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A tale of three cities: Burlington and her sisters, Bethlehem and Arad

Two older people sit in a room full of trees and ornaments.
Sabine Poux
Vermont Public
Mousa Ishaq and Kristin Peterson-Ishaq have been going to Burlington-Bethlehem-Arad sister city meetings each month since 1991. Here, they sit in their sunroom full of fig and citrus trees — what Mousa calls his "Palestine in Vermont."

Burlington has sister cities all over the world. We explore Burlington’s relationship with two of its sisters: Bethlehem, in the West Bank, and Arad, in Israel.

Brave Little State is Vermont Public’s listener-driven journalism show. In each episode, we answer a question about Vermont that’s been asked — and voted on — by you, our audience. Today, a question from Peg Clement of Burlington:

“Burlington’s sister cities are Bethlehem and Arad, one in Palestine, one in Israel. Do other Vermont cities besides Burlington have such programs? What relationships are even possible these days for sister cities?”

The Brave Little State team looks at the origins of Burlington’s sister cities programs during the tenure of former mayor Bernie Sanders. We also speak to the Essex Junction couple who played a key role in getting the Burlington-Bethlehem-Arad program started, and we connect with people whose lives have been touched by the program — at home and abroad.

Our show is made for the ear. We highly recommend listening to the audio. We’ve also provided a transcript. Transcripts are generated using a combination of robots and human transcribers, and they may contain errors.


‘Palestine in Vermont’

Josh Crane: From Vermont Public, this is Brave Little State. I’m Josh Crane.

Sabine Poux: And I’m Sabine Poux.

Off the highway, on a suburban street in Essex Junction, there’s a sunroom full of fig and citrus trees.

Mousa Ishaq: So, the whole idea here is to create Palestine in Vermont. This is an orange tree, and the blossoms just passed. When they first opened, the smell goes all over the house. It‘s just amazing. And this is a lemon tree. 

Sabine Poux: Mousa Ishaq grew up around trees like these in Aboud, in the West Bank. This room is one of his ways of feeling more at-home in Vermont.

Mousa Ishaq: So Kris built this room for me to be quiet during winter and not complain. (laughter)

Sabine Poux: Kris is Mousa’s wife, who he met when they were students in Cairo, Egypt studying at the American university. They moved to Vermont nearly a half-century ago, when Mousa got a job with IBM.

Two black-and-white photos show a young couple smiling and holding each other.
Mousa Ishaq and Kristin Peterson-Ishaq
Mousa Ishaq and Kristin Peterson-Ishaq met when they were students at the American University in Cairo, Egypt. Mousa was studying engineering and Kris was studying Arabic language and literature.

Kris was raised in Iowa. The old, black-and-white family photos and Norwegian-style Christmas decorations are traces of her heritage.

Mousa Ishaq: Kris’s rule is the seating area doesn't change. So I have to really work hard on stuffing plants. (laughter)

Kristin Peterson-Ishaq: Yeah, my rule is there has to be room for people. Not just plants. 

Mousa Ishaq: Cause otherwise—

Kristin Peterson-Ishaq: Otherwise, you would fill it with plants.

Sabine Poux: They need room for people because Mousa and Kris love people. They love their granddaughters, a pair of twin girls, who they get to babysit every week. Mousa’s parents used to live with them, too — some of the stone terraces his dad built are still in the backyard.

And Mousa and Kris love hosting friends from abroad. Last summer, a friend from Bethlehem stopped by for a night while he was dropping his daughters off at Circus Smirkus, the international youth circus based in the Northeast Kingdom.

Mousa Ishaq: And we had the whole sister city group here, you know, for dinner with them, and— 

Sabine Poux: That must have been really fun.

Mousa Ishaq: It was nice. Yeah.

Sabine Poux: The group Mousa is referring to consists of ten or so Vermonters who meet every month to talk about ways to connect with Burlington’s sister cities. And sister cities, according to nonprofit Sister Cities International, are formal relationships between communities in the United States and communities in other countries. Those relationships are encouraged through what’s known as “citizen diplomacy.” More later on what that looks like. And Burlington has a few different official sister cities, including the relationships Mousa helped establish three decades ago — with Bethlehem in the West Bank, and Arad in Israel.

It’s his and Kris’s love of people — and belief in people — that’s been the backbone of the program for all those years.

Mousa Ishaq: When people don't know each other, and they have different ideas — whatever ideas — when they break bread, they interact with each other, they find out that they are the same. 

Sabine Poux: Through intifadas, the increasingly brutal Israeli occupation of the West Bank, the Hamas attack on Israel last October and, now, months and months of bombing in Gaza — through all that, the sister city program’s north star has been people-to-people relationships: the idea that we can get so much closer to a peaceful and just world — or, at least, become more prepared for that world — when we talk to each other, rather than letting governments and militaries do all the talking.

Josh Crane: Talking to people. Listening deeply. Building empathy and understanding — this all sounds pretty familiar.

Sabine Poux: These are some of the core ideas behind what we do on the show. And they take us to all corners of the state.

Josh Crane: But, what about everything going on beyond Vermont’s borders? What relationship do Vermonters have with the rest of the world? That’s what one listener has been thinking about a lot.

Peg Clement: I have many years living in, next door, in Jordan.

Josh Crane: Peg Clement of Burlington.

Peg Clement: I have worked in Ramallah in the West Bank, I have visited Bethlehem as a tourist, and traveled around and gotten medical work done in Israel when I was living in Jordan, on the East Bank. 

