A friendship formed over the Middle Eastern eggplant dish baba ganoush spurred St. Louis Park resident Kathy McKay's interest in improving Iraqi-American relations.
McKay is executive director of the Iraqi and American Reconciliation Project, and in the last three years, she has worked hard to help citizens of each country better understand each other. Her inspiration was friend and former Minneapolis restaurateur Sami Rasouli, who returned to his native Iraq to help rebuild his homeland after the fall of Saddam Hussein.
Her efforts, including arranging a show of Iraqi art at the , led to her selection as the St. Louis Park Human Rights Award winner in 2009. Now, the city is looking for another humanitarian to take home this year's award.
The St. Louis Park Human Rights Commission is accepting applications for a 2010 honoree until Dec. 15. Commission co-chair Stuart Morgan said the group will likely choose a person or group that, like McKay, has worked to encourage cooperation among people with different backgrounds through local events. The award recipient can be an individual, group, organization or business.
"We are looking for people in our own backyard who are having an impact on increasing understanding of diversity," Morgan said. "We have many applicants who are doing great things in the world, but aren't having an impact locally."
The 12-member Human Rights Commission was originally formed as a resource for victims of hate crimes, Morgan said, but now has a broader goal of providing information about equal opportunity and community participation to diverse groups through community outreach.
That's also exactly what the Iraqi and American Reconciliation Project aims to do.
After Saddam Hussein's regime ended, McKay's friend Rasouli felt called to return to Iraq to reconnect with family, McKay said. He was disturbed when he saw young men in Iraq, plagued by high unemployment, being recruited by militias. So he started Muslim Peacemaker Teams to try to reconnect them with their community while fostering relationships between the people of Iraq and the United States. In 2007, the reconciliation project was formed to support these teams financially and philosophically in the United States.
Among the ways the group cultivates understanding of Iraqi culture is through art shows, including "Arts and Bridges – Images from Mesopotamia," an exhibit displayed last October and jointly sponsored by the reconciliation project, Sabes and the Interfaith Bridging Initiative.
"We were honored to have Sabes invite us to bring Iraqi art into their space, even though it raised some eyebrows," McKay said. "It was a good opportunity to expose Minnesotans to the Iraqi people and their art, and to foster curiosity in a broader sense of who they are, to highlight the similarities between cultures, and to invite people to get together and think about it."
Proceeds from sales of the Iraqi art benefited the project's Muslim Peacemaker Teams, which today work to encourage Iraqis to turn away from violence and work for the good of their country. Other group missions include water filters for schools and hospitals, and letter exchanges between American and Iraqi students.
Morgan said community outreach and events that encourage people to think about diversity are definitely goals of the commission.
"We want people in St. Louis Park to know that we very much embrace diversity," he said. "We have a great group of 40,000 people, but we tend to live in enclaves. We need to get out and meet people of different backgrounds in St. Louis Park."
To nominate someone for the award, visit the commission's website.
DID YOU KNOW?
Today is Human Rights Day 2010, as recognized by the United Nations. For more information, you can visit the UN online.