Peter McBride and his wife were all set to move last month from their home in Northern Ireland to New Hampshire, to start his new job as director of the Cohen Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies at Keene State College.
“We sold our cars, packed up our house, organized for removal people,” McBride, who assumed his new role July 1, said in a Zoom interview Thursday.
“The most important thing was we had made arrangements for our dog, Beau, to make sure that he could travel with us,” he added, with a smile. “So all those arrangements were made.”
But on June 22, President Donald Trump extended immigration restrictions banning thousands of foreign workers from entering the United States. The temporary ban, which likely will be in place until the end of the year, includes the H-1B visa, which McBride and his wife, Linda McMillan, will use to move to the U.S.
McBride and his wife are trying to convince the U.S. to make an exception for their visas so they can move to Keene soon. If they aren’t granted an exception, he said they hope to be in Keene by Christmas.
“It’s not ideal, and it’s a bit frustrating, but there are a lot of people a lot worse off,” McBride said of his situation. He added that Northern Ireland has responded relatively well to COVID-19, and his home outside the small town of Ballynahinch in County Down is a safe place to ride out the pandemic.
Due to the coronavirus outbreak, McBride would have been working remotely to begin his new role anyway. The Cohen Center’s two other staff members are working from home, too.
“It’s just they happen to be doing it from their homes in New Hampshire rather than from as far away as I am,” McBride said. “So I don’t feel overly disadvantaged by it at the moment because I think there are many, many people in this position.”
And just like people around the world working remotely during the pandemic, videoconferencing has been key to McBride’s work with the Cohen Center thus far.
“Zoom has worked to connect us, which has been a real blessing,” said Tom White, the center’s coordinator of educational outreach. “And we’ve been working together on this as we all have been trying to figure out how we navigate the COVID-19 space. So it’s been productive, it’s been good, but not as good as being together.”
And while working from Northern Ireland has its challenges, McBride said it also forces him to focus on his main goal right now: listening.
“I was very clear all the way through the recruitment process that what I would want to do first is to talk to as many people as possible,” he said. “... I’ve spent my whole career reminding myself and other people — I come from Northern Ireland, where there’s been a lot of conflict — how important it is to listen, and to really, honestly listen [and be] genuinely open to what people are saying.”
McBride grew up in Northern Ireland during The Troubles, a 30-year sectarian conflict in Northern Ireland that left more than 3,000 people dead. Since the Good Friday Agreement officially ended the violence in 1998, McBride has been heavily involved in peace and reconciliation efforts in Northern Ireland, in addition to similar work around conflicts in Rwanda, South Sudan, Malawi, Israel and Gaza.
Before accepting the job at Keene State McBride served as CEO of Inspire, one of Ireland’s largest mental health charities, from 2010 to May of 2019. He succeeds Hank Knight, who retired as the Cohen Center’s director at the end of the 2018-19 academic year.
“He brings with him a wealth of international experience, and experience especially in trauma dynamics within Northern Ireland, which allows him, I think, to do what he’s doing really effectively, which is to reach out and reinforce our constituents and discover new ones,” White said of McBride.
The Cohen Center supports research and provides educational resources on the Holocaust and genocide around the world, and seeks to educate future generations to recognize and respond to the dangers of intolerance and hatred.
In pursuing his goal of expanding the Cohen Center’s reach, McBride has been meeting virtually with as many people as possible, from Keene State faculty and students to community leaders throughout the Monadnock Region, to find out what the center has done well since its inception in 1983, and how it can improve today.
“There’s a real sense of connection between the Cohen Center and the Keene community. And that is a very precious thing, and something that I want to build on,” McBride said. “So what that has meant is that I knew that as soon as I started, what I was going to do was going to be talking to people and listening to what they had to say. And thankfully, Zoom has allowed me to do that. In a way, it’s allowed me to do that in a way that has been more focused.”
The five-hour time difference between New Hampshire and Northern Ireland can make for long days, sometime 14 hours, McBride said. But he doesn’t mind the late nights, especially because he views the mission of the Cohen Center as urgent and important.
McBride draws parallels between the present moment in the United States — with divisive rhetoric from senior national leaders that demonizes certain groups, and efforts to translate this sort of rhetoric into law — to the political and cultural climate in pre-World War II Germany.
“These are all issues, where, the precursors to the Holocaust, and everything that happened that led up to the Holocaust and made that industrialized killing of people acceptable, which it was in Germany at the time, we’re seeing the same phenomenon now,” McBride said. “And there are very disturbing linkages in terms of learning from that past and how that applies to the future.”
That’s why he wants the Cohen Center to take a more active role, for instance, in conversations and movements around racial justice and anti-racism.
“Not only physically but metaphorically, we can be a place where those kinds of difficult conversations can happen,” McBride said. “And we can start to model out to the rest of society what it looks like to be able to hold different views but do so in a way that is respectful and affirming to one another, and not disrespectful or discriminatory.”
The invitation to join these conversations goes beyond the Keene State campus, McBride added. He welcomes anyone to email him at firstname.lastname@example.org with their ideas to increase the Cohen Center’s community engagement.