Columbia Heights students receive ‘Ambassadors of Peace’ scholarships

Four Columbia Heights students were awarded $1,000 “Ambassadors of Peace” scholarships for winning the “City of Peace” essay contest. Salma Ahmed, Kevin Riera, Tsion Tulu and Domenica Llerena were given their scholarships March 15 during a celebration at Murzyn Hall in Columbia Heights.

Four Columbia Heights students were recipients of the “Ambassadors of Peace” scholarship after winning the “City of Peace” essay contest, sharing their thoughts on how peace can be achieved in a community. The students accepted their scholarships March 15 at Murzyn Hall. From left: Tsion Tulu, Kevin Riera, Salma Ahmed, Domenica Llerna and retired Mayor Gary Peterson. (Sun Focus photo by Sarah Burghardt)
Four Columbia Heights students were recipients of the “Ambassadors of Peace” scholarship after winning the “City of Peace” essay contest, sharing their thoughts on how peace can be achieved in a community. The students accepted their scholarships March 15 at Murzyn Hall. From left: Tsion Tulu, Kevin Riera, Salma Ahmed, Domenica Llerna and retired Mayor Gary Peterson. (Sun Focus photo by Sarah Burghardt)

The annual City of Peace Awards is part of a movement that was started by former mayor Gary Peterson. Following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, Peterson felt compelled to bring the feeling of peace back into the community. The awards were designed to honor community members that exemplify the promotion of peace and to send the message that everyone, no matter their race, religion or culture, is welcome in Columbia Heights.

The students illustrated this narrative in each of their essays, sharing their own thoughts on how it is possible to make peace a reality.

The building blocks to a better world

Tsion Tulu describes peace as an end goal, and there are building blocks that lead the way and inspire peace. The blocks include: respect, acceptance and awareness.

She wrote that the blocks begin with respect of others’ religion, race, ethnicity and sexual orientation, as this quality is a vital requisite for having a peaceful community. Respect then leads to awareness. Tulu wrote that be aware means to learn about cultures outside of one’s own through education or attending events.

“These efforts to spread awareness and ultimately acceptance within a community will not only help to broaden our mind to new ideas but also open our hearts to new friendships and connections,” Tulu wrote in her essay. Acceptance is the final building block.

“In order to fully live in harmony with one another we must accept each other’s differences while making an effort to understand them,” Tulu wrote.

“A lot of people see peace as just an idea, but if you use these building blocks, you can work towards it and actually make peace happen in your community,” Tulu said about her essay.

A current senior at Columbia Heights High School, Tulu plans to attend Hamline University next year.

Tulu thanked her mother, Meseret Tulu, because she encouraged her to write the essay.

“She’s always believed in my writing skills,” Tulu said. “I don’t think I would have finished it without her.”

Starting with simple acts

Domenica Llerena believes that peace begins within oneself. Through one’s own actions, peace can be achieved by “always trying to help the people that surround you, starting with simple acts that can change the way people behave or live.”

Llerna said that peace is also about being an advocate and a voice for those who want a better community.

Currently a freshman at Augsburg College, Llerena is studying to be a social worker.

“Working to alleviate the conditions of children who come from abusive or foster homes, I am anticipating on dedicating my career in tremendously flipping their lives to the best of my ability and encouraging them be successful in whatever they set their minds to,” Llerna wrote in her essay.

Llerena thanked Michelle Douglas, her AVID teacher, because she introduced her to the essay; and Fatima Jeylani, a friend who helped her edit her essay.

Embracing diversity

Salma Ahmed said that some may take peace for granite. Living in Columbia Heights as a Muslim Somali woman, she said she’s been fortunate to grow up in such a diverse community.

“I never really felt oppressed until about my junior year, but then our community came really close together after all the big issues that happened, so I felt confident and okay,” Ahmed said. “We need to bring up others’ differences; bring them to light and talk about them more. It’s okay to be different.”

Ahmed highlighted some positives about diversity and acceptance in the Columbia Heights community.

“Our community has the diversity of New York City and the safety and intimacy of a small town,” Ahmed wrote in her essay. “It is a place to learn about our differences. In the month of Ramadan many non-Muslims come to Mosques to eat and learn about Islam and on Easter Sunday Muslims participate in egg hunts in Lutheran churches.”

Ahmed will be attending the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities and said she is leaning toward a major in the medical field.

Ahmed thanked her older sister Zam Zam Ahmed for helping her with the essay and being there when she needs her.

Service: the pathway to peace

Kevin Riera described peace as freedom from violence, oppression and economic insecurity. Ridding these inequalities will help to attain peace, and Riera said that the best method to go about this is by offering service to others.

He wrote that no matter how big or small, everyone should help those who need it.
“From simply helping pack food at a food bank to donating $25,000 to a non-profit charity, no selfless act is worthless,” Riera wrote. “If each and every one of us were to help others in need in one way or another, people will be more likely to live peacefully.”

Riera is not completely sure of his plans for college, but he has been accepted to Yale University, which is one of his strong contenders. Riera said he would like to major in Latino or Chicano studies or urban studies.

Riera thanked his grandmother Maria Ochoa.

All the students also gave a big thanks to Molly Weiss, their College Possible Coach at Columbia Heights High School.

The City of Peace

Through fundraising events in the city, the community was able to raise money for the Columbia Heights Activity Fund, a 501c3, which made these scholarships possible. In the past, these funds have been used for donations to other nonprofits including an orphanage in Mexico and Loaves and Fishes. The Activity Fund has also helped to fund monuments including the “Clock Tower of Peace,” the “Always on Guard” statue, and the “Heritage Tower of Peace.”

This was the first year that scholarships were awarded through the organization, and former Mayor Gary Peterson said that he hopes that this tradition will continue.

“We have had a lot of good cooperation from the community and its done a lot of great work,” Peterson said. “I’m very proud of that.”

Contact Sarah Burghardt at [email protected]