Denfeld News

May 29, 2009
Duluth News Tribune

Rania visitors return, profess a deeper understanding
By Andy Greder and Fatima Jawaid

Breaking through the fear of traveling to a war-torn country, a group of six Duluthians put names, faces and friendships on the other end of U.S. foreign policy in Iraq.

The six — Tom Morgan, Donna Howard, Brooks Anderson, Marv Heikkinen, Arno Kahn and Salima Swenson — returned Wednesday from a weeklong, peace-making visit to the northern Iraqi city of Rania.

“We wanted to get past the stereotypes and meet people that aren’t trapped in the politics,” Morgan said. “That is what we found. … We need to be mindful of them when it comes to policy.”

Women greeted the Duluth women with many kisses. Children displayed knowledge gained from a blossoming education system. Men were welcoming and affable.

The people of Rania — a city of about 100,000 nestled next to mountains and lush farmland — associate more with their Kurdish heritage than Iraqi nationalism. The people of Rania expressed thanks for the liberation from the Baathist Party and dictator Saddam Hussein. They also showered the Duluthians with attention and gifts.

“We felt a part of something big, a major piece in the history of this city,” Anderson said.

The visit was both a celebration and a chance to make improvements. The Duluthians were whisked from reconstruction projects that have resulted in air and water pollution to meetings on the lack of women’s rights and a visit of a refugee camp near the Iranian border.

“You read about the plight of the people, but seeing it is the lasting impression I will take,” Heikkinen said.

“It was so sad and moving [to see the refugee camp],” Heikkinen said. “How they are completely stuck there.”

Despite being between war zones — one to the south involving the U.S. and the one in the north involving Turkey — the Duluthians emphasized the pride shown by people in Rania.

“They were very open and very proud,” Howard said. “They were proud of themselves, and very open to other people and their culture and styles. … I just fell in love with them.”

The mayor of Rania wrote a response letter to Duluth Mayor Don Ness, expressing hoping that the visit is the beginning of a long-term relationship between the cities.

“We are very eager to see the future of this long-term friendship,” said Mayor Ali Hamad Baag in the letter. “It is possible to make Duluth a successful example for exchanging culture and knowing each other better than before. Kurds generally and Rania particularly respect your country that led the process of freedom and destroyed the dictatorship regime in Iraq.

“Now, Duluth is a valuable and loveable word and it refers to a great meaning among the Kurds,” Baag wrote. “We hope that our friendship has a wide product and brighter future for the two nations, Americans and Kurds, especially for peace, democracy and understanding our cultures better.”

Morgan said citizens of Rania hope to visit Duluth this fall. Morgan also said efforts will be taken to garner more interest in a second trip to Rania.

“Is this peace-making mission going to catch on?” Anderson asked. “We know them now. They are our friends.”

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