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(photo credit: Courtesy)
A Northern Ireland peace activist told an audience of Arabs and Jews at the St. George Hotel in east Jerusalem on Friday, "If we Irish can solve our conflict, then so can anybody."
Anne Carr, who opened the first integrated (Protestant-Catholic) school in Northern Ireland in 1986, was delivering the keynote address at a conference organized by the Bereaved Families Forum as a part of its "Knowing it the Beginning" project, which aims to bring together families who have suffered loss from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict so that they can better understand each other. The three-day conference ended on Saturday.
Bedecked in kelly green, she recounted her upbringing amid Catholic-Protestant violence. "I've seen friends killed, interred and bombed. As a teen I had to run from the bombs and the bullets," said Carr, as many in the crowd nodded along.
Carr was born to a Protestant, Loyalist family and at age 19, met her future husband: a Catholic Republican who had survived an attempt on his life by two Protestant gunmen.
To this day, 34 years later, she fears bringing her children whom she has raised as Catholics into her parents' home, where the topic of her husband is avoided altogether.
"I didn't want my children to suffer the way we had," said Carr of her decision to open the integrated primary school, without any funding other than what she and her friends could scrape together. "I don't think there's one person in the world who wants our children to go through what we didâ€¦and I think that's why you are all here today."
Since then, the school has received funding and is now operating out of a brand-new seven-room schoolhouse - one of 56 integrated schools in Northern Ireland. Carr recently opened an integrated secondary school as well.
Over the years she has worked to bridge the Protestant-Catholic divide, bringing representatives from the Catholic Church into the maximum security cells of Protestant political prisoners.
"We have to work out a way of living together, respecting the dignity of each other, not creating a humiliating peace so we can feel contentment with our lot, and not resentment with our lot," she said.
Carr said she wanted to bring hope to her audience.
"It's better to sit around a table and talk than to stand at a graveyard and cry," she said.
During the discussion that followed, a Palestinian man asked, "I lost two children. I've lent my hand to peace, but what else can I do anymore?" his eyes filling with tears.
Carr's response: "It's not just about agreement, it's about understanding. People have to feel it on the ground that when they open their windows in the morning that things are getting better."
Carr, making her first visit to Israel, expressed particular frustration with the security barrier in an interview with The Jerusalem Post: "We have walls in Northern Ireland. When there is fear and the threat of violence, the walls remain and they will get higher. Dialogue has to happen on the ground because it teaches human interaction even though the walls are up. But, when the time is right, the people will take the walls down."