Four women and two young girls sit smiling around a table, covered in food.
Peg Clement
Peg Clement (second from left) poses with friends in the West Bank in 2007.

Josh Crane: Peg is 70. She’s semi-retired now, but spent more than 40 years working in international aid and development — from the Peace Corps, to serving as a “Democracy Advisor” in other countries, to helping monitor foreign elections.

Sabine Poux: She’s lived all over the world, and has picked up a ton of languages through her globe-hopping career — French, Arabic, Portuguese, Spanish. A little Italian and German.

Peg Clement: I don't know, I love languages. (laughter) And I love messing around— I think it's a big sign of respect when Americans can talk to people in their own language.

Josh Crane: She’s been living in Burlington for the past decade or so. But she still has connections all over the world. And she was following along when Hamas attacked Israel on Oct. 7 — the bloodiest day in Israeli history.

Sabine Poux: And she also followed as Israeli forces killed tens of thousands of Palestinian civilians in the Gaza Strip — including at least 10,000 children, at the time we’re releasing this episode.

Josh Crane: While Peg was tracking these unfathomable losses, a Vermont man shot two Palestinian-Americans and one Palestinian in Burlington, where Peg lives. All three are college students.

Sabine Poux: Two of the students were wounded. The third, Hisham Awartani, is now paralyzed from the chest down.

Peg Clement: Uh, at this point, I get a little emotional because the lad who, who got the worst injury, Hisham — his mother is a colleague of mine and a friend. When I was living in Jordan, she took me under her wing and I met her boy, I guess, at that age — he was very young at that point. But so this latest event just is very hard to watch as it unfolds and to see Elizabeth on the media, CNN and everywhere. 

Josh Crane: It was around this time that Peg found an old reference in a local paper to Burlington’s, quote, “sister cities.” And how two of those “sisters” are Bethlehem and Arad.

Peg Clement: And I said, “Geez, we've got two sisters over there. Is there anything we can do?” We Americans, we always want to know what we can do.

A wall separates the West Bank from Israel.
Peg Clement
Peg visited Bethlehem in 2007. Here, one of the photos she took, of the wall that separates the West Bank from Israel.

Sabine Poux: So, she submitted this question to our show:

Peg Clement: Burlington’s sister cities are Bethlehem and Arad, one in Palestine, one in Israel. Do other Vermont cities besides Burlington have such programs? What relationships are even possible these days for sister cities?

Josh Crane: The answer to the first part of Peg’s question is straightforward. Yeah, there are a bunch of Vermont towns and cities with sister cities.

Rutland has a sister in Hanamaki, Japan, with student exchanges planned for this year.

Sabine Poux: Randolph has a sister city in Myrhorod, Ukraine, and has been sending money and materials as Russia’s war on Ukraine continues. Hartford has a sister in Cenon, France. Colchester has one in Colchester, England.

Josh Crane: Burlington also has other sister cities — in Puerto Cabezas, Nicaragua; Yaroslavl, Russia.

Sabine Poux: Honfleur, France; Nishinomiya, Japan.

Josh Crane: And don’t forget Burlington, Canada.

Sabine Poux: And the city has a sister in the U.S., in Moss Point, Mississippi. That relationship was formed to help a community that was impacted heavily by Hurricane Katrina.

Josh Crane: Even Lake Champlain has “sister lakes” overseas in Macedonia and Indonesia.

Sabine Poux: But answering the second part of Peg’s curiosity — about what relationships are possible these days with two of Burlington’s sisters, Arad and Bethlehem? That’s more complicated. In part, it’s because it’s something the sister city committee itself is grappling with.

Josh Crane: Sister city relationships are theoretically apolitical. Remember, these agreements are meant to engage citizens, and not governments. But there’s also a history of sister cities between countries with pretty tense, or even overtly hostile relationships: take the U.S. and Russia, Nicaragua and Japan. In some ways, that’s the whole idea — to show that it’s possible to build relationships in spite of what our countries’ governments are doing. But the line is a little blurry.

Sabine Poux: And for Burlington, Bethlehem and Arad, it’s impossible to fully separate the sister city relationship from the broader political context in which it exists right now.

Josh Crane: Right now, there’s a brutal war playing out. There’s also a very long history of conflict, occupation and oppression that predated this war. If you want to learn more about this history, or find the latest updates about what’s happening overseas, we’ve included some resources in the show notes.

What we are going to do today is to lean into what we do best — follow the curiosity of our winning question-asker, and our own. Like how the roots of Vermont sister city relationships date back to a former Burlington mayor:

Bernie Sanders: What the sister city program is, to me, is a human way to say to the people in Nicaragua: “We want to work with you, cooperatively.”

Josh Crane: And we turn our focus overseas, to better understand the impact of our sister city relationships:

Abdelfattah Abusrour: Talking about peace without justice is void.

Josh Crane: We also explore the effects of the program closer to home.

Talia Manning: I was really excited to be asked to participate and to learn that Americans, you know, could be involved in that way.

Josh Crane: This one, by the way, is a full team effort. Throughout the episode, you’ll hear me, as well as Brave Little State’s Sabine Poux and Burgess Brown.

We’re a proud member of the NPR Network. Welcome.

Sabine Poux: Welcome.

Burgess Brown: Welcome.


Forging sister bonds

Bernie Sanders: I think if the sister city relationship means anything — and it means a great deal to me, and I know it means a great deal to you—

Sabine Poux: This, of course, is former Burlington Mayor Bernie Sanders, speaking in Burlington’s first official sister city in Puerto Cabezas, Nicaragua almost 40 years ago.

