While working on a merchant ship, Steve Kalishman met his future wife in the city of Novorossiysk, Russia.
The couple moved to Gainesville after she emigrated to the U.S., and their meeting inspired them to create a more formal system of cultural exchange between Gainesville and Novorossiysk.
Kalishman learned about Sister Cities International, the organization created by President Dwight Eisenhower in 1956 to serve as the national membership organization for individual sister cities, counties and states across the country.
“It could be a children’s art exchange, it could be musicians, it could be dancers — but it just allows us to learn about the world in a different way through personal experience,” Kalishman said.
Before 1982, there were no partnerships with cities in the Soviet Union, Kalishman said, so he proposed one to the Gainesville City Commission, which passed the resolution in 1982 and invited Novorossiysk to become Gainesville’s first sister city.
“We’re a bridge between Gainesville and our sister cities and between groups and individuals in those cities,” he said.
Since then, Gainesville has established multiple sister cities and is now adding the city of Ho, Ghana to its list — making it the 10th sister city in Gainesville’s program. The cities now span five continents and 10 countries.
Gainesville program officials invited Ho delegates to visit Gainesville for an official ceremony to sign a formal agreement. After, the two cities will begin brainstorming project opportunities, Kalishman said.
Other sister cities include Mejdlaya, Lebanon; Duhok, Iraq; Rzeszów, Poland; Novorossiysk, Russia; Kfar Saba, Israel; Qalqilya, Palestine; Jacmel, Haiti; Matagalpa, Nicaragua and Deir Alla, Jordan. The partnership is solidified with a signing ceremony attended by elected officials from the two regions and is approved by the city councils.
Gainesville is part of Sister Cities International but also has its own local nonprofit called Sister City Program of Gainesville Inc., which works with the city to administer the sister city relationships.
Some schools in Gainesville also have sister schools around the world. Oak Hall School and Santa Fe College collaborated with a deaf school in Qaldilya, Palestine, to create an American and Palestinian video sign language dictionary.
The program allows people from Gainesville to learn from people around the world about how they conduct their business, provide city services and view the United States, Kalishman said.
Bahar Armaghani — the Duhok, Iraq, program representative — organizes and collaborates with his delegation to create various projects for the sister cities.
One project involved PK Yonge Developmental Research School students working together to research Duhok’s culture, food, language and customs. The information was then put on the sister city website under the Duhok section, Armaghani said.
Students learned the traditional clothes people in Duhok wear and typical Kurdish food such as kebabs and dolma, which are stuffed vegetables. They also became familiar with the common languages in Duhok: the Kurmanji and Behdini varieties of Kurdish and Arabic.
Having partnerships with global cities help people see the opportunities to learn about what things like business and education are in other countries.
“The program opens the doors for citizens to talk to each other and learn about each other’s culture and acceptance,” Armaghani said.
The program also opens the door for providing aid to sister cities that may need it.
Gainesville raised more than $20,000 within 12 hours as part of the Amazing Give event held by the Community Foundation of north central Florida for communities of the Polish sister city Rzeszów to help their efforts in aiding Ukrainian refugees.
Any person in the Gainesville area can become involved in the sister city program as a participant, delegate or host. As a delegate, people have the opportunity to travel to a sister city. The experience is more immersive than that of regular tourists, Kalishman said.
Delegates can visit people’s homes, jobs, schools or businesses, making them feel immersed in the culture, he said.
“It’s just a different level of experience,” Kalishman said.
People can also get involved by hosting a cultural or educational delegation from another city on Zoom or in person. There are no limitations on what someone can do, he said, so if someone wants to share a hobby to their job, they can.
Many of the partnerships grew from a person or couple who moved to Gainesville from a foreign city, Kalishman said. To have a sister city relationship, people have to demonstrate that there will be a group of local people willing to take responsibility for the relationship because it isn’t funded by the city, he said.
Gainesville Mayor Lauren Poe is an advocate of the program and has been to several sister cities including Duhok and Novorossiysk, Kalishman said.
There isn’t a standard checklist of what a sister city does, so the relationship can change over time, which can be beneficial, Poe said.
However, all relationships are founded upon education and a shared desire to explore other cultures.
“There’s a big world out there,” Kalishman said. “People want to learn about it.”
Contact Alexa Herrera at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @alexaherrera.
Alexa Herrera is a junior journalism major who is the metro general assignment reporter for The Alligator. She is also a copy editor for The Florida Political Review and a member of Kappa Kappa Gamma. In her free time she enjoys cheering on the New York Rangers during hockey season, listening to Harry Styles and spending time with her friends.