San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Irish Volunteers Unite to Help Build House

SEVEN Irish Catholics and sevenProtestants, their lives all shaken by the violencethat divides Northern Ireland, recentlycame together in Costa Rica to build a housefor an impoverished Tico family.Collaboration between Habitat forHumanity International and the NorthernIreland Memorial Fund (NIMF) broughtthe group to Esparza, slightly east of thePacific port town of Puntarenas, to buildthe house for the Espinoza family, a singlemother and her four children ages 8, 14,16, and 18. They currently live in a smallrental house in Esparza.Habitat for Humanity International is anonprofit organization with affiliates in 83countries whose goals are eliminating povertyhousing and homelessness worldwide byproviding “simple, decent, affordable” housing,said project coordinator Wes Weston.All 14 members of the Irish memorialfund group, which was here from May 21until Tuesday of this week, have beenaffected by violent acts committed by paramilitarygroups in Northern Ireland. Somelost family members and others sufferedpersonal injury.The fund, an independent charityreceiving backing from the UnitedKingdom’s government, seeks to promotepeace and reconciliation by providingthose who have suffered as a result of violencein Northern Ireland with practicalhelp and support. Among the assistanceprograms offered are medical assessmentsfor amputees, financial help with chronicpain management and educational grants.In years past, memorial fund groupshave built Habitat for Humanity Internationalhouses in Romania and Hungary.Colin Corbett, memorial fund projectcoordinator, said the organization choseCosta Rica for its fourth project to experienceCentral America and work on asmaller house in which results can be seenmore quickly than the timber-frame housesof Romania.“HELPING others who are less fortunatethan ourselves has been very movingand humbling,” Corbett said. “It hashelped us see things in a different perspective.It’s also been tremendous tomeet the Costa Rican people who havebeen so friendly.”More than 3,600 people have beenkilled and 36,000 injured in NorthernIreland’s conflict between Catholic andProtestant paramilitary groups, accordingto CNN’s Web site.The tension goes back to the reign ofHenry VIII (1509-49), when CatholicIreland was brought under the rule ofProtestant England.In 1920, the Irish government split thecountry into two separate political units, apredominantly Catholic south and a predominantlyProtestant north.TODAY, Northern Ireland is ruled bythe United Kingdom and the south is theindependent Republic of Ireland.This political division fuels the conflicttoday, as some Catholics want a NorthernIreland free of British control.“One of the hardest things is that peopleassume those who are killed are somehowinvolved in the conflict,” said BethMcGrath, a 44-year-old Protestant whosefather and sister were two of nine civilianskilled in the 1993 Shankill bombing. “Thetruth is, most are innocent.”McGrath’s father and sister were workingin her father’s fish shop, located in theProtestant Shankill Road area, on a busySaturday afternoon when members of theparamilitary Irish Republican Army (IRA)exploded a bomb in the shop.McGrath now works for the memorialfund’s trauma center, which helps thosewho have been victims of violence.She said working on the Habitat forHumanity house has changed her outlook.“Everyone has their own story, no matterwhat side they’re on,” she said.CATHOLIC team member RoisinBrecknell, 30, expressed similar sentiments.Brecknell’s father was killed in1975 – two days after her birth – bybombers from the Loyalist paramilitarygroup Red Hand Commandos.“Here you meet people and talk to them.You listen to other people and hear whatthey’ve been through and can understand,”Brecknell said. “At the end of the day, we’veall been through the same thing.”Una McGurk, a 20-year-old Catholicwoman, carries scars from shrapnelwounds on the left side of her face andscattered over her body. Her right leg alsoshows the marks of a severe burn.On Aug. 15, 1998, she was havinglunch with friends in her mixed-religionhometown of Omagh when an IRA-plantedcar bomb exploded in front of her.AFTER the accident, McGurk spenteight weeks in a Belfast hospital and hashad six surgeries since then. She says shewill have several more skin grafts toreduce scarring.“I’m a completely different person,”McGurk said. “I’m grateful for what I haveand I know that just because someone hasa disfigurement it doesn’t mean something’swrong with them.”McGurk, currently studying to be acivil engineer, missed a year of school as aresult of her injuries.“I learned that I can’t let them win. Ican’t get down and suffer,” she said. “Thisis something I’ll live with for the rest ofmy life, but I can’t let it affect my life. Ican’t let it take over.”HABITAT for Humanity Internationalrequires members of the beneficiary familyto put in 400 hours of “sweat equity,” orwork, on the project.Additionally, the family must be ableto pay back an interest-free, no-down-paymentloan over a reasonable period,according to the organization.The money from each family’s paymentsgoes into a fund to build more homesin the community. The Espinoza’s house willbe the fourth built by Habitat for Humanityin Esparza’s Bambú neighborhood.Espinoza sons Marlon, 16, and Didier,18, have worked hard alongside the memorialfund group preparing the house’s foundation,mixing cement and stackingcement blocks.HABITAT for Humanity Costa Ricaoperates in seven communities: San Ramón,northwest of San Jose; the Nicoya peninsulain the northwestern province of Guanacaste;Cartago, east of San José; Monteverde, amountain community in north-centralregion; Alajuela, northwest of San José; RíoClaro, in the southern region; and BuenosAires, also in the Southern Zone.Since arriving to Costa Rica in 1988,the organization has provided houses for150,000 people who formerly lived inhousing considered substandard.

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