Berkeley Connects With Sister Cities Across the Globe





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From Cuba to Japan, Berkeley diplomats can travel the world without leaving the city-or at least its extended family.

It's been happening in the form of ordinary citizens traveling the world and visiting Berkeley's sister cities. Berkeley, likewise, has hosted visitors from Sakai, Japan, Uma Bawang, Malayasia and Oukasie, South Africa, to name a few.

"It has to do with understanding another culture and being friendly with them," said Berkeley Mayor Shirley Dean.

In 1956, President Dwight Eisenhower founded the "People to People" program to connect individuals and groups from other countries with the hope that personal relationships would lessen the chance of future world conflicts. The program popularized the creation of sister cities throughout the nation, which were implemented by volunteers from participating cities.

Berkeley's newest sister city, Palma Soriano, Cuba, provides an example of how citizens can be diplomats even when their governments do not enjoy friendly relations. In adopting Palma Soriano this May, Berkeley residents hope to trade ideas and knowledge with their counterparts in the embargoed country.

"Berkeley is not going to wait for the U.S. government to make peace with Cuba before we let Cuba know that we're interested in peace with Cuba," said Elliot Cohen, vice chair of Berkeley's Peace and Justice Commission.

The commission establishes criteria for sister city selection, while community groups manage the relationship with each city.

Rebecca Davis and Yaya Maldonado, who founded the Berkeley-Palma Soriano Sister City Association, traveled to Cuba to find a sister city for Berkeley earlier this year. Although they had not heard of Palma-Soriano before their trip, they quickly saw how compatible the two cities could be when they arrived.

Palma Soriano is a major producer of organic food and has a thriving alternative medicine community-a good fit for many Berkeley residents.

The Berkeley-Palma Soriano group is planning a trip to Cuba in December.

A sister city relationship can be a platform for Berkeley to express opinions about human rights issues in other countries, Cohen said.

Berkeley's Peace and Justice Commission is investigating the alleged mistreatment of members of a religious group, the Falun Gong, by the Chinese government in Beijing, China, another of Berkeley's city sisters.

In the 1970s, Berkeley's sister city relationship with Oukasie, South Africa, led to Berkeley's involvement in the anti-apartheid movement.

Berkeley was the first U.S. city to divest from South Africa. In 1993, Berkeley lifted economic sanctions against the country in response to the ending of apartheid.

Berkeley's oldest sister city relationship lies with Sakai, Japan, a dense metropolis with eight times the population of Berkeley. The partnership, which began in 1967, has survived partly because it has avoided politics, said Linda Komendant, chair of the Berkeley-Sakai Association.

Kazuhiro Yonemoto, an exchange student from Sakai, first visited Berkeley in 1993 and came back this year for another visit. Yonemoto said he likes Berkeley because "it is not crowded, not busy and it's sunny."

A delegation from Sakai plans to visit in the next few months to observe Berkeley's city government, said Steve Freedkin, a Berkeley peace and justice commissioner who traveled to Sakai earlier this year.

Berkeley's sister city program reaches across the Pacific Ocean to the island village of Uma Bawang in Borneo, Malaysia. In August, the small village of 300 people was awarded the 2002 Equator Prize by the United Nations at the World Summit on Sustainable Development.

Since 1991, a Berkeley-based organization has been working with Uma Bawang villagers to resist corporate logging and reforest their lands. Part of the effort has been to map the villagers' ancestral lands as a way to protect their property rights.

Wick Pancoast, director of the Borneo Project, said he's learned more about sustainable living.

"They teach us about the importance of community and working together and the importance of a social structure in times of need," Pancoast said.

Pancoast is going to lead an "eco-tour" in which Berkeley residents will live with an Uma Bawang family and learn to fish and gather food during the 10 to 12 day trip.

Uma Bawang villager Saging Anyi came to Berkeley in 1998 and said the partnership has been very productive.

"(Pancoast) is now one of the best performers of our native warrior dance," Anyi said.

Berkeley has approximately 13 sister cities throughout the world.

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