Belfast Telegraph

Thursday 17 April 2014

'Youth can solve age-old problems'

Michelle Obama, the wife of the US president Barack Obama, speaks at Waterfront Hall in Belfast, ahead of the G8 Summit

Young people with fresh attitudes can help solve Northern Ireland's age-old problems, the US First Lady has said.

During a speech in Belfast, Michelle Obama urged around 2,000 schoolchildren, university students and graduates to step outside their comfort zones, challenge the status quo and help create a lasting peace. "You have the freedom of an open mind, you have a fresh perspective that will help you find solutions to age-old problems," she told a captivated audience at the Waterfront Hall convention centre.

The First Lady was upbeat about Northern Ireland's future, saying: "I have never felt more optimistic. Time and again I have seen young people choosing to live together, choosing to lift each other up, choosing to leave behind the conflicts and prejudices of the past and create a bright future for us all. We believe that you all have the ability to make a mark on this world that will last for generations to come. We are so proud of you. We expect great things."

Mrs Obama spoke for 10 minutes before her husband took to the stage and was introduced by 16-year-old schoolgirl Hannah Nelson, who told of her desire to see greater stability in Northern Ireland.

The Northern Ireland peace process and efforts of political opponents have been hailed as models for other nations at conflict to follow. However, the US First Lady focused on the positive influence that the younger generation could have on the rest of the world.

"With today's technology you can connect what other young people all over Northern Ireland and all around the world. So right now, you got a choice to make - you have got to decide how you are going to use those advantages and opportunities to build the lives you dream of, because that decision will determine, not only the kinds of people you will become but also the kinds of communities you live in," she said.

Reflecting on her own childhood, Mrs Obama, a Harvard law graduate, also divulged that her family had not been affluent; her parents were not academics and that she had never imagined her global status. "Neither of us grew up with much money," the First Lady revealed.

"Neither of my parents went to university. Barack's father left his family when Barack was just two years old. He was raised by a single mom and all along the way there were plenty of people who doubted that kids like us had what it took to succeed. People who told us not to hope for too much or set our sights too high."

She claimed not to have allowed naysayers to stifle her ambition and appealed for teenagers to treat others with respect, adding: "Barack and I refused to let other people define us. Instead, we held tight to those values we were raised with - things like honesty, hard work, a commitment to our education.

"We did our best to be open to others, to give everyone we met a fair shake no matter who they were or where they came from, and we soon realised that the more we lived by those values, the more we would see them from other people in return. We saw that when we reached out and listened to somebody else's perspective that person was more likely to listen to us. If we treated a classmate with respect they would treat us well in return," she said.

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