Project Common Bond helps heal victims of violence

Anaële Abescat participated in the Peace Games, an activity offered by Project Common Bond.
Brian Feulner for The Boston Globe
Anaële Abescat participated in the Peace Games, an activity offered by Project Common Bond.

NEWBURY — They are the most unlikely of friends.

Dubhaltach Mulvenna’s family is Catholic and supports a united Ireland; Davina Whiteside’s is Protestant and favors continued British rule in Northern Ireland.

Both Mulvenna and Whiteside lost a loved one — he an uncle, she her grandfather — in the decades-long sectarian violence that convulsed that region. Their families taught them to never trust anyone who identified themselves with the opposing group.


But the two now consider themselves best friends after participating in Project Common Bond, a nine-day camp this month at the Governor's Academy that helps young adults from all over the world cope with acts of violence and creates a support network to help them heal.

Brian Feulner for The Boston Globe
Posters on the windows at Project Common Bond.
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Campers participate in community-building activities and talk about their experiences as a way to teach one another tolerance and understanding. The camp, which stresses mediation and conflict resolution, uses a curriculum developed by Dr. Donna Hicks of the Weatherhead Center for International Affairs at Harvard University. The Harvard Law School’s Negotiation and Mediation Clinical Program has also contributed to the program.

“I learned there is wrong and right on both sides,” Whiteside, 19, said Thursday as the camp was winding down. “For all the differences that we have, that is a major commonality: We were both innocent victims.”

As he watched his fellow campers compete in a foot race in a large green field at the academy, Mulvenna, also 19, said.

“Everyone here understands each other, and it makes us all strive for peace because of our past. We don’t want other people to have to go experience what we have. We want it to stop at us.”


Tuesday’s Children, a nonprofit organization that aids victims of 9/11, created Project Common Bond in 2008. This year, the program brought together 74 students from such places as Israel, the Palestinian territories, Sri Lanka, and Russia.

Several of the participants this year lost a parent in the 9/11 attacks.

Robert Mathai’s father was in the World Trade Center when it was hit. The 19-year-old said the program has taught him that getting angry with people who killed a loved one is not only the wrong response, it is also the easiest one.

“The hard thing is to realize the person that did it was wrong, but you can’t hold them culpable because they were taught something incorrect,” said Mathai, of Arlington.

“You have to realize that killing someone else and going for revenge will not make you any happier, and it will not make the world a better place. You have to transcend all of hatred, so you can work with other people.”

Brian Feulner for The Boston Globe
Palestinian Isaac Saleem (left), Robert Mathai of Arlington (center), and Aiden Skelton, 19, of Ireland.

The program, held in Massachusetts for the first time, has taken place in three different locations: Belfast; Bryn Mawr, Pa.; and outside Washington, D.C. Participants, ages 15 to 20, must have lost an immediate family member through an act of terrorism or political violence, program officials said. Project Common Bond reaches out to victim-advocacy groups in various countries to help identify young people who could benefit from the program.

‘I had all this anger. I didn’t want to have that anger anymore.’

Anaële Abescat, a 17-year-old from France, lost her father in a terrorist attack in Saudi Arabia when she was 11.

“I was there, and I had all this anger. I didn’t want to have that anger anymore,” Abescat said. “I saw this program as an opportunity to change that anger into a beautiful power, and that’s exactly what happens here.”

As part of the program, the campers must come up with a Peace into Action project that they will take home to raise awareness in their countries.

Mulvenna and Whiteside are teaming up for their project.

Sitting under a tree, eating popsicles Thursday, they said they want friendships like theirs to be the norm, not the exception. They plan to start a program that will bring young people together from both parts of Ireland.

“Through those friendships we can rebuild the future,” Mulvenna said. “That is how we are going to bring peace, through friendships, because you are not going to hurt your friend.”

They admit, as do most of the participants, that changing ingrained ideologies is difficult, including in their own families.

“My mom found it hard to deal with at first,” Whiteside said of her friendship with Mulvenna. “But me being here has helped me influence her, so she has become more open-minded. What I have learned here, I try to teach them.”

Alejandra Matos can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @amatos12.