Members of Washington’s Diplomatic Corps gathered recently in the Washington, D.C. to celebrate peace through Sister Cities International, an organization that tries to foster global understanding through relationship-building between U.S. and international cities.
Mary Kane, president and chief executive officer of the organization, told VOA she wants to make sure ambassadors understand it’s a win-win situation.
"Right now we are an organization of 550 U.S. cities with 2,100 partnerships in 145 countries," she said. "We do student, professional, medical, cultural exchanges, and economic development. It just depends on what each city decides to do and who they want to partner with."
U.S. President Dwight Eisenhower started Sister Cities International in 1956 as a kind of citizen diplomacy network that creates partnerships between U.S. and international communities, promoting peace through mutual respect and cooperation.
Early partnerships included Seattle and Tokyo with the goal of repairing post-World War II tensions. Europe has the highest number of partnerships with 721, followed by Asia with 674, the Americas 452, sub-Saharan Africa with 145, Middle East/North Africa, 90 and Oceania, 39.
Former U.S. senator and mayor of Indianapolis, Indiana, Richard Lugar received the Congressional Diplomatic Leadership Award at the event.
“We’ve had great experience with the Sister Cities in my home city of Indianapolis that now has eight sister cities attached to it,” Lugar told VOA.
"It’s very important to have a sister city because you are going to learn from people who stay with you for a while and reciprocally you are going to have a reason to send young people in particular to the country with whom you are tied and this goes on for several years," he said. "And before long you have half a generation or generation of people who’ve shared those great experiences."
Cory Martin came to accept the Global Citizen Diplomat Award on behalf of his late father, Vin Martin, who served for 16 years as Jamaica’s Honorary Consul in Atlanta, Georgia.
"One of the things my dad was very active with and helped to contribute was that he started a health mission that brought allied health professionals, doctors, physicians assistants and also dentists to Jamaica providing essential health services to under-served communities in Jamaica, in and around Montego Bay," he said.
"It shows you a lot of things that we take for granted in America, you just can’t take for granted because there are a lot of people around the world who don’t have the basic, fundamental services," he continued. "And then from the Jamaican perspective, I think it helped to reinforce the notion that Americans are very benevolent and are often very willing to give up their time, energy and money."
Democratic Republic of Congo's Ambassador Faida Mitifu said she wants to emphasize the word "sisterhood," because, "where sisterhood is, there is laughter, there is joy, there is sharing. It comes with a very special connection."
"Sometimes people think they are very different, but at the end of the day, once they become friends, they become sisters and they visit each other," she said. "They realize they have much more in common than differences."
Ambassador Mitifu said, "We have a program with the city of Falls Church [Virginia] right here next door. It’s a sister city to a very small town in the DRC close to the rainforest called Kokolopori - an area that has a sanctuary for the bonobo, [a type of ape] and as you know the bonobos are a symbol of peace."
Establishing a sister city connection is also one way of fixing misconceptions.
Neil Parsan, ambassador of the Republic of Trinidad and Tobago to the United States and Mexico, said since his country is in the Caribbean, "most people assume that it’s a typical sun and sea island."
"We are. We are endowed with beautiful natural resources, but this is one of the most industrialized countries in the Western Hemisphere," he said. "We are one of the largest exporters of gas in the world and one of the largest exporters of specialties chemicals in the world and very often people do not associate that level of development in terms of commodity trading with an island like Trinidad and Tobago. It is something I correct on a daily basis, if not educate on a daily basis."
Bozo Cerar, the Slovenian ambassador to the U.S., said that while relationships with governments are important, people-to-people relationships with programs like SCI are equally important.
"We have a very prosperous relationship between Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, and Murska, Sobota,- this relationship goes 20 years back," he said.
Cerar says a collaboration and a visit among students at Lehigh University in Bethlehem, and a university in Slovenia has been fruitful for both sides.
Lesotho’s ambassador to the United States, Eliachim Molapi Sebatane, says collaboration between his country’s capital, Maseru, and Austin, Texas, has helped raise money for children living with HIV/AIDS in his country.
Sister Cities International CEO Mary Kane says they are working to get more sister cities' partnerships with Middle Eastern and African countries.
Work to establish a program in Somalia is near completion, she said.