Citizen diplomats build community between Duluth and Iraq

The Kurdish people in Northern Iraq love George W. Bush. Brooks Anderson told me that. He didn’t hear it from a newspaper or from CNN. He heard it directly from the Kurds in Rania, Iraq.

This is the heart of the Duluth-Rania Friendship Exchange. Knowing people, not press releases.

“We are better, moral people if we know someone who is not like ourselves,” Amy Shuster, an assistant professor of political science at the University of Minnesota Duluth, said.

Amy Shuster (left) and Salima Swenson connect after the meeting. Swenson is the president of the Arrowhead Interfaith Council. Photo by Lisa Mattson

Shuster has been involved with the program since it started in 2008. She said the aim of citizen-to-citizen diplomacy is to promote positive peace, not just the absence of conflict.

“When you talk about positive peace you remove the mechanisms that even make violence happen,” Shuster said. “Positive peace is about atoning for our past policies and making it such that [the Kurds] will live a more flourishing life in the future.”

The Duluth-Rania Friendship Exchange is a grassroots, citizen-to-citizen diplomacy effort between Duluth and Rania. It was birthed out of Michele Naar-Obed’s work on Christian Peacemaker Teams in Iraq.

Rania, a city in Northern Iraq, is home to a large population of Kurdish people. The Kurds are the largest ethnic group in the world without a homeland.

Though it is not an official sister city relationship, the Duluth-Rania exchange follows the pattern of Duluth’s other sister city relationships. Retired Lutheran minister and Duluth peace activist Brooks Anderson initiated the sister city relationship between Duluth and Petrozavodsk, Russia in 1987.

Some of the members of the Duluth-Rania Friendship Exchange at last Thursday’s planning meeting. From left are Brooks Anderson, Amy Shuster, Ethan Scrivner, Salima Swenson, Nick Netland, Kate Bradley, Donna Howard, Fletcher Hinds. Photo Credit: Lisa Mattson

“Russia, the Soviet Union, used to be the enemy,” Anderson said. “The Cold War defined them as the enemy for forty years. But before that Japan was the enemy, and our sister city relationship with Ohara comes out of World War II. Citizen diplomacy is what we call this. Making friends with the people that seem to be the enemy.”

Tom Morgan, a peace and justice studies professor at St. Scholastica and co-founder of the Duluth sister city program, was a member of Duluth’s first delegation to Rania in 2009. Morgan was also struck by the Ranians’ view of George W. Bush.

“We’re a bunch of lefties,” Morgan said. “We’re sort of aging peaceniks. Everywhere we go we hear praises for George Bush. Well, that was good for us. Here you see it from a different point of view. They see him as a liberator. We had to drink toasts to George Bush.”

Rania is a severely isolated place. Morgan realized this when someone asked him for a copy of a book. Morgan was able to find the book on Amazon, but there was a problem.

“Would you like to drive the FedEx truck into Iraq?” he said. “Amazon does not deliver to Iraq. That sort of struck me as how isolated these people are and how desperate they are. They’re stuck. What do you do if there’s constant war around you?”

Although the Duluth delegation’s main purpose is to build community, Morgan said there are sometimes differing expectations.

“They sort of see us as a lifeline, and that’s a pretty heavy trip,” he said. “We didn’t come over there to save anybody.”

Anderson was part of the 2009 delegation with Morgan. He said that Naar-Obed told him that the Ranians would regard their coming as one of the great moments in their history.

“Now that seemed really extravagant when she said it,” Anderson said. “But when we got there, we knew what she meant.”

A crowd gathered at the airport to welcome them. Among them were three or four mayors, and an assistant to the governor. The local media was waiting at the hotel to have a press conference.

Donna Howard was there with the delegation, as well. She seems to be the mother of this group, with her shoulder-length gray-brown hair and her words of wisdom.

“They were so ready to be friends with us,” Howard said. “They had not met any Americans but soldiers. They were just lining up to kiss us and shake our hands. They had done an amazing amount of work getting ready for us.”

Her favorite part of the trip was meeting the women and children.

“The women are intimate,” she said. “The tradition is to kiss both cheeks, and that can be a cleaning lady in a building you’re walking through. And this woman is excited to see me, and I’m thinking, ‘Who am I?’ How ready they were to love me.”

A delegation of Ranians paid a return visit to Duluth in September 2010. Howard remembered them being fascinated by Lake Superior. On their last day, they asked to be picked up later for the airport so they could have an hour alone with the lake.

The first Duluth delegation visited Rania, Iraq, in 2009. From left are Arno Kahn, Shirwan Mirza, Tom Morgan. Photo courtesy of Tom Morgan.

“They just walked out to say goodbye to the lake before they left,” Howard said.

Howard and Anderson both had similar motivation for getting involved with citizen diplomacy: They wanted to find a positive reaction to a negative situation.

“I can remember the day that I was just kind of disillusioned with the peace movement,” Anderson said. “Everything is negative, always we’re saying no. I said, ‘We need to say yes to something.’ And that was my impulse to start looking for a Soviet sister city.”

It was also why he joined in the partnership with Rania.

“I don’t want my life to be a no. I want to say yes to something. I’d like to say yes to having a friendship relationship with a part of the Muslim world that has been strongly impacted by the recent wars that we choose to wage.”

Others are now saying yes too, even to the point of risking their safety. The next delegation to Rania is scheduled for May 25 of this year, and they met last Thursday to plan.

The group sat around a table in the Fireside Room at Peace United Church of Christ, the very room where the Duluth-Rania exchange started. Shuster gave out copies of an e-mail from Naar-Obed, who is currently in Rania. The first line read: “Dear friends, The wave of protest and uprising has come to Iraq.”

“It’s a city of unrest right now,” Howard said of Suleimaniya, the city they plan to fly into. “Just wanted to flag that for all of you. If these protests continue, that changes the atmosphere and the risk factor for your delegation.”

A discussion ensued about whether to postpone the trip.

One by one, people spoke up around the little circle. Some voiced concerns. Most expressed determination. After a few minutes Fletcher Hinds, one of the members of the delegation, summed it up.

“So we’re gonna plan as if we’re going on the 25th, then.”

There was no argument.

Howard nodded. She hadn’t voiced it, but she seemed to have been hoping for that conclusion.

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