Personal Stories Stories from Kurdistan US–Kurdish Relations

Creating Sister Cities Between the U.S. and Kurdistan

The story below was submitted to the Kurdish Project by Michele Obed, a peace activist who has been to Iraq more than five times since 2005. She runs the Duluth-Rania Friendship Exchange, an organization based in Minnesota that is working to better the lives of Kurds in northern Iraq.

We Are All One Family

by Michele Obed


Nine years ago, I made my first trip to Southern Kurdistan also known as the Kurdistan Region of Iraq. I went to work with a human rights, violence reduction peace team. Much of our work was centered around amplifying the voices of the villagers along the Qandil Mountains whose human rights were often violated by the neighboring country to their north. The peace team continues to work in Southern Kurdistan in partnership with Kurdish NGO’s.

Traditional Kurdish dancing with the members of the Duluth-Rania Friendship Exchange.

Traditional Kurdish dancing with the members of the Duluth-Rania Friendship Exchange.

During my early years on the team, I developed deep friendships with people in the villages of the Pshdar region, as well as with people in Sulaimaniya, in Halabja and most deeply in Rania, the city that led the uprising against the Baath regime in 1991.

Duluth-Rania Friendship Exchange

Between 2009 and 2013, myself and my new brother Khalid from the Rania Youth Center developed the Duluth Rania Friendship Exchange Project. We led delegations from Rania to Duluth and from Duluth to Rania. We introduced our ways, our cultures, our hopes, our dreams to each other. We realized that we have so much to learn from each other. We learned that uniting our commonalities makes us stronger and celebrating our differences makes us part of a diverse and lovely world.

Duluth-Rania Friendship Exchange

Rayal Center for the Duluth-Rania Friendship Exchange

Our exchange project developed into a more official sister city relationship. Through Duluth Sister Cities International and the Rayal Center of Rania, our 2 mayors officially signed a proclamation stating that the people of Duluth, Minnesota and Rania, Kurdistan Region of Iraq, in a gesture of friendship and goodwill, agree to collaborate for the mutual benefit of their communities by exploring educational and cultural opportunities. We are in the process of creating exchange opportunities between our universities. We have hope that our future generations will find benefit for themselves and for our fragile world.

Helping Refugees Fleeing ISIS

Last year, during my visit to Rania, I watched young and old, men and women go off to fight ISIS. Some were fighters from the mountains, others from the cities. I saw the people of Southern Kurdistan generously open their homes and give their resources to 1.5 million refugees. My new sister Nishtiman is a teacher in a secondary school in Rania. She hadn’t been paid in over 3 months because their economy was and still is, in a state of collapse. Yet she and so many other Kurdish citizens have generously and lovingly reached out to other Kurds and Arabs, Muslims, Yezidis and Christians who have been made refugees because of ISIS.

In Rania, the Kurdistan Save the Children Organization set up a makeshift school for 62 refugee children from the Kurdish city Kobane, Syria. Within the month of January, 2015, in a collaborative effort with Kurdish military and air cover from the U.S., ISIS was run out of Kobane. I watched the news with my Kurdish brother and sister as the ISIS flag was torn down and the Kurdish flag was flying high. We were all crying with joy and pride. Finally a victory against terrorism.

Building a Library in Kobane

I’ve learned that many Kobane refugees are returning home this year. They are determined to rebuild their city which is about completely destroyed so that they will be able to keep it safe and eventually, prosperous. There was an international appeal made for help with rebuilding. The world has been slow to answer for many different reasons.

In Duluth, Minnesota, through our connection with our sister city Rania, our people from the various faith traditions and people of goodwill, launched a fundraising project to build a library in Kobane. The projected goal is $20,000. On April 14, with a traditional Kurdish meal prepared by friends from the Kurdish Community of America, Moorhead, MN, we are 1/3 of the way there with $6,000. In January, 2017, I plan to bring the money to Kobane and stay as needed to help the building begin.

We created a facebook page: “From Duluth MN to Kobane, Syria: Our Love and a Library.” We invite everyone to like the page, follow the progress, make a donation pledge, or contribute ideas on how to raise more money.

We in Duluth, MN are committed to keeping the Kurdish dream alive. We are all one family.

A monument to the Duluth-Rania Friendship Exchange in Kurdistan.

A monument to the Duluth-Rania Friendship Exchange in Kurdistan.

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