Summer youth program aims to spread intercultural peace and tolerance
Pablo Valdes and his fellow campers stood gazing at the clay object for nearly 45 minutes in wonder at “everything it stands for, all that it did in history and for future civilizations.” Had there been any onlookers they would have stared in equal puzzlement at the students’ fascination with what looked like an inert log, part of it stripped away and the rest covered in indecipherable script.
Fortunately, or unfortunately, for the students in the Manhattan Multicultural Summer Youth program, on June 26 and July 3 they had the Ancient Near Eastern Wing at the Metropolitan Museum of Art to themselves. Few New Yorkers seemed briefed or drawn to the new arrival of the Cyrus Cylinder, most recently from the British Museum but originally from ancient Babylon c. 539 B.C.
More than an object, the Cyrus Cylinder is a profound proclamation, or what Neil MacGregor, director of the British Museum, calls “the first press release.” The indecipherable writing is cuneiform for the first declaration of rights in human history. The edict issued by King Cyrus of Persia (present-day Iran) grants freedom of worship and right of return to those captured in his takeover of Babylon. Thanks to him, the Jews, longtime slaves of the Babylonians, were able to return to their homeland, recover their religious vessels, and build the Second Temple after the Babylonians destroyed the first.
The declaration was understandably a powerful statement at a time when conquered people were expected to adopt straight away the customs and religions of their new leaders.
Luckily for Mahroo Moshari, LMSW, an educational and mental health counselor from Tehran, the cylinder arrived just in time to mark the 10th anniversary of Manhattan Multicultural Counseling (MMC), a program she runs out of the United Nations that is based on the values and teaching of Cyrus the Great. “As a teenage girl coming to America,” she recounted, “I was surprised to find that kids here were constantly being bullied because of their race, religion and color.”
Gabriella Beltran, a MMC intern with an anthropology degree from CUNY, concedes that “it might be surprising to hear about racial prejudice and profiling in NYC but people come from other countries and they have preconceived notions of other ethnicities [that] get reflected in the young.”
The Manhattan Multicultural Summer Youth Program, a two-week camp division of MMC, attempts to spread intercultural peace and tolerance by creating a forum where 16-21 year olds from all races, ethnicities, faiths, and neighborhoods in New York City can discuss, share and learn to respect cultural differences.
Nicole Zivokiv, a ninth grader at the Convent of the Sacred Heart, a private all-girls Catholic school on the Upper East Side, has been affiliated with the program and its director since she was 9. Although she admits, “The Upper East Side and the Upper West Side might not seem very exposed to different races,” she said, “I think it is imperative that we have programs like this one because visits to the Cyrus Cylinder are about so much more than race and diversity.”
Her glee over seeing the cylinder explains how the group was able to spend almost an hour in front of it. “To be so close to such an influential piece of history was an amazing experience,” she said, in writing about the trip. “I wish I could tell everyone just how much it impacted me.” When given the opportunity, she elaborated that “everyone needs to be culturally aware and open to others which starts by seeing just how the first acceptance of people started.”
As much as they all enjoyed sharing their experience at the MET, they agreed that talking about the object’s meaning is not enough for, in Mahroo Moshari’s words, “We must strive to model our very actions on it.” In the hopes of exposing more young people to the cylinder’s influence, she plans on bringing her next MMC summer session — which begins on July 29 — back to the exhibit, because she believes that “one literary object can make a difference, just by merely existing and being witnessed.”
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