Congratulations to the winners of Gather.com's 2006 Citizen Journalism Contest, which I had the honor of judging. The contest invited submissions from graduate and undergraduate writers nationwide. Here are excerpts from the winning entries:
Undergraduate Winner for "The Land of Abkhazia"
There is a story of creation any visitor to the Republic of Georgia will hear the first time he is invited to an evening of toasting at the kitchen table. "Do you know why the Georgians live in such a beautiful country?" the Tamada, or toastmaster, will inevitably ask. He will not sit down until the story is finished.
"When the world was made God brought all the different peoples of the world together to divide the earth," he'd begin. "When the complex and noisy affair was over, God expected calm in his halcyon realm. Instead, He heard the sound of glass and laughter."
"There, sitting around a big wooden table, were the Georgians feasting and drinking, oblivious to the chaos they missed. 'You fools,' He scolded, 'how could you forget to pick a homeland?' The Georgians abruptly realized the gravity of the situation and huddled to discuss their options. Finally, one emerged and said to God, 'Do not be angry with us Lord, we meant no disrespect. We were caught up toasting Your name and Your holy deeds.' God was so pleased by this response that He came very close to this Georgian and whispered in his ear, 'Don't worry about the homeland - you see, there's this beautiful little plot I set aside for myself...' And that is how," the Tamada will say as he takes his seat and finishes the toast, "we Georgians have our homeland."
When I traveled in Abkhazia - an unrecognized nation that broke away from Georgia through a brutal war - I was told this same story by a storeowner over homemade vodka mixed with honey and grapes. Except in his version, it was the Abkhaz people who had missed the selection process because they were honoring God by attending to their guests. The Abkhaz, like all the ethnicities of the Caucasus, pride themselves on their hospitality. A guest is a gift from above, I was repeatedly told, and treating him well is a matter between the host and God. Hoping not to offend him as he poured another round, I timidly pointed out that the Georgians he fought have a similar story of their origins. "Well, sure they do," he grinned, "they were our guests." (Read the rest here.)
Graduate Winner for "Fernando Suarez del Solar"
A few days after the funeral, Fernando returned to work at his two jobs. But news media from the U.S. and Mexico arrived at his workplace for interviews while peace activists sought him out for speaking engagements across the country. Finally, his employers could no longer tolerate the media interruptions at their business or Fernando's absence from work attending protest speeches. They told Fernando to make a choice - either stop his crusade or quit.
But it was too late for Fernando to turn back and, with financial assistance from local organizations and businesses, became an international spokesman against the war.
Fernando gave his first speech on Memorial Day following Jesus' funeral in Balboa Park, San Diego. He was the keynote speaker for the United for Peace and Justice in Chicago and traveled to Iraq to meet with Bob Woodruff at the site where his son was killed. He eventually visited eight countries, along with scores of schools and organizations, to speak out against the war.
But Fernando's greatest feat against the war was achieved at the 2004 Republican National Convention in New York City... (Read the rest here.)
Undergraduate Runner Up for "Spring Cleaning: A Firsthand Look at the Hurricane Katrina Relief Effort"
Watching a news anchor sit comfortably behind a desk in New York telling you the situation in the Gulf Coast is one thing, but seeing the plight firsthand is quite another.
I spent my spring break this year not on a beach in Cancun or Palm Beach and not on the slopes of Lake Tahoe, but in the midst of the devastation. I was one of over 2,000 college students who spent time away from classes immersed in the most physically exhausting and emotionally difficult experience of our lives - clearing debris from homes and meeting the people most affected by last summer's debilitating hurricane season.
The first house we worked on belonged to Lee Campo. Campo was hoping to salvage some of his most worldly possessions by storing them in high places before he evacuated his home.
"Had I known things would happen the way they did, I would have prepared better," Campo said. "I took a few important things and put them on high shelves or on the floor in the attic. But [Katrina] left water three feet high in my attic." (Read the rest here.)
Graduate Runner Up for "Face"
Face is here again. I can see the top of his black knit hat through the front door window. I think briefly that tonight I will invite him in. I know I will not. Face frightens me. He is everything I try to pretend my north Minneapolis neighborhood is not. He comes out at night and keeps to the alleys as he distributes crack to people's back doors.
I didn't know Greg was using again until Face appeared at our back door for the first time two weeks ago. Greg was in the shower. He didn't lie about it when I asked why a black man dressed in old, dirty clothes and reeking of malt liquor came looking for him at nine o'clock on a Monday night.
Tonight Face is at the front door and I know he has done this for my sake. I am not really afraid of him. What scares me is watching Greg poke a hole in a beer can with his car key, fill it with cigarette ash, carefully place a crack rock on top, and smoke it. The smell it leaves behind. That smell that is like no other smell in the world, so there is no way to describe it, but no way to forget it, either. That smell scares me. This is who Face is to me; the courier of destruction and desperation in my life. (Read the rest here.)
Follow Arianna Huffington on Twitter: www.twitter.com/ariannahuff