Posted by: Lisa Pampuch | September 13, 2011

Citizen diplomacy under way in Morgan Hill

With the tenth anniversary of the tragic events of September 11, 2001, just behind us, it’s particularly fitting that a group of Morgan Hill residents are taking an important step that’s likely to improve relationships between Americans and Middle East Muslims.

The events of 9/11 spurred widespread distrust, facilitated the spreading of misinformation, and strained relationships between Muslims and westerners. We’ve seen sad examples here in South County, with ignorant, bigoted opposition to plans by the local Muslim community to build a mosque in San Martin.

What’s that important step? It doesn’t involve diplomats and it’s not sponsored by any governmental agency. Instead, this effort relies on what Sister Cities International calls “citizen diplomacy.”

The Morgan Hill Sister Cities Committee is working with Morgan Hill resident and Lebanon native Osman Ghandour to secure a sister city relationship with his hometown, Al-Rawda, Lebanon. The committee voted last week to send a letter to Al-Rawda community leaders expressing interest in formalizing a sister city relationship.

Image of Al-Rawda, Lebanon, from the Facebook page created for this city

In making this overture, the Morgan Hill Sister Cities Committee is following the advice of its parent organization, Sister Cities International: “… To secure a more peaceful future, we must encourage better understanding and cooperation between the West and the Muslim world. Sister Cities International is in a unique position to play a vital role in bridging the gap between the Muslim world and the West through the ‘citizen diplomacy’ movement.”

Ghandour is hopeful that a sister city relationship will help people, especially children, in his hometown dream big about the opportunities that are available in the rest of the world. Ghandour said that as a boy, he never dreamed of leaving Lebanon, but because he earned a scholarship to college in the United States, his life changed dramatically. Ghandour holds a BS, Masters, and PhD in electrical engineering from Columbia University in New York.

A sister city relationship with Morgan Hill would provide residents of Al-Rawda specific, tangible examples of the opportunities available in the rest of the world. Ghandour is living proof that those opportunities are available even to children from Al-Rawda, Lebanon.

Al-Rawda is Arabic for the garden, Ghandour told me. He described his hometown as a small farming community located in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley. Although much smaller than Morgan Hill — Al-Rawda has a population of approximately 4,000 people — it has much in common with Morgan Hill, Ghandour said.

Like Morgan Hill, Al-Rawda is located in a fertile valley a short distance from a much larger city. Al-Rawda is approximately 40 miles from Beirut.

Like Morgan Hill, Al-Rawda’s history is steeped in farming, although agriculture plays a much bigger role in Al-Rawda’s present-day economy than it does in Morgan Hill.

Morgan Hill Sister City Committee Member Karen Anderson is well aware of the history of Sister Cities International and how relevant it is to the local committee’s efforts to forge a relationship with Al-Rawda.

“[President Dwight] Eisenhower created Sister City in the hope that people would become friends despite whatever their governments are doing and citizens would then press for peace,” Anderson told me. “Japan, more than any other country, espoused Sister City. Practically every city or town [in Japan] has [a sister city] in the U.S. One can ponder whether that effort did indeed make our transition from war to peace easier. If so, we belong in the Middle East.”

Committee member Claudia Rossi agrees: “What if we had a chance to break bread together and speak about our concerns, our hopes with someone who may only hear negative stories about us? What if we connected directly with someone across the world without interference from those that may benefit from keeping us enemies?”

Anderson recounted a story about traveling in the Middle East in 1980 with her husband, Einar: “We were saved on the road from Casablanca to Marrakesh by a Muslim man who, after seeing that our car had died, drove us to our hotel in Marrakesh. He spoke perfect English and we had a discussion with him about some of his beliefs. He would not take a thing from us and encouraged us to help another as he helped us. It was the way of Islam. That is the Islam we need to learn about. Sister City is a good beginning.”

Ghandour celebrates the opportunity that his situation as a Lebanese Muslim living in America affords him: “I am not torn between two worlds. I have the pleasure and challenge to bring two worlds together.”

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