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Leona O'Neill: In a divided world, we have a responsibility to build better relations

The world is a very divided place right now, and there's not much hope of a brighter future in our own small patch of it. With society so polarised, addressing our divisions and working to build better community relations has rarely been more important, writes Leona O'Neill

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un celebrates the test launch of an intermediate range Hwasong-12 missile
Leona O'Neill

TODAY if you switch on the television you might see a North Korean man with a bad haircut firing missiles at his neighbours. Or you might see an American man with a bad attitude talking about building walls to keep his neighbours out.

Closer to home, switching on your radio will result in significantly raised blood pressure as neighbour-versus-neighbour battles rage on the airwaves about flags, marches, bonfires, language acts, paramilitaries and many other issues that drive us apart.

The world has gone mad and hatred, violence and blatant hostility are the norm that our children are unfortunately growing up with. They are being fed a constant diet of viciousness in society both locally and internationally. And the result is, as is human nature, digging deeper into our own trenches.

The wider result is us turning our backs on fleeing refugees, a widening distrust of our neighbours, extreme views and actions being given air to breathe instead of being suffocated, and an explosion of the bitterness that has been bubbling quietly under the surface of society here in Northern Ireland.

It doesn’t have to be this way. We can resist. This week is Community Relations and Cultural Awareness Week and will see events taking place across the north to encourage us to consider and embrace the growing cultural diversity that exists in our local communities.

There are hundreds of events happening in your community and I think it is hugely important to attend so we can all teach our children to become ambassadors for peace and give the future a chance. Because God knows, the present isn’t working out so well.

As a reporter I speak to young people from all sides of the community here. And I’ll be honest: some of their views are terrifying and give me little hope that there will ever be a normal society here. Our communities are at times divided as ever. And that is surprising since teenagers have no experience of our Troubles. What they are reacting to are views and heavy baggage handed down by us, their parents.

Yes we have moved on and it’s great that we are not killing one another. But forgive me for not celebrating. There is still a long, long way to go. People here still distrust one another; our children are still segregated, as are our communities. Some teens I spoke to, in the year 2017, had never met a young person from the ‘opposite’ side of the community. And if that is the case, we are not doing a good enough job at building a sustainable future.

Our society is thankfully getting much more varied. We have different cultures and traditions mixing with our own creating a beautiful melting pot of diversity. As parents, we can encourage our children to be welcoming and warm to those of different ethnic backgrounds who may be joining our communities.

When a young Syrian girl joined my daughter’s class last year, my little girl took me shopping for a colouring book and pens for her. She knew she didn’t have much English and she could draw pictures to communicate. She made her a welcome card with a big heart on the front and sat it on her desk waiting for her first day. She helped her find her way around the school. The two girls are firm friends now.

We can all do little things to make a big difference. There are many events taking place across Northern Ireland for young people, the idea is for parents, schools, clubs to encourage young people to become ambassadors for peace and take the lead within their local communities.

Libraries NI are one of the biggest contributors to the programme this year and are organising a series of ‘Welcome Wall’ reading group events. Participating children learn about refugees and why people have to flee their home countries and then talk about all the things they can do to make refugee children feel welcome at school.

Let’s all get involved. Let’s all try to make a difference. Let’s all invest in the future. Log on to www.community-relations.org.uk for more details on what is happening in your area.

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