Students between 13 and 17 may submit an essay or poem to Lexington Sister Cities for local judging. The prompt varies from year to year: the topic for 2019 is "Global Citizens: Resilient Communities". Students are encouraged to draw on their own life experiences regarding peace and diplomacy and convey those through art, a language that crosses barriers. The essays submitted to Lexington Sister Cities are read and scored, with the top picks, up to 5 per classroom, sent on to the Sister Cities international competition. Sister Cities international chooses a winner for two categories, Essays & Poetry, each of which wins a $1000 dollar prize.
"Great Experience" was a top 5 finalist in essays.
"Citizen diplomacy vs. State diplomacy" was in the top 5 best essays.
"The Rainbow of our World" finished top 5 in poetry.
Our society is obsessed, and our craving of choice is the virtual world of social media and the Internet. We spend an unbelievable amount of time checking the news and scrolling through our feed, but while this has helped many of us remain informed, it also leads to generalizing and to stereotyping many countries and groups of people.
I've seen this distortion first hand with my experience with the Middle East. We have all heard the countless news reports coming from our TVs and social media outlets about this warzone filled with power hungry, bloodthirsty terrorists and oppressed women, so it was no surprise when, before my first of three trips to Qatar, a tiny Arabian country on the Persian Gulf, I was swarmed with questions and concerns from people worried about my safety, such as, "Do you need body guards? Won't you get kidnapped? Will you be forced into hijabs? They do things weird over there. Be extra cautious." Many people I knew presented me with terrifying statistics and stories they had read about through posts on social media and the Internet, which understandably made me feel nervous about my trip.
However, what I experienced in Qatar was an intellectual haven worlds away from the scary landscape painted by the media. To this day, Doha, Qatar is the only city in the world in which I feel comfortable enough to walk around alone at any time of the day or night. The broad wealth of cultural history that has been gathered there is astounding, from the pearl diving fortresses to Islamic art in all mediums to the grand Souk Waqif, the traditional market where artisans still handcraft their goods. I learned the Arabian rhythm of life, one that centers itself on values of family and spiritual connection and is completely different from our Western one, but works well all the same. Whenever I think of Qatar, I think of happy families walking on the Corniche, women proudly wearing their hijabs, and the brightest people from all over the world gathering to discuss solutions to climate change and current world conflicts, a far cry from the desolation I was told to expect.
Not all Middle Eastern countries are as peaceful as Qatar, Oman, or Jordan, and I do not want to pretend the dangerous conflicts happening elsewhere in the region don't exist. My point is that my travels to Qatar taught me that understanding and, therefore, peace can only exist when we let go of our fear of difference and deviation. We cannot force our Western rhythm of life onto societies where it doesn't fit and stamp out their beautiful individuality because that only leads to turbulence and war. With the help of organizations like the Sister Cities, we can learn to respect the world's diversity and overcome stereotypes associated with all regions of the globe by not just relying on what is on our screens, but the multidimensional truth we see in real life.