They arrived in Minneapolis from Kenya, China and around the world to encourage cities to form lasting bonds with other communities in far-flung corners of the world.
Sister Cities International kicked off its annual convention in Minneapolis on Friday, with local children from the YMCA and the Boys and Girls Club parading flags representing 120 sister cities.
"It's very valuable to connect with one another," said Salma Noor, who traveled 24 hours from Kenya to Minneapolis. She said during the conference she hopes to make lasting connections. "At the end of the day, we are one."
Community leaders and Sister Cities representatives converged at Peavey Plaza for the kickoff event, which drew more than 300 people. City officials even halted construction on Nicollet Mall.
Speakers talked about the importance of bridging the generational gap and bringing more young people into the Sister Cities initiative, which encourages cities to form legal and social contracts with communities in other countries.
"We're celebrating relationships old and new that are bringing people together," said Minneapolis City Council President Barbara Johnson, adding that it's critical that more young people participate in citizen diplomacy.
Throughout the weekend, conference attendees are participating in sessions from learning best practices to engaging their communities in international diplomacy. Sister Cities International and Meet Minneapolis will be joined by former Minnesota Gov. Jesse Ventura and actress and activist Zana Marjanovic, from "In the Land of Blood and Honey."
Last year, Minneapolis established its 12th sister city with Bosaso, Somalia. Minneapolis was the first U.S. city to become a sister city with the East African country. Minneapolis' first sister city relationship was formed with Santiago, Chile, in 1961.
Each sister city's chapter works as an independent volunteer organization, whose members provide youth education, host art and culture programs and create international connections. More than 500 Sister Cities' representatives from 26 countries traveled to San Jose, Calif., for the annual conference in 2014.
It was Sandra Leggett-Wilson's first time at a Sister Cities conference. Leggett-Wilson, of Suffolk, Va, said she is excited to learn from the different cultural perspectives from cities attending the event. "It's wonderful because though we are a small town, it feels really nice to know we are holding our own with all the other bigger cities," she said.
Mayor Betsy Hodges said the participants must work on building peace in their communities and learning from one another. "Tomorrow, we want to hand a world to our children that is more at peace than it is today," the mayor said.
Sister Cities International President and CEO Mary D. Kane said the organization is working to engage more young people. It is holding a youth summit in Minneapolis, where students will hear from international speakers. Dinesh Jain traveled from Nagpur, India, to participate. Jain said that children need to be involved to ensure Sister Cities and its ideals live on. "They will carry the torch forward," he said.