Bernie Sanders: —it means that we believe that human beings, on a face-to-face level, are able to communicate with each other, are able to work out problems based on mutual respect, and that, as Americans, we want our nation to be bold and brave, but not with guns, and not with machine guns and not with napalm.

Sabine Poux: Sister cities as a concept long predate Bernie Sanders’ time in office. But in Burlington, it was the progressive mayor who brought the idea to the fore. He rejected his country’s foreign policy, and saw that policy as a local issue: After all, it was his constituents’ money that was funding these foreign wars. And he saw sister cities as a window into the conversation.

That’s what brought him to Puerto Cabezas, Nicaragua in 1985. At the time, the Reagan Administration was trying to unseat Nicaragua’s left-wing Sandinista government.

Bernie Sanders: And we are not prepared to accept this nation dominating poor nations and weak nations who are trying to do decent things for their people.

A flyer advertises a celebration of a material aid campaing for Puerto Cabezas, Nicaragua.
Bernard Sanders Papers/UVMSpecial Collections
A 1986 flyer advertises a celebration of Burlington's efforts to collect and send materials — including hospital beds and clothing — to Puerto Cabezas earlier that year.

Sabine Poux: His message to the city was that the federal government did not speak for the people of Burlington.

Bernie Sanders: What the sister city program is, to me, is a human way to say to the people in Nicaragua: “We respect you as human beings and we want to work with you, cooperatively, to build a decent world.” 

Sabine Poux: Puerto Cabezas was Burlington’s first sister city — though there are also references to an earlier relationship with Nagasaki, Japan in Sanders’ old letters.

From the start, these relationships were somewhat subversive. Against the backdrop of the Contra war, Burlington sent humanitarian aid to Puerto Cabezas. The cities exchanged Little League teams, and Burlington donated 20 tons of materials — including medical supplies, which it shipped down by a barge in the midst of the U.S.’s trade embargo on Nicaragua.

And then in the late ’80s, Burlington added a second sister city in Yaroslavl, Russia — or, as it was at the time, the Soviet Union.

Peter Clavelle: Reagan was telling us that, that the Soviet Union is the evil empire.

Sabine Poux: Peter Clavelle was in Sanders’ office at the time.

Peter Clavelle: And we said, “Well, there's certainly some issues, and, uhh, there certainly are some serious challenges that the people of the Soviet Union face. But let us better understand what those are, begin to know these people on a one-on-one basis.”

Sabine Poux: And so, in the midst of the Cold War, Burlington and Yaroslavl organized exchanges — children’s librarians, jazz musicians and youth orchestras. Also, sports teams.

Peter Clavelle: There was an entire hockey team from Yaroslavl, a professional hockey team, that visited Vermont and taught our college teams a few lessons about hockey. They were they were a superb team. 

A newspaper page shows an article about Gorbachev ending the Soviet Union, and about a hockey game in Burlington.
Burlington Free Press
A clipping from the front page of the Burlington Free Press in 1991 shows both international and local news on the Soviet Union — including coverage of a Burlington-Yaroslavl hockey game at Leddy Park.

Sabine Poux: Bernie Sanders’ term in office ended in 1989, and Peter Clavelle himself became mayor. And he carried with him the ethos of what he calls “municipal foreign policy.”

Peter Clavelle: You know, we felt that things that were going on around the world were affecting the lives of the people in the city of Burlington. 

Sabine Poux: One of those people was Mousa Ishaq, the Palestinian man with the grove of trees in Essex Junction, and his wife, Kris.

A ‘tripartite’ relationship

Mousa Ishaq: This is our place, this is where our home is. Vermonters by choice.

Sabine Poux: Long before Mousa had ever heard of Vermont, he was growing up in Aboud, in the West Bank. At the time, it was under the control of neighboring Jordan. Mousa’s family later moved to Amman, Jordan’s capital.

But they’d go back to Aboud every summer.

Mousa Ishaq: It was, to me, space, greenery, mountains, springs. So, it really was my safe and beautiful place to go to.

Sabine Poux: Our team spoke with Mousa last month. Here’s Josh.

Josh Crane: And do you still have friends or family in Amman or Aboud?

Mousa Ishaq: Yes I do. A lot of family and friends in both places. In Aboud—

Josh Crane: Umm—

Mousa Ishaq: —it’s, it’s a tougher situation. You know. It’s under occupation. So it’s—

Sabine Poux: In 1967, when Mousa was 16, Israel captured the West Bank.

Green, red and black graffiti on a big concrete wall.
Peg Clement
A close-up of the wall that divides the West Bank from Israel from question-asker Peg Clement's 2007 visit to Bethlehem.

Josh Crane: Have you been able to go back at all? Or, or not really?

Mousa Ishaq: As a Palestinian, it would be very difficult to go back. So we, we go back as Americans and we are allowed only three months. But you cannot stay for good. You cannot live there.

There is no benign occupation. Occupations restrict your movement, restrict your rights. 

Sabine Poux: Once Mousa was in Vermont, he wanted his neighbors to learn about what it was like back home. He says there was a lot of excitement at the time about sister cities and citizen diplomacy.

So, along with a group of friends, Mousa and Kris decided to adopt a Palestinian sister city. There were plenty of U.S. cities with sisters in Israel at the time, but as far as they could tell, a Palestinian “sister” would be a first.

So in 1990, they set out to find one — and landed on Bethlehem: a Palestinian city of about 28,000 people, roughly 60 miles away from Aboud, in the West Bank.

