You’ve probably seen it before—text on a city’s welcome sign that boasts a sister-city relationship, with somewhere you likely haven’t heard of. For example, in The Scrapbook’s backyard, Rockville, Md., has a sibling relationship with Pinneburg, Germany, and Arlington, Va., with San Miguel, El Salvador (among others).
Passersby will sometimes wonder what that relationship entails, or where the heck Pinneburg is, and probably not give it much thought beyond that. But what happens when your sister-city is overrun by Islamic extremists—a question the city of Laguna Niguel has been mulling for a few months?
Scrapbook correspondent Matthew Fleming filed this report from Orange County:
Located about 50 miles southeast of Los Angeles, Laguna Niguel began a sibling-city relationship in 2008 with Al Qa’im, an Iraqi town that sits on the Syrian border. As the story goes, Lt. Col. Jason Bohm, who was the commanding officer of Laguna Niguel’s adopted Marine unit, recommended the relationship with Al Qa’im after developing an affinity for the region and arguing that helping the area prosper would naturally steal power from insurgents.
But now ISIS has overrun the town, and the Laguna Niguel mayor and council find themselves in the unenviable position of having to decide among three bad choices: sever ties entirely, thereby abandoning the Iraqi people, at least temporarily; simply wait and see what happens and risk the perception that they’re supporting the new militant government; or place the relationship on emeritus status, which is not really severing ties but waiting to see what happens.
They chose the last.
“It’s important that we continue to support the people of Iraq and at the same time not give credibility to the terrorist organization that’s currently controlling that area,” said city councilmember Robert Ming, right before the mayor and council unanimously approved the emeritus status last week.
Others echoed his sentiment. Mayor Linda Lindholm lamented the old arrangement as “a peace-making relationship . . . working with women and children on their economic status,” while councilmember Jerry Slusiewicz said that he was “saddened by the situation,” and that he didn’t want to “feel like we are abandoning the people [of Al Qa’im].” But again, under the advice of city counsel, they voted for emeritus.
According to Sister Cities International, the point of a sister-city relationship is to “promote peace through people-to-people relationships—with program offerings varying . . . from basic cultural exchange programs to shared research and development projects between cities with relationships.”
Laguna Niguel has worked closely with the mayor of Al Qa’im, offering gestures of goodwill and support to the region, sending soccer balls and uniforms, as well as medical textbooks and equipment.
Although the situation is uncommon, it’s not unprecedented. Sister Cities International president and CEO Mary Kane said that within the last few years there’s been pressure to end some or all of the 75 relationships between American cities and Russia, but only Lansing, Mich., actually severed ties with its sibling, St. Petersburg—citing the Russian city’s stance on LGBT rights.
Overall, there are 68 sister-city relationships with cities in the Middle East, some as unlikely as Los Angeles with Tehran and San Diego with Jalalabad, Afghanistan.
The program was started by President Eisenhower in 1956, and one of the first relationships was also one of the most unlikely: Honolulu, which sits on the same island as Pearl Harbor, and Hiroshima.
“He was asking a lot of people to step out of their comfort zones and build each relationship because he knew that we would end up back in a bad situation again if we didn’t get people to know each other,” says Kane.
Although the relations can evolve into something politically sensitive and difficult to navigate, like the sisterhood of Laguna Niguel and Al Qa’im, Kane says, “This is their worst nightmare, and walking away from them is not what we should do. That’s not being compassionate Americans.”