Above: Listen to a version of this story by Jessica Seldner that aired on WUFT-FM.
Some six thousand miles separate the cities of Gainesville, Florida, and Duhok, Kurdistan, Iraq, but the two are ready to reignite a long-distance friendship.
The two cities are participants in a program called Sister Cities International and on Monday morning signed a renewed sister city agreement.
Gainesville Mayor Lauren Poe and Ali Tatar, the governor of Duhok, signed an agreement that establishes mutual friendship and collaboration between the public and private sectors in both cities.
Gainesville and Duhok have been linked since 2006, when previous mayors Pegeen Hanrahan and Tamar Fattah established the sister city partnership.
In a virtual ceremony on Monday, Poe met with Tatar to re-sign the official resolution documents, which recognized the activities and cultural exchanges the cities have shared so far and to look forward to future collaborations.
As someone who has lived in both Duhok and Gainesville, Bahar Armaghani said she’s very excited this agreement is happening.
“I see the need for an exchange of knowledge, education, friendship and understanding,” Armaghani said.
Armaghani is the director of the Sustainability and the Built Environment Program at the University of Florida and is a lecturer at the UF College of Design, Construction and Planning. She came to Gainesville in 1983 after living in a small town within Duhok.
She’s interested in seeing each city learn about the other’s culture, as well as seeing them share ideas in economic development, health care, sustainability and education.
Tatar played a large role in renewing the sister city agreement, Armaghani said. He has been in office for eight months and during that time has been making efforts to reestablish partnership with Gainesville.
Some collaborations have already happened. Gainesville hosted 17 students with the Iraqi young Leader Exchange Program. The students from Duhok came to Gainesville and stayed with host families for about three weeks.
“They learned about the way of life in America and at the same time they had some fun,” Armaghani said. “They went to the beaches and Disney World.”
In 2017, Gainesville hosted seven faculty members — three from the University of Duhok and four from two universities in Bagdad. They worked with UF professors to learn about sustainability and integrating sustainability into curriculum and research, Armaghani said.
Most recently, young adults from Duhok collaborated with Gainesville students from P.K. Yonge, a K-12 public school affiliated with UF.
Steve Kalishman is the executive director of Sister City Program of Gainesville Inc., a nonprofit that administers Gainesville’s nine sister city relationships. These include cities in Honduras, Columbia, Scotland, and Russia.
The idea for sister cities was started by President Dwight Eisenhower after World War II, Kalishman said.
“He believed that if we could get people involved in the diplomatic process,” Kalishman said, “that we could make the world a safer place.”
Eisenhower began Sister Cities International, which is based in Washington D.C. It is the world’s largest citizen diplomacy network, connecting 500 United States cities with 2,000 foreign cities on six continents.
Kalishman said the sister city agreement begins with a city official signing the paperwork, but after that, it’s in the hands of individuals, organizations, and institutions to start working on projects together.
“From 2006 until today, we’ve had a courtship,” Kalishman said. “But today we’re getting married.”
In the Zoom meeting this morning, a translator was present for Governor Tatar. He said with 1,000 years of history, Duhok has been a home for minorities and a symbol of coexistence while many ethnic groups live there together peacefully.
At the end of the Zoom meeting, students from P. K. Yonge and Duhok presented a design they created for a piece of artwork to celebrate the friendship between Gainesville and Duhok.
The students created a video detailing their collaboration on the project and which also features generated images of what the sculpture would look like. It will feature a world map with Gainesville’s sister cities identified as well as a ‘window’ which will provide a view of Duhok.
An official proposal letter for the sculpture was sent to the Alachua County Commission and a decision on whether or not it will be built is expected on April 8. If approved, the sculpture will be built in the exact center of Gainesville — at the west lawn of the Alachua County Administration Building at the intersection of Main Street and University Avenue.
The students also created an official website, which features information about sister cities and the culture and history of Duhok.