A newspaper article describes efforts to create a sister cities relationship.
Burlington Free Press
Before the Burlington City Council passed the Burlington-Bethlehem-Arad sister cities resolution, it convened a task force to hash out the details of the relationship.

Mousa Ishaq: We chose Bethlehem because it's about the same size as Burlington. It's a college town. It is an artistic town, you know, lots of artistry. 

Sabine Poux: The group brought their idea to the Burlington City Council. There was a lot of pushback. Some worried that adopting the proposal would amount to picking a side in the conflict, or that it was too political. An article in the Burlington Free Press said there was debate over, quote, ”whether a bond with a Palestinian city would be an affront to Burlington Jews.”

Ultimately, they landed on this: In addition to adopting Bethlehem as a sister city, they’d also adopt a sister city in Israel — a place called Arad. Someone in Burlington had a connection there. Plus, Arad is about the same size as Burlington and Bethlehem. It sits on the edge of the Negev Desert.

Mousa Ishaq: You know, it's compromise. You know, I believe in compromise.

Sabine Poux: The compromise looked like a three-pronged, or “tripartite,” relationship: Burlington became sister cities with Bethlehem, and with Arad. And the idea was that one day, Bethlehem and Arad would sign an agreement with each other, too.

Mousa Ishaq: So we were not only the first sister city in the country with a Palestinian sister city, but also, we were the first tripartite sister city in the country, you know, with three, three cities.

Sabine Poux: In 1992, the Burlington City Council passed a resolution approving the agreement. And a few years after that, mayors and representatives from all three cities met in Burlington to shake hands and make it official.

Mousa says the goal has always been to bring people from all three places together so they can learn from and grow to understand each other. And he’s had to work toward that goal with limited resources. Each of Burlington’s programs gets just $2,000 a year from the city.

 A photo in a newspaper shows three men smiling and shaking hands. Two of them hold a document.
Burlington Free Press
Representatives from Burlington, Bethlehem and Arad met in Burlington in 1996 to officially sign the sister city agreement. From left to right: A. Walid Deajani, representing Bethlehem; Peter Clavelle, mayor of Burlington; and Betazalel Tabib, mayor of Arad.

Over the years, that funding — and the money the committee has raised — has gone toward hosting Israeli and Palestinian speakers, and providing forums and films to spark discussion about the conflict. The sister city committee has sponsored an after-school program in Arad and sent money to hospitals in the West Bank.

A lot of efforts have focused on propping up students in Bethlehem — including scholarships for women, and a program that brought students to Burlington for hotel management training.

And for a few years, they also sponsored students to attend a summer camp that brought people together from all three cities.

Josh Crane spoke to one such student.

Seeds of Peace

Talia Manning: I was really excited. 

Josh Crane: This is Talia Manning. She grew up in Essex, Vermont. And she remembers the moment she was invited to attend a summer camp called Seeds of Peace.

Talia Manning: I was really excited to be asked to participate and to learn that Americans, you know, could be involved in that way.

A woman looks smiling at a photo album in a recording studio.
Josh Crane
Vermont Public
Talia Manning attended Seeds of Peace summer camp when she was a teenager growing up in Essex, Vermont.

Josh Crane: Seeds of Peace is an international nonprofit based in the United States. It was founded around bringing American kids together with kids from the Middle East at summer camp, so they could better understand the Israel-Palestine conflict, and each other. It was established in the ’90s, around the same time as the Burlington-Bethlehem-Arad sister city relationship. And both programs share a similar ethos: emphasizing person-to-person connection, and trying to move beyond the geographical and political boundaries that separate people.

That’s why in the late ’90s, Mousa Ishaq and other leaders of the sister city program wanted to sponsor a Vermonter to attend camp at Seeds of Peace. Talia, then age 15, was an obvious fit.

She’s Jewish, and her family has roots in the Middle East. It started with her great-grandfather, who was living in Germany in the 1930s.

Talia Manning: And the night that Hitler was elected, he said, “This is not going to be good, we need to leave.” And so they left Germany that night. 

Josh Crane: After leaving Germany, Talia’s great-grandfather moved to Jerusalem. This was the 1930s, before Israel was created and when the city was still under British mandate. Even so, Talia says she’s always felt a connection to Israel, and what it represents for the Jewish people.

Talia Manning: And so for my family, Israel was the safe place that he was able to go and that he found refuge and was able to grow up.

Josh Crane: Talia learned about Seeds of Peace in social studies class in middle school. And the idea of meeting kids from the Middle East at summer camp — it was exciting. So, her rabbi recommended her for the program, and in 1999, she packed her bags for a special session of Seeds of Peace highlighting sister city relationships.

Talia met kids from Burlington’s sister cities in Bethlehem and Arad, specifically. Like Hilly Hirt.

Hilly Hirt: Usually Seeds of Peace didn't come to the periphery. It would take people from Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, Haifa, you know, main cities.

Josh Crane: Hilly grew up in Arad. She says it was a tight-knit, progressive community when she was growing up. Lots of artists, like Bethlehem and Burlington. And she says it was not a common location for Seeds of Peace to find campers. It was beautiful — views of the Dead Sea, nice sunsets — but also, kinda out of the way, and very much the desert.

Hilly Hirt: And at night, porcupines, like the huge ones, just cross your, you know, kind of like your garden and it's full of scorpions that bite you in the tush.

Josh Crane: While attending Seeds of Peace, Hilly met Talia

Hilly Hirt: She was such an extrovert. You see her and you definitely automatically want to be her friend.

