a feat since we were all balancing delicate tea cups and perched in fancy chairs. The city hall was unreal. I had never realized that marble could clash with anything but I guess when you get up to 3 or 4 different types of marble, stained glass, velvet, plaster molding, intricately carved wood, etc. it really is possible. The tour guide likened it to modern ‘bling’ saying anything can become tasteless when its overdone. It was like the fine details just kept getting added and added and reminded me of the lack of control iwhen people binge eat or drink in order to cope. Could there be such a thing as binge decor? Maybe it would be related to compulsive shopping…
After the city hall visit, we went to Lifeline where we had coffee and a long talk with Fergus about the challenges and joys of crisis work and providing 24 hour support hotlines. That conversation went everywhere and was so engaging we were late to get back to Bridget who was patiently waiting to do a presentation on her experience in trauma work. We discussed the impact of trauma on pre-lingual children and how the lack of language and episodic memory can prime a person for developing PTSD symptoms in response to future traumatic events. The events cease to be experienced as separate events and become triggers for the first event that the person was unable to create meaning for. It was similar to something I had learned about briefly in a neuroscience class but it incorporated some Gestalt and energy concepts so that it gave a nice holistic view of the healing process for people coping with developmental trauma. I also got the names of some researchers in this area that I will look up for further deepening my knowledge on some of these aspects of early childhood trauma.
Unfortunately, one of our classmates is in the hospital here because she developed an infection that will require an overnight stay in the hospital. She missed out on all of these experiences and I think we all felt her absence as an extra layer of sadness in this place that is so permeated with sadness and rage. We’ve worked out some shifts for making sure she has company and it sounds like she’ll be back with us tomorrow. I just hope her hospital bed is comfier than the beds here at the hostel.
In some ways, the whole trip feels like the city hall. The coping we’ve witnessed is full of distancing and putting pretty faces on layer after layer of emotional pain. There’s also so much going on every day that I don’t have time to fully process it all. I can only imagine how much more potnetially overwhelming it is to live here and cope with the trauma every single day. Bridget kept using the term “the overwhelm” and even though I’ve never heard of overwhelm used as a noun, it is so apt, there really isn’t another term to apply.
The city of Derry represents both the healing and conflict that continues to face the people of Northern Ireland. The city has been named the cultural city of Northern Ireland, and as a result has seen an influx of funding for new shops and the maintenance of tourist attractions. It has grown into a bustling city with people shopping and enjoying their city center. These new editions reflect the deep desire most people have to rebuild a peaceful society. But the continued presence of dissident paramilitary organizations reminds me that there is still a long way to go. The community remains segregated with Protestants living on the Waterside and Catholics on the Bogside. The very different narratives both communities are clearly laid out in murals and monuments.
While there has been a progression toward peace, conflict still lingers in the background. The violence that continues to be perpetrated fuels alienation between communities making it impossible for them to move forward in peace building. As we walked around Derry I felt alternatively peaceful and tense and I can only imagine that the citizens experience this on a magnified level. I am left wondering how peacebuilding can truly take root when communities struggle to accept each other’s narratives.
Up until today I have struggled with the various things I could write. Do I just talk about what we have done each day? Creating almost a cataloged list of our itenaray? Or do I talk about how being here in Belfast makes me feel? I have found myself doing the latter, although I admit this might not be very interesting to those who have no traveled here or are distanced from everything happening here. However in talking about my feelings I wanted to showcase the immense strength of the people here and my impressions of their courage. I have not wanted to discuss with any great depth the hardships that have been experienced, nor the one’s that are still going on. Today I reflected on this and realized that part of this was because I wanted to put the focus on the positive. I wanted those who have not been here to understand my extreme appreciation for the people of Belfast. For the openess of heart which in spite of all the trauma in the many years of conflict is still one of the biggest parts of the culture here. I come from Saudi Arabia. A place which has a dark side, but who’s people are some of the most loving and generous in the world. When I talk about my home I choose to focus on that side of the story and this is the same for here.
