The major U.S. news outlets reported on a pair of suicide bombings in Hilla, Iraq in May, which killed 27 people and injured dozens more. For most Americans, the attack in Hilla was just another in a string of deadly incidents in a town somewhere in a war zone far away. An American exchange program is hoping to change that... at least for the residents of Tempe, Arizona.
The community in the Sonoran Desert and Hilla are on the road to becoming Sister Cities -- as part of a project called "Partners For Peace." Tempe is the 5th and smallest American city chosen to participate in the program, joining Dallas, Tucson, Denver and Philadelphia, which have linked up with Kirkuk, Sulaymaniyah, Baghdad and Mosul. For nearly half a century, the goal of Sister Cities International has been to foster friendship and business connections between cities.
Mike Conner, who heads the latest partnership in Tempe, says the new Partners for Peace project takes that concept one step further. "When you meet someone and you become their friend," he says, "the chance for conflict is greatly reduced; you're not gonna bomb your friend. And I think that's what's important about the partnership for peace."
Mike Conner is a filmmaker, and his enthusiasm for the project grew out of a visit to Iraq to make a documentary. He traveled around Iraq with a small film crew, and was struck by how his perceptions of the country changed over the course of his stay.
"I was very humbled because I came with, I feel, a fairly arrogant attitude that I had the answers, and the way we live here is the way the whole world should live," he recalls. "When I met Iraqis, I found them to be very warm and hospitable, and so I was very impressed with their sense of what I have is yours, so I found that very interesting and I learned a lot from them."
Mr. Conner came back to the United States and made the unconventional move of putting down his camera and becoming a part of the story he'd covered, joining the Sister Cities project.
Sister Cities International has a long history of life-changing experiences. Tempe resident Richard Neuheisel, a past president of the Sister City organization, saw that firsthand in 1989. "[We] had a young fellow come from Skopje, Macedonia, then it was part of Yugoslavia... and he came with a bit of a chip on his shoulder, he wasn't so keen on America," Mr. Neuheisel recalls. "After the 3 month time period, he said he'd changed his attitude about America. He was going to go back and maybe see if he could get involved with matters in Skopje and maybe implement some changes." He pauses before delivering the end of the story: "I'm happy to tell you today he's the president of the country."
The U.S. State Department has given the Tempe-Hilla partnership a $20,000 grant to develop the program. Additional funds will be raised locally with an annual Oktoberfest event in downtown Tempe. Mike Conner has already begun planning how to spend the money. "We'll be sending over a carton, a very large ocean container of wheelchairs to be distributed in Hilla," he says. "We're developing other elements... possibly bringing teachers here, for language and cultural training and submersion, and also other programs we'll be aiding in education, et cetera in Hilla, Iraq."
Officials with Sister Cities International say Iraqis in Hilla are also enthused about the partnership. Hilla officials couldn't be reached for their comments. But a delegation is coming to the United States some time in the next 6 months to work out details of the developing program. Mr. Conner says he has more questions than answers.
"At this point we know some of the needs of Hilla," he says, "but what we want to do is develop a friendship and not come with arrogance, and say, 'This is what you need' but rather say 'What is it you are in need of? How can we help you?' and also 'How can you help us? What is it you have to offer us?'"
If the point of the Partners for Peace project is to make friends... there's clearly a lot of work ahead. On the Tempe campus of Arizona State University, an unscientific sampling shows most people know nothing about the Iraqi city… but still support the idea of partnership.
"No, I don't know anything about Hilla, Iraq," says one young man, adding, "I think the idea of cooperative agreements between sister cities is a great idea." Another offers a similar sentiment, "I think it's great, I mean, getting to learn [about] different people from different countries. I think it'd be a big influence on us." A woman who hadn't heard of the agreement with Hilla finds the idea interesting. "I'd like to see maybe if anything comes of that." Another student laughs, "I never even heard of Hilla, Iraq. I don't even know where that place is at."
That's one thing Sister Cities International plans to change.