Talia Manning: This is a picture of Hilly. Hilly played piano. Well, here she is in black and white with with the song that she wrote.

Josh Crane: Seeds of Peace had all the normal summer camp activities: sing-alongs, campfires, talent shows. And there was also programming more specific to the Seeds of Peace model. Cultural shows, where campers got to present something important to their heritage.

Which, for Talia:

Talia Manning: This is me, I dressed up in overalls and cow flannels to represent Vermont.

Josh Crane: Talia brought a few photo albums to our interview. And she’s pointing to a photo of herself on a stage in full “Vermont” regalia, holding a sign.

Talia Manning: The sign says, “Vermont, the Green Mountain State and home of Ben and Jerry.”


Josh Crane: In addition to these cultural displays, campers also participated in two hours of “coexistence sessions” each day. During this time, they would gather in small groups to discuss the state of the conflict, sharing their experiences and their family histories.

Talia says it worked, and that the difference in campers’ comfort level at the beginning versus the end of the summer was palpable

Talia Manning: On the first day, people would say they were afraid to go to sleep, because they were worried that the enemy was sleeping right in the bed next to them, and what would they do to them that day?

By the end, we, you know, we had the strength and bond of anyone who has attended summer camp and just, you know, falls in love with their bunk mates and their, their friends there.

Josh Crane: Hilly Hirt, from Arad, remembers her time at camp like this:

Hilly Hirt: For the first week, I probably cried that I wanted home. And then by the second week, all I was thinking was crying that I didn't want to go home.

The older you get, the more of the complexities you understand. But the simple truth of “We’re people who want to get along” stays as the base value of any complexity that comes along. 

Like, I think everything that I believe today, all my understandings, the values, are due to the fact that as a child, a 12-year-old kid, I was like, “Hey, I have a crush on this Jordanian Arab named Eyad. And he's gorgeous and sweet and a person.” And, forever, every Jordanian will be somebody who wants peace for me.

Josh Crane: One of the people Talia remembers most from her camp experience was a boy named Asel Asleh.

Talia Manning: We referred to him as the boy with the 1,000-watt smile, because he was always beaming. He just had a joy and a character. And in this photo here, he's leading, like, one of the chants.

Josh Crane: Talia’s pointing to a photo of Asel in full camp mode — mouth open, leading some sort of song as his fellow campers swarm around him. They stayed in touch even after Talia returned to Vermont and Asel returned to Israel.

A photo shows boys standing around each other, singing.
Josh Crane
Vermont Public
Asel Asleh leads a chant at Seeds of Peace camp.

Talia Manning: And he actually was my first instant message on AOL. It was just so cool to be able to talk with him, you know, across the world, just spontaneously like that. 

Josh Crane: They talked a lot about identity: Talia, a Jewish-American; Asel, an Arab-Israeli — ethnically Palestinian, but a citizen of Israel.

Talia Manning: And he talked a lot about how he felt like he didn't fit anywhere. Because he was a proud Palestinian. He also felt a strong connection to Israel, which was his home. 

Josh Crane: Around this time, Talia also started participating more actively in the Burlington, Bethlehem and Arad Sister City Program. She helped Mousa and other program leaders make a push for Bethlehem and Arad to formalize a sister city pact with each other. To that point, both cities only had direct agreements with Burlington.

Talia Manning: This is the speech that I gave—

As we talk, she points to a copy of a speech she made in 1999, in Burlington. It’s a joint statement from Talia, a camper from Bethlehem and Hilly, the camper from Arad.

Talia Manning: “We hope that the direct contact between the mayors and eventually the citizens of our sister cities — Bethlehem, Arad and Burlington — will have the same wonderful results that we experienced at camp.”

Josh Crane: The direct agreement between Bethlehem and Arad never came to pass. As best anyone can remember, politics got in the way. But, Talia remained involved by attending meetings for the sister city program.

Talia Manning: I think we had monthly meetings at the Burlington police station. 

Josh Crane: In the backdrop of those conversations, as well as the conversations Talia and Asel were having over AOL Instant Messenger, tensions in the Middle East were starting to rise again. The year 2000 marked the beginning of the Second Intifada, or Palestinian uprising.

And then she got a call from a Seeds of Peace friend who lived in that area.

Talia Manning: And, um, he just, you know, he just said, “Asel is dead.” 

Josh Crane: Asel was killed by Israeli police.

A photo shows a boy smiling wide. He's wearing a green shirt.
Josh Crane
Vermont Public
Asel Asleh, who went to Seeds of Peace and was killed by Israeli police in 2000. He was 17.

Talia Manning: When he was killed, he was wearing his Seeds of Peace t-shirt. And the reporting is that he was there observing the protest in his town. And that he was chased and beaten and shot at point-blank range in the neck by the Israeli police, who were there responding to the protest.

Josh Crane: Asel was one of 13 Arab citizens of Israel killed at that protest.

Josh Crane: How did you react?

Talia Manning: Um, I think I was in shock for a little while. I remember just kind of getting off the phone. I was up in my room, I went downstairs. And I told my mom, and my mom started crying. And I remember that sort of — it scared me, because she doesn't normally cry. She's not a crier.

I think for a while I questioned a lot of my love of Israel, and my support of Israel, because it had been Israeli police officers who brutally killed my friend. And the death of Asel was a catalyst for me to becoming more of an activist and more outspoken. 

