Sister cities fostering tolerance and trust
With the aim of strengthening partnerships between people and cultures, sister city relationships have flourished over the past 20 years. North Shore councils, including Mosman and Willoughby, have embraced the concept and, in the process, have reaped many benefits.
In 1998, Mosman Council received a proposal to start a friendship agreement with the Mudanjiang area in China, with the support of Mosman Rotary.
Mudanjiang lies in far north China and is about 350 kilometres from the major city of Harbin. At the time the relationship began, the Mudanjiang region was basic and, according to former Mosman mayor Anne Connon, it was "quite obvious many people lived in conditions that were in dire need of upgrading".
The main memory that stuck in Ms Connon's mind from her first visit to Mudanjiang was the number of young girls seen begging on the streets. “Why so many girls? Shouldn't they be in school? We soon discoveted that state education was not universal, and poor families, who couldn‘t afford education fees, used what they had to educate their sons and not their daughters,” she observed.
In response, Mosman Council, with the help of Rotary,established the Girl Child Education Project. The Mosman community has since been able to assist hundreds of girls with their education through grants and individual sponsorships.
Over the years, Mosman Council staff have been involved in making regular contributions from their salaries and also holding fundraising barbecues.
Mosman's current mayor Peter Abelson has just returned from a trip to the area and says the project has been an important way of raising the status of women while providing practical support for their education and improving relations with China.
"Given China's rapid changes, our project is not as critical as it was nearly 20 years ago - it is winding down. However, it has been incredibly successful, with some girls being sponsored from childhood into high school and then university," Mayor Abelson tells North Shore Living.
Clare Stockdale from Mosman Rotary, who also travelled with the delegation on this year’s visit, says it was heartwarming to meet the girls at the schools.
"We visited three schools, one in Hainan village, Ning'an, and one in Muling,” she says. "We gave students stipends to pay for non-core subjects, school supplies and extra-curricular activities. We also visited one family where we have been supporting their daughter for the past 10 years.”
In November last year, delegates from Mudanjiang Municipal People’s Congress visited Mosman for the launch of the Friendship Tree. The sculpture was created by Mosman artist Ann Cape and overlooks Allan Border Oval and the art gallery.
The recent Mosman delegation also visited Otsu in Japan, where another friendship relationship was established in 2010. "Artwork from the children of Otsu was displayed during the Mosman Festival in 2013 and this year more artwork from both the Chinese and Japanese sister cities will be displayed at the festival, which is fantastic.”
Willoughby Council has also had a long standing relationship with Suginami in Japan since 1990 and Gangdong-gu in Korea since 2011.
The council has established a Global Friendship Committee to provide advice and assistance to the cities, and promote cultural and educational exchanges. They are also part of the Australian Sister Cities Association, which matches cities and towns in Australia with cities overseas. It is a good resource for many projects and exchanges that have been established over the past decades.
Willoughby mayor Gail Giles-Sidney says, "I think there are great benefits for students to be immersed in these cultural exchanges - they provide such different experiences.”
A delegation from Suginami came to the council in June to observe council processes and experience other cultural and environmental activities, like bushwalking.
Chatswood Rugby Club has also operated exchanges with the Japanese city during the 25-year friendship agreement.
Willoughby Council is embarking on another exchange, this time with an Armenian city.
Mayor Abelson says, “Friendship relationships help to build trust and cooperation, and have so much potential to build goodwill and forge stronger and deeper relationships”.
"Through all our past and present efforts with our friendship communities, we have provided our community with the opportunity to lend a hand to others," he smiles.