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America Supports You: Florida Town Bonds With Sister City in Iraq

American Forces Press Service

BAGHDAD, Iraq, July 17, 2005 – Thanks to the initiative of a hometown hero, Kissimmee, Fla., is close to formalizing a "Sister City" agreement with Zafaraniya, Iraq.

Despite the 7,000-mile distance and significant cultural differences, citizens of both communities are working to establish a powerful bond to improve both cities, said Capt. Matthew Wheeler, commander of Headquarters Battery, 1st Battalion, 9th Field Artillery, 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 3rd Infantry Division and a decorated veteran of two tours in Iraq.

Wheeler set the wheels in motion with a hometown connection to Kissimmee and an innovative idea of bridging the cultural gap between Iraq and America, said Lt. Col. Steven Merkel, commander of 1-9 FA.

Wheeler wrote a letter to the Kissimmee City Commission spawning the idea of a "Sister City."

Upon receiving Wheeler's letter, Kissimmee City Manager Mark Durbin was instantly excited about the possibility and began corresponding with the non-profit organization Sister Cities International. Durbin said he believes opening lines of communication with the Zafaraniya Neighborhood Council has the potential to make an immediate impact on city services in Iraq.

Dr. Mohammed J. al-Rubeiy, the Zafaraniya Neighborhood Council chairman, said he is excited at the possibilities of a blossoming relationship between Kissimmee and Zafaraniya.

Mohammed said he is hoping for an opportunity to travel to Kissimmee to meet Durbin and discuss the future possibilities of their combined efforts.

Both city councils are filling out the applications and other necessary forms to become members of the Sister Cities organization. Once accepted as a member, numerous programs and grant possibilities become available that should positively impact Zafaraniya, Merkel said.

The program can last anywhere from six months to two years and has substantive goals with specific needs in mind. Grants can be made available to target specific infrastructure projects such as sewer and water distribution, power generation, or trash collection.

While it may take time to develop the relationships and begin the process of cooperation, this agreement between people separated by distance and culture is indicative of the spirit of friendship between Iraq and the U.S., Merkel said.

It is not only soldiers and diplomats who have sacrificed and showed willingness to aid in the rise of a free and prosperous Iraq, it is also citizens in cities such as Kissimmee who are willing to take part in the spread of democracy, Merkel said.

Through some creative thinking and a well-written letter by an Army captain, a simple request for dialogue between cities has grown into a unique opportunity to improve the lives of the residents of Zafaraniya, he said.

"The Sister City relationship between Kissimmee and Zafaraniya is important for a number of reasons," Merkel said. "First, this relationship demonstrates to the Iraqi people that our commitment of support to them and to the establishment of a representative government in Iraq is not just a hollow promise. Local leaders here in Iraq were overwhelmed to learn that the City of Kissimmee is willing to dedicate its time and resources to making a difference for the people of Zafaraniya, in southern Baghdad.

"The relationship is also important because it demonstrates to our soldiers the strong support back at home for our mission here in Iraq," Merkel added. "I cannot help but think that the people of Kissimmee will watch with great pride as Iraq takes its rightful place in the world community, knowing that they made a difference in a Sister City half a world away."

(Story courtesy of 2nd Brigade Combat Team, Task Force Baghdad.)

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Related Sites:
Sister Cities International
America Supports You

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