Cambridge: A City with Seven Siblings

By Daphne Abeel, 2010

It’s no surprise that Cambridge has sister city relationships with municipalities in other countries. What is remarkable is how many there are, and there’s current interest in forming two more.

According to the Cambridge Peace Commission, Cambridge currently boasts seven official sister city relationships: Coimbra, Portugal; Gaeta, Italy; Tsukuba, Japan; San Jose las Flores, El Salvador; Galway, Ireland; Yerevan, Armenia; and Cienfuegos, Cuba.

Two of them stand out for their current activity: those with Yerevan, the capital of Armenia, and San Jose las Flores, in a mountainous region of El Salvador. Both originated when American relationships with the countries were unsettled.

The Cambridge-Yerevan relationship, maintained by the Cambridge/Yerevan Sister City Association (CYSCA), was established in the last years of the Cold War with the approval and financial support of the U.S. State Department.

In the late 80s, there was a strong interest in forming a bond with a city behind the Iron Curtain. In 1986, a delegation of Cambridge residents headed by City Councillor Frank Duehay, traveled first to Moscow and then on to Yerevan.

“At the time,” said Duehay, “there was not much we could do as individuals to show the Russians that there was another side to this country, not being represented by President Reagan, who called the Soviet Union ‘the evil empire.’”

Duehay said that the initiative was stimulated by Jeb Brugman, then the head of the Cambridge Peace Commission. “There was definitely a political agenda behind this effort.”

Like the Armenian tie, the relationship with Las Flores was formed in 1987 in the political context of a war funded by the United States. Chalatenango, the mountainous district in which it is located, was then the stronghold of the Popular Forces of Liberation (FPL) in their war against the government.

In 1988, Mayor Alice Wolf made the first official trip to Yerevan to work on developing an exchange program. Since the late 80s, there have been exchange trips by different groups of Armenian professionals; most recently, a group of social workers and students have also traveled to Yerevan.

Duehay credited Suzanne Pearce, the CYSCA board president from 1994 until 2008, with much of the success of the Cambridge-Yerevan relationship. CYSCA is now headed by Cheryl Shushan, but Pearce remains active on the board. The programs have included youth exchanges and professional training exchanges through the Community Connections Program. Board members Jack and Eva Medzorian have traveled twice a year to Armenia to bring financial assistance to over 100 elementary schools. Pearce hopes CYSCA will bring over a group of Armenian students to compete in the Cambridge Science Festival in April.

The bond with El Salvador also remains vibrant. To celebrate its 20th anniversary, seven community leaders from Las Flores visited Cambridge to meet with officials, schools, community groups, and long-time supporters.

The relationship with Gaeta, Italy, is the oldest, dating from 1926. Each year, citizens of Gaeta come to Cambridge to celebrate the festival of Saints Cosmas and Damian. Sal Domenico, the owner of Sal’s Flowers in East Cambridge, has been to Gaeta 28 times.

Some attempts to establish sister city relationships have failed due to political opposition. Rena Leib and Margaret Lynch, both nurses, led an effort to establish a sister city relationship with Cienfuegos, Cuba. On their first trip, in 2001, they took medical supplies. Subsequently, the Bush administration revoked the group’s license to travel.

An attempt to establish a relationship with Bulawayo, Zimbabwe, also met political opposition. There has been another effort, to establish a sister city relationship with Bethlehem in the West Bank, but the project failed to gain the unanimous support of the City Council.

As Cathy Hoffman, director of the Cambridge Peace Commission from 1987 to 2008, explained, “A group of people, usually composed primarily of residents, presents a request to connect with another community, which is then passed by the Cambridge City Council.”

The Peace Commission has been involved, but it has neither the infrastructure nor funding to support even a half-time person to administer the sister city relationships. City Councilor Marjorie Decker chaired one meeting of the Civic Unity Committee, which made recommendations, but, she said, “the budget crisis hit.”

Interest in establishing new relationships remains high. Recently, former Mayor Denise Simmons received a request from a city in Portugal, Oeires, to be a sister city of Cambridge.

And on January 11, the City Council passed a resolution asking the city manager to pursue the establishment of a sister city relationship in Haiti, a
timely suggestion.