Josh Crane: Talia says that camp alumni rallied together in the years after Asel’s death. They even protested Israel’s Ministry of Justice after it announced that none of the police officers involved in the fatal shootings of Asel or the 12 other Palestinian citizens of Israel would face criminal indictment.

Talia’s been holding onto these experiences since Oct. 7, and the beginning of the latest Israel-Hamas war. Though she says the bonds of summer camp, and their shared experiences, haven’t been enough recently to hold the Seeds of Peace community together.

Talia Manning: And in this latest outbreak, that has also been really hard to watch. I think everyone is being pushed to take a side and I feel like you are either expected to stand with Israel or to free Palestine. And I have trouble with that limited view. 

Josh Crane: She says that even some of the group chats and other lines of communication with her fellow Seeds of Peace alumni have felt challenging and unproductive. Some have been put on hiatus entirely.

So, in thinking about our guiding question with this episode: What relationships are possible right now?

Well, Talia and Hilly attended Seeds of Peace in the ’90s. It was a time of optimism and momentum for building consensus, and finding peace in the Middle East. That’s certainly something Hilly felt coming out of camp.

Hilly Hirt: I remember coming out and saying, “This is going to be my future career. Like, this is what I'm going to do. I am going to be in the peace-making business forever.”

Photos in a photo album show people dressed up in different colros playing games with each other at camp.
Josh Crane
Vermont Public
Talia Manning remembers camp having all the normal summer camp activities: sing-alongs, talent shows and color games.

Josh Crane: Hilly hasn’t lived in Arad, or been involved with Seeds of Peace, for a long time. She’s still grateful for the role camp had in her life for the three summers she attended.

But these days, she says it’s much harder to be optimistic.

Hilly Hirt: I'd say the situation today is the opposite. On all sides. You talk to Jordanians, and you talk to Egyptians and to Palestinians. There is a — what's the word for “kituv” in English? A polarization.

Josh Crane: And so, do those same programs that were created in this moment that felt completely different, do they still seem useful to you now?

Hilly Hirt: Um, that's kind of like asking Xerox if their camera is still relevant in the digital age. The answer is yes. But, but it's, it's really contingent on how innovative you are.

Josh Crane: She says she needed more support from Seeds of Peace in the years after she was a camper, like when she started her mandatory military service.

Hilly Hirt: When it comes to continuing the connection with Palestinians and the Arab world when I'm a grown-up, with what happens when we're at war, when what happens when there is conflict … and I felt that when things got tough, they weren't there enough for me.

Josh Crane: Talia goes back to Asel, and one of his favorite passages, in times like these. It’s from the 13th century poet Rumi, and it goes like this:

"Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing,

There is a field. I’ll meet you there.

When the soul lies down in that grass,

The world is too full to talk about.

Ideas, language, even the phrase “each other”

Doesn’t make any sense."

Talia Manning: And so Asel always said, “I'll meet you there in that field.”

Josh Crane: We’ll be right back.


‘Beautiful resistance’

Josh Crane: Welcome back to Brave Little State. We’re answering a question from Peg Clement about what relationship is possible these days between Burlington and two of its sister cities: Bethlehem and Arad.

I’m here now with Brave Little State associate producer, Burgess Brown. Hey, Burgess.

Burgess Brown: Hey, Josh.

Josh Crane: So, you’ve been focused on the relationship between Burlington and Bethlehem, which currently seems to be the more active side of this tripartite sister city relationship.

Burgess Brown: Yeah that’s right. And, I want to start by showing you this video.

[video starts playing]

Josh Crane: Alright, so, I’m seeing some very snazzy old-school, public-access TV graphics. And now I’m seeing some people at a table, looks like a panel. And on a screen behind them there’s footage of kids … dancing? I think?

Abdelfattah Abusrour: And despite everything, despite this violence forced on us almost daily, despite the ugliness of all of this, we dare to sing and dance. And these children dare to go to a stage and express themselves beautifully.

Burgess Brown: The public access graphics probably gave it away. But, this footage is from 2004, and the person that you’re hearing speak is Abdelfattah Abusrour. He’s narrating over a video of Palestinian children performing what’s essentially an interpretive dance.

A person sits in front of a bookshelf and a sign that says "Alrowwad: Pioneers for Life"
Abdelfattah Abusrour
Abdelfattah Abusrour started a community center and non-profit called Alrowwad, which means “pioneers for life,” based in the Aida Refugee Camp, about a mile from Bethlehem.

It’s part of an event in Burlington that the sister cities program sponsored called “Beautiful Resistance: A Fundraiser for Children’s Theater in Bethlehem.”

Abdelfattah Abusrour: This is all the history. People planting seeds, working the ground and harvesting.

Josh Crane: So, tell me a little bit more about this children’s theater program in the West Bank.

Burgess Brown: Yeah. So, it’s one of the programs of a community center that Abdelfattah started called Alrowwad, which means “pioneers for life.” And it’s based out of the Aida Refugee Camp, which is just about a mile from Bethlehem.

Abdelfattah Abusrour: These are the children behind the tank who just entered the camp. And as you see, Aida Camp is just to the south of Jerusalem, north of Bethlehem.

Josh Crane: And what is the Aida Camp?

Burgess Brown: The Aida Refugee Camp is actually where Abdelfattah was born. And it’s this densely populated camp home to more than 7,000 Palestinian refugees. It’s near the main Israeli checkpoint between Jeruselam and Bethlehem. Abdelfattah says that the constant military occupation in the camp has led to regular clashes between Aida residents — often children — and Israeli soldiers. And this is where the motivation for his theater program comes from.

