SALEM — Ollie Beck's stay on the North Shore has been enlightening.
He is visiting for two weeks as part of a mixed group of 10 Catholic and Protestant teenagers from Northern Ireland who are staying together in Danvers, visiting schools and sights around the North Shore, eating dinner with American families, and more.
"Taken out of the conflict zone all together, it shows there are no real differences between us," said Ollie, 16, who is Catholic.
Ollie and the other youths are here as part of the Friends Forever organization, founded 24 years ago by Danvers resident Bob Raiche, that brings together teens from regions of conflict.
Yesterday, the group visited The Phoenix School, where they worked on craft projects with the students at the small, private school in downtown Salem.
"We first gave them a tour around our school," said Noah Kenney, 11, of Marblehead, who sat at a table with his Phoenix School schoolmates Isabelle Santoro, 9, and Ramon Nunez, 7.
They worked with Rebecca Porter, 17, from Northern Ireland, who answered the students' questions ranging from what school is like, to whether they drink soda in Northern Ireland.
"We hope you come again," Noah said to her.
After their visit to The Phoenix School, the students were slated to eat lunch with the Rotary Club and tour sights in Salem.
Friends Forever's trips involve a two-week stay in and around the North Shore by a group of 10 teens — five Protestants and five Catholics, with an equal number of boys and girls — who, instead of living with American families, live together as a group.
"We've built up a lot of trust in each other," Rebecca said, "and had loads of fun. I've learned things about my own culture and my own life."
Friends Forever runs a similar program bringing Arab and Jewish teens from Israel together on the North Shore.
In Northern Ireland, there has been relative peace since the 1998 Good Friday power-sharing agreement that ended decades of violence between Protestant loyalists, who want to remain part of the United Kingdom, and nationalist Catholics, who advocate for a united Ireland.
But much of society is still segregated, according to the students.
Take Ollie, for example, who attends a Catholic school in the town of Bangor where the students live.
"Bangor is 95 percent Protestant, and I'm Catholic," he said. "There are areas I don't go when I'm wearing my school uniform."
Student Ciara McSorley, 16, said Friends Forever helps dissipate some of that fear.
"You don't get the chance to hang out with people of the other religion," Ciara said. "These are people I wouldn't have the chance to meet otherwise. ... It's been really rewarding."
The two youth workers accompanying the group, Anna Johnston and Sarah Boal, said the goal of the program is "to create a better society starting with the youth."
Once the students return to Northern Ireland, they will engage in eight more sessions before June.
"In the last 12 years, people on the outside world think the country was in peace," Johnston said. "There is still an underlying fear. Still, our problems back home are not totally resolved."
The group is on the North Shore until Monday.
Staff writer Amanda McGregor can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.