The small city lies in the northwest corner of its country, near the sea. Mountains surround the town, and a small stream runs through it.
Indeed, Chefchaouen, Morocco could be called the Issaquah of North Africa.
And this spring, the Moroccan city and its American counterpart celebrate 10 years of a sister city bond.
The past decade of cultural exchange all started with the vision of Iman Belali, a Moroccan-American teenager living in Issaquah. It was a time similar to today — in the post-9/11 climate, many Americans were mistrustful of anyone living in a Muslim-majority country. At the same time, Belali found that many Moroccans had inaccurate ideas of Americans.
“She was inspired and troubled by the events of 9/11 — what the Moroccans knew about Americans, what Americans knew about Moroccans,” said Robin Kelley, who has served on the Issaquah Sister Cities Foundation since its inception. “She understood at her young age that none of our societies understood one another.”
“She wanted to promote peace and understanding,” Mayor Fred Butler said.
Belali used some of her college fund to establish the American-Moroccan International Exchange, allowing girls from Issaquah to go to her relatives’ city of Chefchaouen as exchange students and vice versa.
“Part of what sister cities are meant to be is one-on-one diplomacy,” said Kelley, who hosted a Moroccan student in her home. “It was absolutely that at a time when you’re interested in learning. They realized they were much more the same than different, but they celebrated their differences.”
Seeing what a success the student exchange was becoming, Iman and her parents, Mohamed and Malika Belali, made a presentation to the city asking for Chefchaouen to be named a sister city of Issaquah. A delegation — including then-Mayor Ava Frisinger, Butler, Councilmember Eileen Butler and Kelley — traveled to Chefchaouen to meet with its mayor and City Council.
“What really surprised me was the excitement and reception from our hosts; we drove into the city at 7 p.m. and at the city limits, there were a bunch of schoolchildren to welcome us,” Butler said. “That touched me … It reminded me that children are the same all over the world. That was a very heartwarming experience for me.”
Butler said that he had visited Morocco quite a few times in the past for work, but had never gotten to experience the culture in such an intimate way. The delegation from Issaquah visited local schools, where they got to know the children of Chefchaouen, despite the language barrier.
“We still communicated in a way that was meaningful,” Butler said. “If the whole world could do that, it would be a much better place.”
Issaquah and Chefchaouen created a Memorandum of Understanding, and the two have been bonded in sisterhood ever since. Each year for Salmon Days, artists from Chefchaouen come to Issaquah to show their traditional artwork in the festival and to teach art in local schools. Kelley said that meeting the Moroccan artists in school created a “really personal connection” between the young students and the Moroccan visitors, and helped to teach lessons of tolerance and diversity at a young age.
“The kids came looking for the artist [at Salmon Days] because all of a sudden, they were friends. That’s the magic,” Kelley said. “Now when someone talked about a Muslim country, [the kids] had a connection to one.”
Additionally, Chefchaouen sent Issaquah one of its traditional blue doors as a token of friendship, which Butler said is “symbolic of the kind of relationship we have pursued.” The blue door now sits outside Issaquah City Hall.
“We’ve developed strong bonds between the two communities,” Butler said. “I’m really thankful [Belali] came up with the idea.”
“We can do lots of things — we can be open and embrace other cultures without it being a threat to ours,” Kelley said.