Boston — On the same morning Shauna McWilliams flew from Belfast to New York City to join the Children of War Tour, British police raided her home and whisked her father away. It was not an easy moment for the wan, 14-year-old redhead as she boarded a plane bound for the United States.
Yet that evening in New York City her concerns were soothed by a coterie of youths.
''We sat in a small group,'' recounted the group's coordinator, Marci Zimmerman. ''They didn't know one another. It was Hector from El Salvador who came over and put his arms around Shauna and said, 'Talk to me about it.' ''
The understanding responses to Shauna's situation came from children who share her concerns, since most are from areas affected by war. They are participants in the 38-member Children of War Tour, visiting US churches and schools to discuss their experiences as victims of strife. Participants come from 14 countries including South Africa, Nicaragua, Israel, Palestine, Nambia, El Salvador, and Cambodia.
The project is sponsored by the Religious Task Force of the Mobilization for Survival, a coalition of more than 60 religious denominations, peace groups, and organizations. Funding for the project comes from foundation grants, church donations, and individual contributions.
''The purpose of the tour is really to help kids in the US understand conflicts around the world,'' says national coordinator Judith Thompson. Long-range goals of the tour, she says, are to establish national and international youth peace networks, and to further dialogue between American children and children from war zones.
Seven youngsters spoke in the meeting hall of a Boston Unitarian church Nov. 10, marking the beginning of their two-week tour to five US cities. The group is one of six visiting 36 cities in the US. Its members are Hector Recinos from El Salvador; Dan Stevens from South Africa; Nancy Vientidos from East Harlem, New York; Issam Agbria, a Palestinian from Israel; Yossie Mancovetzky, a Jewish boy from Israel, and Leah Lubin, a children's peace activist from the US.
Yellow light streamed through a stained-glass window into the reception room of the church as Issam and Shauna (who had received word that her father had been released) were at the center of a group discussion on the Middle East and Northern Ireland.
Earlier, in another meeting room, Hector had spoken of the children in his native homeland.
''Most of the children in El Salvador work,'' said the 15-year-old refugee. ''They sell newspapers, tortillas, and tomatoes to survive. They have to grow up by themselves.''
He recounted his experiences in El Salvador when his father, a union leader, was imprisoned by the national police in 1980 for protesting the killing of 18 union members. Shortly thereafter, Hector's mother and sister were kidnapped by security forces. They have not been heard from since.
Now Hector is seeking asylum in the United States.
Yoosie, a 17-year-old Israeli who is a member of a political left party for citizens rights and peace, was seated beside Issam, an 18-year-old Arab from Galilee, Israel. Earlier, in a personal interview, Yossie spoke openly of his unique relationship with Issam.
''I have a special conflict with the Palestinian,'' he said. ''You might think that he is my enemy and we are not supposed to sit together. But we want to show you that even though our governments, our armies are still fighting, there is another way. . . .
''I have lots of discussions with the Palestinian, and we are really good friends. We can agree, it is possible,'' he said.
The two engaged in an animated, yet peaceful, discussion of ways to bring about peace.
''There are many young people in our village that believe bad things about Jewish,'' said Issam. ''I can talk to them and explain to them it is wrong.''
''I think that we should take the example of the Camp David agreements,'' added Yossie. ''I think there's enough place in that piece of land between the Mediterranian and the Jordan River for two nations.''
Cities remaining on the tour are Albuquerque, N.M.; Atlanta; Chicago; Charlotte and Chapel Hill, N.C.; Dallas; Milwaukee; New Haven, Conn.; Providence , R.I.; San Francisco, Oakland, and Sacramento, Calif.; Seattle and Spokane, Wash.; and Tuscon.