From Rania to Duluth -- a friendship that crosses the ocean

Duluth has four sister cities located throughout the world: Ohara-Isumi, Japan, Petrozavodsk, Russia, V?xj?, Sweden, and Thunder Bay, Ontario. But we also have an unofficial sister. Rania, a city in the Kurdish north of Iraq, and Duluth have been...

2011 delegation
Members of the 2011 delegation stand among their hosts. From Duluth are Fletcher Hinds on the left, with Ethan Schrivner next to him. Rebecca Hinds is on the right, and Michele Naar-Obed is third from right. The photo was taken at a farewell gathering at the Rayal Center the morning of the delegation's departure. (Submitted photo)

Duluth has four sister cities located throughout the world: Ohara-Isumi, Japan, Petrozavodsk, Russia, Växj', Sweden, and Thunder Bay, Ontario.

But we also have an unofficial sister. Rania, a city in the Kurdish north of Iraq, and Duluth have been involved in "friendship" exchanges since 2009, when a group of six Duluth citizens traveled there. Duluth is getting ready to welcome the second delegation of Iraqi Kurds in September.

"Most of us here in the United States are unenlightened about the people of the Middle East. They get stereotyped and categorized; people think of fear," said Michele Naar-Obed, an organizer of the exchange. "The exchange is an opportunity for people to be enlightened and learn what talents and gifts these people bring to the world."

In 2002, Naar-Obed began working with the Christian Peacemaker Teams, a human rights-

violence reduction organization, with an on-the-ground team in Iraq. In 2006, the team moved to the Kurdish north of Iraq.


"These people are kind of ostracized from the rest of the world." The Kurds were ostracized twice: once by world sanctions against Iraq and then further by Saddam Hussein in his genocidal attack on them during the 1980s Anfal Campaign. "They have a 9,000-year written history but they really came alive in 2003 when Hussein's power fell," Naar-Obed said. "They are hungry to meet the rest of the world."

The first Duluth delegation visited Rania in May 2009. The delegation had six members who were welcomed to Rania by everyone from the elected officials to regular citizens. The group spent seven days in Rania, touring educational, governmental and human rights facilities.

"I went to Rania the first time Duluthians went," said Tom Morgan, director of the Alworth Center of Peace and Justice at the College of St. Scholastica. "It was exciting. I am pretty sure we were the first Americans most had ever seen without military uniforms on. The people in Rania are caught between conflicting forces. I think they see us as a kind of hook to the rest of the world, they were eager to make


After the first exchange in 2009, a delegation of five from Rania visited

Duluth in 2010. Then in 2011 another delegation of four Duluth citizens visited Rania.

Six delegates from Rania will come to Duluth on Sept. 13. Planning to make the trip are the director of Rania's Raparin University, a nursing professor and a public relations representative from the same university, a high school English teacher, a religious cleric and the director of the Rania Youth Center.

"It is very difficult for them to get visas to come to the United States," Naar-Obed said. "They have to submit forms in English online using only the dial-up Internet. They then have to go to Bagdad and have personal interviews. Still, some have to have more in-depth security background checks after the interview. It took one of the people coming this year eight months to get his visa."


All six members of the delegation have now successfully obtained their visas. While here, they will meet with faculty and staff at the University of Minnesota Duluth and the College of St. Scholastica.

"It is hoped that sometime in the future that the universities here and the university there can form a student/professor exchange," Naar-Obed said.

Along with visiting the local colleges, the group plans to visit Duluth's

Islamic Center and also meet with officials and staffers from the city's renowned Domestic Abuse Intervention Program. In Rania, a domestic abuse center was recently opened. They also plan to make a public presentation at the Duluth Public Library downtown, where a rug from Rania is on display. The rug was a gift from Rania's mayor to

Duluth Mayor Don Ness and the library in 2010. The rug has 40 small pictures depicting Kurdish history .

Other gifts from Rania to Duluth include letters from officials in the Kurdish region, a plaque commemorating the 1991 uprising of Kurds against Saddam Hussein, and a book titled "Kurdistan:

In the Shadow of History."

For updates about the delegation, people can follow Duluth-Rania Friendship-Exchange on Facebook. Bios, pictures, and public events the guests will be participating in will be posted.

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