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LaGuardia pay tribute to diversity

Flying alone, the 157 flags that line the walls of a central corridor at LaGuardia Community College stand as symbols of the nations its students once called home.

But flying together with their fabric falling into a steady line of color that extends further than the eye can see, the flags capture in spirit what the students at LaGuardia do every day, standing side by side in harmony regardless of nationality.

It was that spirit of solidarity that the college celebrated Jan. 15 when students and faculty joined together to rededicate its Hall of Flags in a ceremony commemorating the birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

"We pride ourselves as being the world's community college because here you will find more students from more places than any other community college in the planet," said Mohammad-Reza Fakhari, the acting assistant dean at LaGuardia. "We don't emphasize our differences here - we pride ourselves as being a global community."

The ceremony crisscrossed the globe with performances by a Tibetan dancer and Colombian guitarist before Gail Mellow, the college's president, cut a ribbon to let a crowd of students and faculty flood into the hall from the lobby.

From Afghanistan to Zimbabwe, the flags run alphabetically in two rows down a yellow corridor with a pointed glass ceiling, their poles extended horizontally from the wall, dangling the unfurled banners straight above the ground.

The Hall of Flags was first created in 1997 with 130 flags, but the college's growing diversity necessitated the addition of 27 more to bring it up to date for the rededication.

One of the most noteworthy additions was not a national flag, however, but the rainbow flag representing the school's lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community. Reflecting in its stream of colors the hues from every nation's banner, the rainbow flag was mounted inside a glass case hanging in the center of the hall, separate from the countries' flags yet displayed with equal prominence.

"The rainbow flag is not a flag of a country, but of all countries," said Lenore Beaky, a professor in the college's English Department. "The rainbow flag is multinational, secular and inclusive. So far its history is pristine and unsullied. It signifies pride in oneself without diminishing others."

Daniel Lynch, another member of the English department, gave an original reading in which the flags of LaGuardia whisper about their fresh start, having "left behind all that bad history" to achieve pure equality.

"Here the women who stitched the flags have traded in needle and thimble for a computer, a calculator and a microscope," Lynch read. "Here we have left behind all the hereditary enemies and we join together to face a tuition-raising governor."

Shamsul Haque, the chairman of the University Student Senate, offered a firsthand account of how he left behind such hatreds once he joined the LaGuardia community. In Bangladesh he stood among thousands of protesters who would have killed author Salman Rushdie for insulting the Islamic prophet Mohammed in "The Satanic Verses," but in New York he actually had a conversation with Rushdie after seeing him at a downtown restaurant.

"I was surprised that I had no rage against him," Haque said. "It was LaGuardia Community College which changed me forever. It was the diverse and rich culture that cultivated me. It taught me to not only respect those who share the same values but also those who share different values."

As Mellow put it in her speech, "Together we not only will change the world but we must - we are changing the world."

Reach reporter Dustin Brown by e-mail at or call 229-0300, Ext. 154.

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