Heartbeat Visits Northern Ireland

by Ami Yares

Early in the month of March, Heartbeat afforded me the opportunity to travel across the pond from my home in Philadelphia to Northern Ireland. An extremely dynamic and visionary NGO, Beyond Skin, invited Heartbeat as well as several other international youth based-initiatives to participate in their Global Youth Peace Summit. Representatives from Colombia’s Escuelas de Paz, Sri Lanka’s the Music Project and the Hague-based United Network of Young Peacebuilders (UNOY) as well as Zanzibar-born singer-songwriter Mim Suleiman worked together with Beyond Skin, to share each organization’s practice, methodology and vision for the future with youth across Northern Ireland. The summit took place from March 6-10 and hosted an abundance of workshops around the region. On International Women’s day, Beyond Skin put on a concert in Belfast that featured many of the musicians participating in the summit. As the week progressed, we became a caravan of peacebuilders, bonded by the arts and youth-work.

A Tiny Bit of History

Since the Good Friday Agreement in 1998, the Troubles’ violent manifestations have passed and the “interfaces” otherwise known as “Peace Walls” stand to be the only physical representation of the conflict. However, despite being “post-conflict,” Northern Ireland’s government recently dissolved and a schism between Republican and Loyalist factions became more obvious than ever. The most recent vote took place only a few days before our arrival and many of us did not know what to expect.

The Summit

At the summit, other members of the greater Heartbeat international community joined me. Jazz and world music singer Gani Tamir, producer and bassist Mark Smulian (Heartbeat board members and founding members of the Israeli and Palestinian project White Flag) and Luna Abu Nassar, a singer-song writer who frequently visits Heartbeat’s youth programs and has very strong connections to our Heartbeat graduates. It should also be noted that this was also the first time that this configuration of Heartbeat gathered. All of us knew of one another but never worked together collectively. Our success depended on the same values that we try to inspire in the younger Heartbeat participants. This diverse cohort of Heartbeat supporters helped facilitate various workshops, utilizing Heartbeat’s approach to music-based co-creation and dialogue.

As we journeyed through the region, we found ourselves face to face with youth self-identifying as Catholics, Protestants, Republicans, Loyalists, Polish immigrants, Nigerians, Travelers and overall humans. Many of the participants in the workshops appeared apathetic to the political situation and distanced themselves from the sectarian struggle, recalling its effect on their parents and relatives. Some even called out the still existent peace walls as traps for conflict-tourism and tools for political power as opposed to actual peace-keeping. Other participants found themselves isolated from the diversity represented by the summit. One Catholic middle-schooler thought it nearly impossible to be in touch with, let alone be friends with Protestants – there were not any to approach. The communities isolated themselves from one another. This perception reminded me of the peace between Israel and Egypt — a cold-peace, as opposed to a hot-war. A group of students from Belfast were genuinely concerned about the path the world has been taking, recognizing its political tilt towards bastardized populism that suggests liberation and equality but reserves it only to a white-racial persuasion. We talked about how to find organizations and people organizing against hate and fear while also trying to cultivate self-actualization for the students to create responses to the negative elements of society preventing social cohesion.

While the relative quiet of today’s Northern Ireland illustrates a seemingly-peaceful political and social terrain, we and the other facilitators did our best to help forge a space in which the youth participants could approach and actively decide to challenge underlying and over currents of prejudice, xenophobia, systemic racism and of course, violence. The workshops I led with the other representatives of Heartbeat included varying perspectives on the Israeli and Palestinian conflict and hands-on approaches to making music through spontaneity and improvisation.  Most importantly, we talked about how performing together serves not only as a tool of community building, but also a metaphor for a healthy democratic society. In short, the music group needs to focus on the greater good of the music, while leaving space for leadership and space for alternative views from majority consent to be heard and respected.  The metaphor provides a solid foundation for helping participants engage society with music leading the way.

A Closing Thought

We left Northern Ireland with a broader international network committed to unifying and helping raise the voices of youth in the name of peace and social change. Our newfound constituency crosses continents and conflicts now more than ever. As much as fighting injustice through music with Israelis and Palestinians centers Heartbeat, we know now more than ever Heartbeat’s mission resonates globally as much as regionally.  

Ami Yares is a singer/songwriter and Heartbeat Global Ambassador. He spent over five years helping to build and facilitate Heartbeat groups in Israel/Palestine. Today, he is completing his master’s degree in Social Policy at the University of Pennsylvania and well as implementing Heartbeat methodology with high school-aged refugees in Philadelphia.