Abdelfattah Abusrour: But what we try to do is to provide them with this peaceful and nonviolent alternative, because we need this generation to build the Palestine of tomorrow. So they can throw stones on stage, they can die on stage, but they can resuscitate and live again on stage.

Josh Crane: Burgess, I know you were able to reach Abdelfattah in the West Bank earlier this month.

Burgess Brown: Yep. He spoke to me from his office in the Aida Refugee Camp, which is about 5,500 miles from where I was calling him, in Burlington.

Burgess Brown: Hi Abdelfattah. It’s nice to meet you.

Abdelfattah Abusrour: Hi Burgess, nice meeting you as well. 

Burgess Brown: How are you doing?

Abdelfattah Abusrour: Alhamdulillah, could be better.

Burgess Brown: Yeah. Yeah.

Abdelfattah Abusrour: As you know. 

Burgess Brown: Abdelfattah says that life in Bethlehem has been even more difficult than usual since the start of the latest conflict.

Abdelfattah Abusrour: Bethlehem is shut down. So a lot of unemployment, a lot of lack of income for our lots of families or a lot of businesses and so on. So there is a crisis, a humanitarian crisis, let alone what is happening in Gaza with this massive destruction.

Burgess Brown: In spite of the destruction, he says the work of Alrowwad continues.

Abdelfattah Abusrour: The children are the actors, the children are onstage, the children who want to say what they want to say in the most beautiful, creative way, and shout as loud as they want. And hopefully this would be a way to build peace within themselves, to hopefully be peace-builders, in their community and in the world. 

Burgess Brown: This peace building is done, in part, through international theater tours, like the ones in 2005 and 2009 that brought the troupe to Burlington. Abdelfattah says these trips are a way for the kids to share the history of the West Bank, and their own personal histories, with the world. And then, it’s also an opportunity for the kids to see what life is like outside the refugee camp.

Abdelfattah Abusrour: I don't pretend that this is the magical wand which will resolve all the horrible things in the world. But it is a way that people can identify with, that put people on equal grounds.

Burgess Brown: As I was talking to Abdelfattah, I kept thinking about something Peg Clement, today’s winning question-asker, told us. It was about feeling powerless in times of crisis.

Peg Clement: We can't just waltz in and say, “How can we help?” You know, “Do you need toys for children?” You know, we just can't do that. We have to listen. We have to listen, deeply, to anything they would like to tell us. 

Burgess Brown: I shared Peg’s thoughts with Abdelfattah, and he’s in agreement: Listening is a critical first step.

Abdelfattah Abusrour: This is an important aspect of how you will support people with respect and dignity, and according to their needs. We are not just taking whatever is given to us. If it helps, if it is in our priorities and needs, needed for our services, it is most welcome. 

Burgess Brown: According to Abdelfattah, providing this kind of support is a strength of the sister cities program. But, he’s quick to add that words, dialogue and personal connections can only take us so far.

Five people stand together in front of Lake Champlain in Burlington.
Abdelfattah Abusroar
Abdelfattah Abusroar and his family visited Mousa Ishaq last summer. Here they are at Lake Champlain in Burlington.

Abdelfattah Abusrour: If it is just to build this aspect on personal level without going beyond to make a social or political impact, then, ehh, it would not be that productive, in that sense. It's like these relations between, like, Seeds of Peace, or whatever projects that try to bring Palestinian and Israeli together — let's have fun, dance, weep on the shoulders of each other, eat together and then we, everybody goes back to his corner of the world and nothing changes. I'm not interested in public relations, really. 

Burgess Brown: This is a critique that’s been leveled against Seeds of Peace and the sister cities program since the days that Bernie Sanders was mayor of Burlington. In a 1986 article for Against the Current, Sanders conceded that one of the fundraising efforts for Puerto Cabezas in Nicaragua was, quote, “more symbolic than anything.”

Abdelfattah Abusrour: There is good intentions. But the world would not change by good intentions, simply. It needs good actions. And the first of these good actions is trying to create these personal connections, these personal stories, but then, if it does not lead to change in the conditions of people, then it's just wasting time, a lot of times.

Burgess Brown: Abdelfattah says that, while there is an urgent need for humanitarian aid right now, what’s really needed is to address the political conditions that have created the current crisis.

Abdelfattah Abusrour: You are just continuing to react to catastrophes without really resolving the catastrophes or the causes of catastrophes, and so on. Palestine does not need reactions, we need actions to change the tragedy that is happening and to stop it.

As a Muslim, you know, our prophet, Muhammad, SallAllahu ‘alayhi wasallam, said, support your brother, whether he is oppressed or oppressor. So his companions were puzzled with this: “We do understand how to support an oppressed, but how can you support an oppressor?” He said, “By preventing him from doing the oppression.” 

You cannot make peace with oppression, occupation, injustice. People cannot coexist with oppressors and occupation as long as the oppression and occupation continue. Talking about peace without justice is void.  

Slow change

Mousa Ishaq: And the sun comes out right behind you and moves all day. So that's the east southeast—

Sabine Poux: I’m back in Mousa Ishaq’s sun room. Abdelfattah was here visiting last summer. Now, some Christmas ornaments hang on the branches of a lime tree.

A hand reaches out to Christmas ornaments on an indoor lime tree.
Sabine Poux
Vermont Public
Kris said they didn't really feel like decorating this Christmas, amid all the violence in the Middle East. But they did anyway, for their granddaughters.

Kristin Peterson-Ishaq: We only put up decorations for the kids, for our granddaughters.

