Many people experience racism. Few actually do something about it. Recent Shaker Heights High School grad Lea Kayali is one of the exceptions. Winner of the Maltz Museum of Jewish Heritage's Stop the Hate: Youth Speak Out essay contest, she's an activist who knows more about international relations than your typical teen working a summer mall job at American Eagle.
"People have been on the victim side," Kayali says, explaining why she was prompted to speak out against racism one afternoon at the Maltz Museum. "It knocks them down and it's hard to get back up when you feel like the world is against you. I chose to do something about it because I felt encouraged and supported by my community. Shaker Heights is very diverse and welcoming. I could reflect on that in my essay. I had adults I trusted. I'm in a group on race relations. I could talk with people who cared about ending racism."
A Palestinian-American who's often mistaken for Hawaiian because of her name, Kayali regularly has to explain her ethnic background. She attempts to simplify the geography and cultural issues for those who want to lump all Arabs together by explaining that being Arab is like being European and being Palestinian is like being French.
"That's important for me to tell people," she says. "It's difficult for people to grasp the idea. Being Palestinian is unique. People see the whole Middle East as one. I can understand that. It's more difficult to be Palestinian than Egyptian or Lebanese because of all the things you hear in the news. It's all terrorism, terrorism, terrorism. It's a big misperception to think that all Arabs are violent or even that all Arabs are Muslim."
Kayali has posted about her "desire to counteract the hatred that accompanies the Israeli-Palestinian conflict," branding herself with the hashtag, #IStandWithPeace.
"I had a blog called I Stand with Peace," she says. "It's what I saw last summer over the war in Gaza. It was more about how the world was reacting to it. I shared it and I was surprised at how much response I got. It inspired me to do more with it after this experience with Stop the Hate."
She also spoke about the conflict in classes at Shaker and led the school's 300-member human relations group.
"I tried to answer some questions in a few classes because I was studying it for a 20-page paper I wrote for the International Baccalaureate Program," she says. "I wrote about the wall between Palestine and Israel. I've become an expert on this one small aspect. What I took away from talking in class was that I realized people were confused about the basics, which is totally understandable. I had to go back to the drawing board. I can't just jump into every human rights violation. I need to start from scratch. I learned a lot."
Now Kayali says she's working on a new "empathy network" website.
"If people have trouble understanding something, they can go to the site and read personal testimonies. I think true, personal stories have a more profound effect than if you just Google something."
This fall, she'll start college at Pomona College in California using the $40,000 scholarship she won in the Stop the Hate contest.
"I'm planning to study international relations," she says. "I wanted to do this since sixth grade."