I know many people have not wanted to visit Belfast because of The Troubles and many years of conflict. However I would argue that Belfast is so much more than that. Today we met with the Lord Mayor in the City Hall. This building which is steeped in one side of the history of this country is just recently trying to embrace the other side. The current Lord Mayor told about his desire for equality and mutual respect on all sides. This is the hope that I wish people would see and desire to experience by visiting here. In his honest and down to earth discussion about the current issues facing the people of Belfast I saw some of the past, but also a hope for a better future. My hope is now that people who travel Ireland would choose to visit both North and South to be a part of helping the people of Belfast create their new identity, including learning about all parts of the amazing history of these people.
This weekend as been one of the most unbelievable experiences I have ever had. Yesterday, we walked the streets of Derry/Londonderry and took pictures of all the murals for peace and civil rights. The most incredible part was seeing the “H-Block” and Bloody Sunday memorials. Reading the young ages of some of the lives that were taken during Bloody Sunday really hit hard. The town was like nothing I have experienced since I have been here. It was one huge story and a very, very different atmosphere. Today, we were able to hike up Cave Hill, which was a site I have never in my life experienced. As we walked the hill, every person you passed said hello to you as if they had known you for years. You engaged in conversation with anyone within close distance. Even on the hill, the sense of community is still as strong as ever. I cannot say enough how truly blesed I am to have had to opportunity to be a part of something so impactful…and it’s still not over.
It was nice to feel like I could do something helpful today. The walk (read: hike that was crazy uphill) was physically challenging but at least it was a tangible thing that we could do. Thank you to everyone who sponsored me for the walk! I made it all the way up to the cave and then went back with a classmate who had been having trouble with the sheer cliff views. I regret not taking my camera, the views were awesome. We’re to meet the Lord Mayor of Belfast tomorrow and we’re all scrambling to make sure our nice clothes are presentable. We got to relax a little after the walk (again, read: crazy uphill hike) with Philip and learn a bit about local sports. Since I don’t really get American sports, I’m afraid I was quite lost so I have nothing to report on that front.
Today we went to and climbed Cavehill, a mountain just outside of Belfast. We were able to see incredible views of the city! Cavehill is the location of the United Irishmen’s first declaration of independence for the island of Ireland. After seeing the views of Northern Ireland off Cavehill, it is easy to understand why those men were so inspired!
Following the Cavehill climb, we visited a local Gaelic Athletic Association group. These groups are a place for Catholic Nationalists to assemble, relax, and watch traditional Irish sports, such as Gaelic football and hurling. We were warmly welcomed by some of the locals and were able to watch a Gaelic football match with some of them. It was great to mingle with some locals and learn about some of the Northern Irish culture!
I climbed to the top of a mountain today. That is something I can honestly say I have never done before. I ate a big breakfast to help me get ready for the climb. I needed all the help I could get since I normally am not this athletic. I thought that walking all day every day for over a week would prepare me a little more for the hike. I wore my Toms because I had no other appropriate hiking shoes. My shoes did not have much traction on them so it was very easy for me to slide down the way that I had just come. It was frustrating and extremely tiring. I did take breaks every once in a while to take pictures. I have been having a lot of difficulty getting my pictures off my camera but I will hopefully be able to figure out that issue soon. I definitely need to show proof that I made it to the top.
The mountain path was very steep and muddy in some areas. I made it up to this cave that was on the side of the mountain. Some of my group was able to scale the almost straight up and down rock wall so that they could sit in the cave for pictures. I took that as an opportunity to rest and take pictures of the ones that were brave enough to make it up that high. I could not believe how beautiful the view was from the top of the mountain. Although it was very cloudy and foggy I could still see so much. On a clear day you can actually see Scotland from the top. I could not see that far but I do have some amazing pictures of the entire town and the Belfast Lough. I am not sure how much I enjoyed the hike up the mountain but making it to the top, which I never thought I could do, was absolutely worth it. I was proud of myself. This entire trip was about me putting myself in new situations that I normally would never put myself in. I am beginning to take more risks.