February 21, 2014
By Dan Aznoff
Issaquah sets its sights on adding the French town of Savigny-le-Temple to its family of sister cities.
The city of Issaquah is expecting.
Like most new parents, city officials have a special glow in anticipation of the new arrival. Members of the City Council and Sister Cities Commission are anxiously waiting for a written proposal from the town of Savigny-le-Temple in France to establish a Sister City relationship.
The transatlantic courtship began last fall, when a delegation of students from the French town came to Issaquah during Salmon Days and were so impressed they requested their city reach out to establish an official relationship. Leaders from the community 20 miles southeast of Paris have made plans to send another contingent of young people to the Northwest this summer.
“We will welcome them again,” City Clerk Tina Eggers said. “We welcome any guests that want to visit.”
A request for Sister City status has to be approved by the current mayor, the City Council and the Sister Cities Commission, Issaquah Mayor Fred Butler said. An application is judged on the potential benefit to the residents and the culture in both communities.
The Sister City program in Issaquah dates back to 1991 with a letter of understanding with the city of Sunndal, Norway. The Moroccan town of Chefchaouen was added to Issaquah’s immediate family more than 12 years later, as the result of one young girl’s attempt to encourage understanding between the Islamic nation and the United States in the aftermath of 9/11. The Sister Cities Commission was established in 2007.
Iman Belali was only 12 when she launched an exchange program between her hometown of Issaquah and the community where her ancestors were raised in North Africa. According to her father, Mohamed Belali, the teenager withdrew more than $4,000 from her college fund to launch a nonprofit organization to provide school supplies for students in the Moroccan town. Butler said local agencies followed the young girl’s efforts by sending refurbished computers to elementary schools in Chefchaouen.
“The Sister Cities program was like opening a bridge with two-way traffic between North America and North Africa,” said Mohamed Belali, current chairman of Issaquah’s Sister Cities Commission.
Since 2004, the communities have sent exchange students across the Atlantic to live with host families and share their culture. The communities have also traded art that reflects the heritage of the respective regions.
The large blue door behind the bus shelter at Issaquah City Hall was a gift from Chefchaouen. Butler said the door symbolizes friendship to all who enter. Artists and singers from Morocco have participated in numerous activities during Salmon Days, riding in the parade and serving as hosts of an Arabic-style tent.
Sister Cities Commissioner Othmane Rahmouni explained that the relationship between high school students and their host families does not end at the end of the school term. Many students have remained friends on Facebook, and some students from Morocco have returned to the United States to attend college. One Issaquah host family was invited to visit Chefchaouen for the wedding of the young woman who lived with them while she attended Issaquah High School.
Butler said he has become friends on Facebook with his counterpart in Morocco, but admits he understands very little of what the other mayor posts on the social media site.
“Somehow, we find a way to communicate,” Butler said with a laugh. “The pictures really help.”
Issaquah business leaders tried to expand the relationship through economic cooperation with their Moroccan counterparts, according to Butler. But that never created any common ground that benefitted both cities. Instead, Butler said the Sister Cities program has evolved into a purely cultural exchange between the residents of each community.
The mayor was quick to point out that no public funds have been used to send exchange students or city officials on goodwill trips to any of Issaquah’s sister cities. The commission and various civic organizations have hosted fundraisers to cover airfare and cost of trips between Chefchaouen, Sunndal and Issaquah. Additional balances or costs were paid by the individual traveler, Butler said.
Local fundraisers have come in many shapes and sizes, including concerts at the community center, poker tournaments hosted by local service organizations and a trivia game night at a local pub.
The cultural bond between Issaquah and Sunndal lapsed for several years after it was first established. Former Sister Cities Commissioner Joan Probala tried to rekindle the relationship in 2009, when she made a side trip to the Norwegian city during a vacation to Scandinavia. Probala said she is disappointed her efforts failed to create the type of relationship she had envisioned between the two cities.
“My emails to the mayor and other officials in Sunndal apparently fell on deaf ears,” she said. “Our City Council reached out as well, but without any tangible response.”
Probala said Issaquah welcomed two visitors from the city in Norway who passed through the Northwest while on vacation in the United States, but nothing official has taken place for several years.
Iman Belali is now a 21-year-old student at the University of Washington, while her father continues to encourage the exchange of cultures 7,000 miles apart. Mohamed Belali said he has seen the relationship between the cities blossom while he has served as the Sister Cities Commission chairman.
“Chefchaouen is where my daughter’s grandparents were born and raised. And that’s where she spent numerous summers, so it was only natural for Iman to want to bring her two worlds together,” he said. “Both cities are small towns that are inland and surrounded by mountains. The residents of both cities have an appreciation for nature. And most of all, both Issaquah and Chefchaouen are communities where people value a safe place to raise their families.”
Issaquah’s Sister Cities are each beautiful destinations with important natural attractions, Sister Cities Commissioner Simona Trakiyska said.
“People can grow up in places that are very different, but can share the same values as a community,” she said. “Thanks to our exchange program, our students have learned that people may look different on the outside, but inside we all want to live in an environment that is safe and teach our children the value of compassion and understanding for others.”
She went on to say the exchange program has helped change people’s perceptions of life in the United States. The lifestyle in Issaquah, she said, is nothing like the image many foreigners have of America from television and movies.
“The Sister Cities program has allowed residents of each city to appreciate that the more we know about each other, the more we have in common,” Belali said. “The color of your skin does not determine who you are as a person. We all value family and appreciate the beauty of nature.”
Savigny-le-Temple also shares many of the same family-oriented values. Like Issaquah, the French town has seen its population surge as young families leave the urban lifestyle of the big city to settle in more rural communities to raise their families. The population of the French “commune” grew from 828 residents in 1968 to 27,000 in just three decades.
Statistics available from the French government indicate that about half of the population in Savigny-le-Temple is younger than 29. The town is adjacent to some of the more famous grape-growing (and wine-making) regions of France, with weather conditions that are similar to Eastern Washington.
“Our little family may be growing,” Belali said. “With each of our Sister Cities, we have maintained the vital characteristics that allow each member of our family to learn by communicating with one another. That’s what makes a true family.”