Gainesville was a pioneer in the town twinning program

After personally witnessing the horrors of World War II, including the massive destruction and death of 70 to 85 million people worldwide, President Dwight D. Eisenhower founded Sister Cities International at a 1956 White House summit on citizen diplomacy.

Sister Cities International is a nonpartisan 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that serves as the national membership organization for sister cities, counties and states across the United States, connecting tens of thousands of citizen diplomats and volunteers in nearly 500 member communities in more than 2,000 partnerships in 140 countries.

People-to-people exchanges and initiatives foster peace through mutual respect, understanding, and collaboration—one individual, one community at a time, transforming the lives of individuals and helping communities around the world to thrive.

As a member of Sister Cities International, the City of Gainesville currently has nine sister cities in Latin America, Europe and the Middle East. A recent delegation of community leaders to Ghana could create the 10th such program, which is ambitious for a city the size of Gainesville.

Mayor Lauren Poe is greeted upon her arrival in Novorossiisk, a Russian sister city of Gainesville, in 2019.

Twin cities are established through formal agreements signed by their mayors, forming enduring relationships that bind the respective individuals, organizations and institutions together. Everyone is welcome to get involved in hosting delegations, traveling to twin cities and running exchange and cooperation projects.

The Gainesville Inc. Sister City Program is the local non-profit organization that administers the program on behalf of the city, which does not provide direct funding. The board consists of directors of each relationship.

In February, Mayor Konrad Fijołek of Rzeszow, Poland brought an official delegation to Gainesville. Last month, Governor Ali Tatar Tawfiq of Duhok in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq visited Gainesville with a member of the Kurdish Parliament, the Director of Tourism and Agriculture and an infectious disease doctor.

Both groups attended the University of Florida, city facilities and local schools. Gainesville Mayor Lauren Poe has been invited to visit both countries with reciprocal delegations this year.

In 1982, Gainesville became the first US city to be twinned with a Soviet city, starting a movement that eventually linked 300 US and Soviet cities. In 1997, Gainesville once again became a pioneer of citizen diplomacy, initiating the first trilateral twinning between the US, Israel and the Palestinians.

A farmer in Qalqilyah, a Palestinian West Bank city twinned with Gainesville, gives an olive tree to Craig Lowe, the former mayor of Gainesville.

Thousands of Gainesville residents and many locally elected officials have participated in sister city exchanges over the past 40 years, including approximately 100 sister city delegations and exchanges as diverse as children’s art, photography, musicians, dancers, artists, teachers, doctors, journalists, chefs, politicians, professors, and many more. Oak Hall School and Santa Fe College have partnered with a deaf school in our sister city of Qalqilya, Palestine to create the first American/Palestinian video sign language dictionary and a new, state-of-the-art deaf school in Qalqilya.

Gainesville Inc.’s town-twinning program has also hosted 24 Library of Congress “Open World” delegations of young professionals from former Soviet republics, as well as a group of 25 Iraqi teenagers as part of the State Department‘s Iraqi Young Leaders Exchange Program.

Gainesville Mayor Lauren Poe, right, greets a delegation of officials from Gainesville's sister city of Duhok, Iraq, including Ali Tatar Tawfiq, left, the governor of Duhok, in the fields of the MLK during the annual Gainesville City Employee Appreciation Rally Center.

These exchanges and relationships have transformed lives, enriched our community, showcased America’s best qualities to the world, and provided opportunities for Gainesville’s citizen diplomats to experience the world in unique ways. As a result, through municipal ties, Gainesville has become known as a world leader in citizen diplomacy.

Although some U.S. cities like Tallahassee and Muscatine, Iowa have suspended or ended their ties with Russian sister cities due to the war in Ukraine, Mayor Poe heeded Sister Cities International’s advice in affirming the value of open communication and citizen diplomacy, rather than ours Hold friends in Novorossiysk accountable for the actions of their national government.

Mayor Lauren Poe conducts Gator Chomp at a naval academy in Novorossiysk, Russia, during his visit to the sister city in 2019. Poe strongly supports the relationship continuing despite the invasion of Ukraine.

Gainesville Inc.’s sister city program, operating as the Greater Gainesville International Center, is also working to make Gainesville a “new global city” by creating a center for international business, culture, education and innovation that will serve our many international will showcase connections and attract foreign investment and talent to Gainesville.

Steve Kalishman is the executive director of Gainesville Inc.’s town twinning program.

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