The newest sister city for Duluth sits on a lake but is otherwise so unlike its new Minnesota relative that merely obtaining travel visas proved so difficult that the people of Rania, Iraq, settled on having the official signing ceremony via Skype.
“Today, the cities of Rania and Duluth commit to peace,” Duluth Mayor Don Ness said Monday in his speech during the virtual ceremony. “Through this agreement and the strength of the relationships already made and those to come, we are making a commitment to diplomacy, understanding, and peace.”
Rania, also spelled Ranya, is on an agricultural plain in the region of Kurdistan, surrounded by three mountain chains. The lake to its south, Lake Dukan, was formed after the construction of a hydroelectric dam. It’s home to some 100,000 people. The region has been inhabited for thousands of years.
This is Duluth’s fifth sister city and the first new one in 24 years. The relationship began a few years ago, when a peace activist from Duluth, who was working in Iraq, befriended people there.
Michele Naar-Obed had been living with a Christian Peacemaker Team north of Rania, but she traveled to the city frequently and over several years became close to people there.
“I see them as family there very much,” she said.
Security in the area has been good, and Naar-Obed said she can get around the region freely.
A group of Duluth citizens first went to Rania in 2009. Another group of 22 Duluthians went to Rania for a 10-day tour of the area in 2013, said Wendy Ruhnke, secretary to the board at Duluth Sister Cities International, who was on the trip.
Two weeks before the group left for Rania, a car bomb went off in Kirkuk, about two hours away by road. “I thought, ‘Oh no, people are going to back out of this trip,’ ” she said.
But no one did. The group traveled by bus and were escorted by Peshmerga soldiers when in public. “We felt very safe,” she said.
The group performed as the Echoes of Peace Choir, singing in three cities.
“After our concerts, we would have a line of women standing there and wanting to talk to us,” Ruhnke said. “We were all changed by that experience.”
Two years ago, the economy in that region was thriving, with new construction sites dotting the area. Today, Ruhnke said new photos of the areas where the group traveled show how the economy has slowed because of the falling price of oil and the refugee crisis that’s overwhelmed the region.
“There are people camping out in all of those construction sites. Their economy is in a shambles,” she said.
The 2013 trip coincided with New Year’s festivities, and Ruhnke and others spent the holiday on a mountainside picnicking and dancing with locals. When she got back to Duluth, Ruhnke said she and others were committed to forming a sister city relationship. It was approved last year by the City Council.
Ruhnke said her hosts in Rania asked her to tell their story to her American neighbors, so today she travels with a slide show and a talk about the region of northern Iraq.
“Almost without fail, someone from Duluth will say ‘It’s about time we had a sister city in the Middle East,’ ” she said.
A Duluth delegation will likely head to Rania in June. Someday, it might be possible for students at the University of Minnesota Duluth to study in Rania on an exchange program, said Chris Haidos, associate director of International Student Admissions.
“The long-term commitment to any relationship is a mutual exchange,” he said. “If that exchange can include students, faculty, research, that would be the ideal situation.”
Past visitors from Rania have spoken to UMD students, said Susana Pelayo-Woodward, director of the university’s Office of Cultural Diversity. “It’s a wonderful way to break barriers and stereotypes, when you can actually meet people, when you have so many things in common,” she said.