County Executive Isiah Leggett will take a different kind of vacation this month when he visits Gondar, Ethiopia — Montgomery County’s newest sister city.
After addressing a crowd Sept. 22 at the Pan African Festival at Veterans Plaza in downtown Silver Spring, Leggett will board a plane the next day with about 40 community leaders to visit Gondar for nine days, said Bruce Adams, director of the county executive’s Office of Community Partnerships.
Leggett also will be joined on the trip by board members of the nonprofit Montgomery Sister Cities, which organizes the county’s sister cities projects. Because the county partners with the Montgomery Sister Cities nonprofit, the group relies on donations and does its own fundraising.
Each of the attendees on the preliminary trip in January and the upcoming trip this month, including Leggett, took vacation time and paid for their own way, without any cost to taxpayers.
“The biggest potential I saw was the government there has made an enormous investment in their university system,” said Adams, who attributed the selection of Ethiopia to the large Ethiopian population in the county.
Daniel Koroma, the liaison to African and Caribbean communities in the county, said one out of every three county residents is foreign-born. Of that third, Africans make up about 15 percent. Koroma said there are about 7,883 Ethiopians in the county, accounting for 28 percent of the African-born residents, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
About 10 members from Montgomery College will accompany Leggett on the trip to build relationships with Gondar’s university system.
“Montgomery College’s role in this trip to Ethiopia is to exchange information and ideas with the higher education leadership at the University of Gondar,” said Marcus Rosano, a spokesman for Montgomery College. “We will hold a mini-symposium to discuss what makes the American community college model so unique and valuable in the world.”
Although it is difficult to measure exactly how many students of Ethiopian descent are enrolled at the community college, Rosano said the school has had 666 Ethiopian students attend on student visas as of spring 2012. He said the mini-symposium will feature talks on the importance of economic and community partnerships, work force development, and how to use technology in American higher education.
Koroma said Ethiopians have resettled to the area for educational opportunities and, like many people from neighboring African nations, to escape persecution during their country’s civil war, which ended in the 1990s. The Sister Cities project, he said, is a successful way to civically engage an untapped community.
He and members of the Ethiopian sister city council visited Gondar in January to begin talks after Ethiopian community members in the county gave a presentation on a potential partnership with the country.
“In order for the African community to select one country, all countries were asked to organize their own individual communities to make sure there is a local interest,” Koroma said.
Cameroon, Sierra Leone and Nigeria were among the nine countries represented at the initial meeting, which had about 100 attendees from the community. Of those nine groups, three were able to get their community on board — Cameroon, Sierra Leone and Ethiopia, which each gave a presentation to the African sister city committee about why their city should be selected. The presentations addressed areas of mutual interest for the county and potential sister city and economic development opportunities, and opportunities for educational and cultural exchange.
“Geographically, in terms of size, the area was similar to the size of Montgomery County,” Koroma said, adding Gondar has all three Abrahamic faiths: Christians, Muslims and Jews. The area also is known for its coffee, which could provide businesses partnership opportunities.
Adams said the university in Gondar has about 20,000 students and 30 buildings are in construction, to expand to about 40,000 students in the next three years.
“Everywhere you turn, there are cranes building stuff,” Adams said. “They are 20 years into a democracy and it’s like they’re in 1796 and the place is just bustling with activity.”
Last year, the county forged a relationship with its first sister city in Morazan, El Salvador. Karla Silvestre, the liaison to the Latino community in the county, said the project has helped build trust and relationships in the county’s Latino community through their commitment to El Salvador and their ability to work side-by-side with the community on the project.
“There’s nothing like planning things together to build trust and show the commitment that we are here for the longer term,” Silvestre said. She said the county executive has suggested teleconferences as a way to stay connected with those countries after their visit to ensure that the partnership endures.
Koroma said many Africans in the county might not have strong ties to their home country, although many have family members there. He hopes this will provide a forum to learn and strengthen global relationships.
The county hopes to officially sign for the partnership Sept. 27, and Adams said the county executive is looking to develop sister cities in China and India in the coming years.