At a 1956 summit on citizen diplomacy, President Dwight D. Eisenhower said citizen diplomacy “is the most worthwhile purpose in the world today: to help build the road to peace, to help build the road to an enduring peace.” I think as President Eisenhower contemplated all that he had experienced as Supreme Allied Commander in Europe during World War II and as president during the Cold War, he had in mind partnerships with cities in Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen, Palestine, South Sudan, and other places where peace is so desperately sought and always just out of reach. These are places where partnerships are hard and challenging, but where the hope of citizen diplomacy shines brightest; where the need is greatest and the impact is felt deeply. These are places where the work is tough, but the rewards the sweetest.
From its conception, the Karadah Project has been an avid supporter of and partner with Sister Cities International, the organization inspired by President Eisenhower’s vision of citizen diplomacy. Rick Burns, founder of the Karadah Project, has served for many years on the Council Bluffs (Iowa) Sister Cities Association (CBSCA) board of directors and also serves as Sister Cities International’s Afghanistan Country Representative. This partnership has allowed both organizations to benefit from the increased capacity to focus attention on some of the most challenging areas of the world. CBSCA, from its beginnings in 1985, has focused on difficult places. Even before the fall of the USSR, the visionary founders felt compelled to seek a partnership with a city in that country. Its portfolio of partners continues to represent some of the most demanding areas of the world, to include Tobolsk, Siberia in Russia; El Hajeb, Morocco; Karadah (Baghdad), Iraq; and Herat and Kandahar, Afghanistan. This is a conscious decision, because of a foundational belief in the power of citizen diplomacy.
In 2015, Karadah Project and CBSCA, through the Iraq-based Iraq Health Access Organization (IHAO) supported efforts to provide basic kerosene heaters to some of the two million displaced Iraqis in Baghdad at the time. Those receiving the heaters lived in buildings open to the winter elements. Our partnership with IHAO guaranteed that the support went to those in greatest need, regardless of ethnic, tribal, or religious affiliations. In addition, our support of IHAO provided the added benefit of helping to train an army of volunteers being taught by the organization. IHAO’s focus on training a distinctive generation of Iraqi young professionals in aid and development best practices, is an added value beyond the aid being distributed to displaced Iraqi families.
During 2016, CBSCA partnered with Karadah Project International, Iraqi Children Foundation, Education
for Peace in Iraq Center, and Goals and Dreams, a coalition of veteran-founded organizations known collectively as Soccer Salam, and IHAO in supporting tens of thousands of Iraqis displaced by violence.
The group distributed food, clean water, medicine, blankets, soccer balls, and other essentials. In one instance, IHAO volunteers drove supplies donated by the coalition to a town west of Baghdad dangerously besieged by ISIS and unreached by other aid organizations. IHAO, because it is smaller and more agile, positioned aid and volunteer medical personnel at forward military outposts that intercepted fleeing victims of ISIS and other violence with critical aid for desperately tired and inadequately-supplied people.
An important element of the citizen diplomacy efforts is to insure we open conduits for students to talk and educational institutions to collaborate. To that end, we are continuing to develop a partnership
between Herat’s Hatefi Girls High School and Council Bluff’s Abraham Lincoln High School with online meetings between faculty and students. Other meetings are being held to provide linkages between universities for collaboration and municipal training opportunities. We are connecting the U.S. Department of State-supported Herat Lincoln Learning Center and the Council Bluffs Public Library. Plans are in place to exchange items of cultural and historical interest for display in each library. We are also exploring opportunities to enhance the Lincoln Learning Center’s English language classes with volunteers in Iowa interested in learning more about Afghanistan through online conversations.
Herat, Afghanistan has a vibrant community of young activists working to improve the lives of people in their city. Our Karadah Project-CBSCA collaboration includes work with the Afghan women-founded Women’s Education for a Better Tomorrow Organization (WEBTO) nonprofit that is supporting women in displaced persons camps surrounding Herat with vocational, business, entrepreneurial, and gender equality training and post-training employment support. Through the efforts of the Karadah Project and its donors in partnership with CBSCA, the Rotary Club of Herat, Afghanistan and U.S. Rotary Clubs, a rural school outside Herat will receive much-needed repairs, a security wall, bathroom upgrades, books, lab equipment, and training for school personnel and community leaders through a Rotary Global Grant.
Other areas of Afghanistan are also benefiting from the Karadah Project-CBSCA partnership. In early 2018, the CBSCA will expand its partnerships to include Kandahar, Afghanistan. As the CBSCA prepares to sign this agreement, the Karadah Project is facilitating a shipment of surplus solar panels to Kandahar to be used in city buildings. Because of its experience in Afghanistan, the Karadah Project has been integral in facilitating the soon-to-be signed Sister Cities partnership between Kabul, Afghanistan and Kansas City, Missouri. In the developmental stage is a writing project that will link our partner cities in Iraq and Afghanistan and Council Bluffs. The project will include a collection of vetted poetry written by youth and young adults from each of the cities. This expression of different cultures combined in an interesting anthology of ideas has already provided opportunities for the interaction of our varied cultures; building people to people relationships across three countries.
The CBSCA and Karadah Project are driven and animated by the vision of a world made peaceful by citizen diplomacy efforts; particularly in places where peace seems just out of reach. Technology is allowing more intimate opportunities to build strong and lasting partnerships. Each partnership builds resilience, particularly in a generation of young people who have grown up on a healthy diet of Internet, satellite television, expanded travel, and increased education opportunities. This unique generation of young people—who have a more intimate relationship with the world than their parents—has the potential to change their countries, if we have the patience and commitment to support them.