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Duluth 'friendship exchange' heads back to Iraq

One person can make a difference. That's the creed Duluth's Fletcher Hinds has tried to live his life by, and that's the reason he's heading to the northern Iraqi province of Kurdistan on Wednesday as part of an ongoing exchange program between K...

Fletcher Hinds
Fletcher Hinds

One person can make a difference.

That's the creed Duluth's Fletcher Hinds has tried to live his life by, and that's the reason he's heading to the northern Iraqi province of Kurdistan on Wednesday as part of an ongoing exchange program between Kurds and Duluthians.

"We're all responsible for how the world views our nation and our people. This is my chance to actually do something about that," Hinds said last week. "Individual people taking action can affect the affairs of nations. We can make a difference, one step at a time."

It's the third year of the "friendship exchange" started by several Duluth groups with people in Rania, a city of about 100,000 people.

In May 2009, six Duluthians traveled to Rania to start the effort and were welcomed with a huge outpouring of kindness. Last September, five residents of Rania came to Duluth.

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Rania was suggested by Duluth peace activist Michelle Naar-Obed, who spent time in the city during the height of the insurgency in southern Iraq. While outside the most volatile area of the country, Rania still is feeling the effects of the long war and subsequent post-war strife.

"This area is just a footnote in the media now, with all else that's going on in the Mideast," said Tom Morgan, director for the College of St. Scholastica's Alworth Center for the Study of Peace and Justice. "But it's a place where the U.S. involvement over there caused some serious issues and where the people are still looking to us (the U.S.) for answers."

The long-term goal is to develop lasting ties through social interaction -- music, arts, medicine, social services, religion, sports, education and more -- and to do so as citizens interacting with citizens, not nations acting through governments.

Those ties should lead to better understanding between peoples, Hinds noted. Better understanding could build acceptance. Acceptance could lead to peace.

"I've always loved to travel. And this is travel with a purpose. I think that you really can't fully understand your own culture until you go out and experience others," said Hinds, a recently retired social service worker, Vietnam war veteran and longtime social activist. "It's going to be a very intensive itinerary. We want to meet with as many people as we can over there."

The travelers officially will be the guests of the Kurdistan government but will spend most of their time meeting with citizens. On this trip they hope to compare notes on issues of domestic violence, relaying Duluth's longtime efforts to curb the problem while seeing how Kurds handle violence within homes and families.

This year the Duluth delegation is just Hinds, his daughter, Rebecca, and recent St. Scholastica graduate Ethan Scrivener.

Scrivener, 29, a Bemidji native, is planning to take the law school entrance exam when he returns from Kurdistan, or maybe or go directly to work for an international nonprofit specializing in human rights. A double major in journalism and international studies, and a longtime activist in peace and justice issues, Scrivener said the exchange seemed a perfect outlet for his talents and interests.

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"The more places I've been, the more value I've seen in this kind of person-to-person effort to promote peace and justice. This is how people can understand each other at a level where they won't need to fear them or hate them," Scrivener said. "We've got a small group this year, just trying to keep the process moving forward, but it would be great if this could become a more formal effort down the road" such as a sister cities agreement.

While many Northlanders might be fearful to travel to any part of the Mideast right now, which seems in a constant state of flux if not tumult, Scrivener said Kurdistan has been very stable in recent years.

Rebecca Hinds, 28, who grew up in Duluth and now attends Andover Newton Theological Seminary in Boston, said she's joining the exchange because the project "is deeply rooted in my passions for advocacy, peace and justice." The world is becoming smaller and more diverse every day, she said, and the exchange helps bridge that diversity.

Scrivener will post in a blog during the trip at www.duluth-rania.org .

The Duluth delegation leaves Wednesday and arrives in Suleimaniya, Kurdistan, on Friday. They will return on June 3.

John Myers reports on the outdoors, natural resources and the environment for the Duluth News Tribune. You can reach him at jmyers@duluthnews.com.
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