Mousa Ishaq: We were tempted not to decorate. But—

Kristin Peterson-Ishaq: We were not in the mood to celebrate.

Sabine Poux: Yeah.

Kristin Peterson-Ishaq: There's just too much death and destruction.

Mousa Ishaq: You know, this occupation has gone on 56 years now, you know, on the West Bank and Gaza. And it just keeps getting worse.

Sabine Poux: To this day, amid all the death and destruction in Gaza this fall and winter, the sister cities group has refrained from engaging in what Kris calls political advocacy. But when the people in our sister cities are so impacted by the politics, what does being apolitical even mean? I put that question to Mousa.

Mousa Ishaq: I mean, we say it's not political, but everything you do with Palestine or Israel is political.

Sabine Poux: One example: Shortly after two Palestinian-Americans students and one Palestinian student were shot in Burlington last November, Mousa and Kris wanted their sister city committee to issue a statement.

Mousa Ishaq: To express our sympathy towards the families and to the students, and also ask for a ceasefire, the ceasefire was … an issue. And so we didn't— and we—

Kristin Peterson-Ishaq: We decided that we needed consensus. And we didn’t have consensus, so we didn’t issue a statement.

Mousa Ishaq: Which is sad.

Sabine Poux: What was it like to be in a meeting and see the people on the committee disagree on this thing that sounds like the two of you see is very fundamental to, to a lasting peace? Was it disappointing?

Mousa Ishaq: Yeah. We were disappointed that we could not issue a statement. You know, all we are asking for is ceasefire, to stop killing civilians. That one was a little surprising.

Kristin Peterson-Ishaq: We were, we were surprised.

Mousa Ishaq: Yeah. It was sad. But we don't give up.

A man stands in a room full of trees.
Sabine Poux
Vermont Public
Mousa Ishaq in his sunroom.

Sabine Poux: Did it change the way you think about this group at all?

Mousa Ishaq: Nope

Sabine Poux: Or you think about the work you do?

Mousa Ishaq: Nope. Because when we started, it was much more contentious.

Kristin Peterson-Ishaq: Much more difficult.

Mousa Ishaq: Much more difficult.

Sabine Poux: One thing that has gotten more difficult: Burlington has lost touch with Arad, its sister city in Israel. Mousa and Kris say that’s because the government there has gotten much more conservative. Hilly Hirt, the camper from Arad, suspects it could also be because of a change in priorities, or resources. The committee and even the Burlington mayor’s office have tried reaching out, to no avail.

It’s not the only relationship that’s faltered in recent years. Burlington suspended its official ties with the city of Yaroslavl — its sister in Russia — after President Vladimir Putin invaded Ukraine. In a letter, members of that sister cities committee said the suspension was counterproductive. Quote, “Cutting off people-to-people relationships cuts off dialogue or a way forward,” the committee wrote.

So again. To go back to that second part of Peg’s question: What sort of relationship is possible these days?

Mousa comes back to the work that the committee has been doing for the last 30 years: supporting institutions in Bethlehem and continuing people-to-people exchanges — when it’s safe to do so.

Sabine Poux: It sounds like you sort of see it as, like, on a large scale, education, and people-to-people interaction and, you know, people learning and changing their minds and understanding … eventually, that could change the tide.

Mousa Ishaq: Yes.

Sabine Poux: But that sounds like a slow, a slow process.

Mousa Ishaq: Yeah, it is, it is. Has been 30 years. And if we, if we had any illusions of fast-producing goodness, we would have been disappointed a long time ago.

Sabine Poux: Yeah. 

Mousa Ishaq: Because the situation’s actually getting worse.

Sabine Poux: The committee meets again early next month.

Mousa Ishaq: You know, the one thing to remember is we are really good friends, you know, everybody on the committee. And so, we will discuss, probably, the statement, and move beyond it.

Kristin Peterson-Ishaq: The lack of a statement.

Mousa Ishaq: Or, the lack of a statement. And move beyond it. You know, we have other projects that we are working on. And, Arad, we keep trying. You know, hopefully, we reestablish contact. It’s still officially — we are sister cities.

If it was easy, we would not have started it. But we just have to keep working on creating progress.



This episode was reported and produced by Sabine Poux, Burgess Brown and Josh Crane. Angela Evancie is our executive producer. Ty Gibbons composed our theme music; other music by Blue Dot Sessions.

Special thanks to Sophie Stephens, Sandy Baird, Prudence Doherty, Chris Burns, Rob Bliss, Emery Mattheis, Jonah Spivak, Jim Rader, and the CCTV Center for Media & Democracy.

Additional resources:

The Burlington-Bethlehem-Arad sister city committee holds public meetings on the first Monday of every month in Burlington’s Miller Center. You can find more information here.

As always, our journalism is better when you’re a part of it:

Brave Little State is a production of Vermont Public and a proud member of the NPR Network.

Josh Crane is part of Vermont Public's Engagement Journalism team. He's the senior producer and managing editor for Brave Little State, a podcast based on questions about Vermont that have been asked and voted on by the audience, and runs Vermont Public's Sonic ID project.
Burgess Brown is part of Vermont Public’s Engagement Journalism team. He is the associate producer for Brave Little State, the station's people-powered journalism project.
Sabine Poux is a reporter/producer with Brave Little State. She comes to Vermont by way of Kenai, Alaska, where she was a reporter, news director, and on-air host for almost three years. Her reporting on commercial fishing and energy has been syndicated across Alaska and on NPR.