Extended Family

O n the phone from Changsha, China, David Youtz, then-president of the Yale-China Association, described the city: skyscrapers 60 to 70 stories high, traffic congestion, Western goods including—somewhat to his surprise—a Lamborghini dealership he passed that morning. He described, too, the remainders of the old city, where shops are situated 15 feet below street level, selling noodles, bubble tea, flowers, books. “The old town is still here,” Youtz said, even though Changsha has tripled in size in the last 25 years. “When I was first coming here in the early ’90s, it felt like a small city, and now it feels like a big city”—now a big city of more than 7 million people, to be somewhat exact.

Changsha is the newest of New Haven’s eight “sister cities,” a designation intended to secure a “broad-based, long-term partnership” between cities in two different countries, which might include “municipal, business, trade, educational, and cultural exchanges and projects,” according to Sister Cities International. But New Haven’s history with Changsha actually goes back much further than this 2018 agreement. Following the Boxer Rebellion in late 19th-century China—a violent response by Chinese peasants to what Encyclopedia Britannica describes as “growing economic impoverishment, a series of unfortunate natural calamities, and unbridled foreign aggression in the area”—a group of Yale graduates “wanted to do something to help China,” Youtz explained. “Some people from Yale were killed in the rebellion, and it got international attention.”

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Yale’s representatives were welcomed in Changsha, where they eventually helped to establish a high school named Yali—a name Youtz said was “sort of an early translation of ‘Yale’”—as well as a hospital with a medical school and nursing school named Xiangya, or “Hunan Yale.” Through the first half of the 20th century, Yale’s relationship with Changsha grew, until the Korean War, in which China and the US were at odds. “As soon as the US and China reestablished relations in 1979, our organization went back… [and we’ve been] working very closely with them ever since,” Youtz said. About 100 New Haveners and Changsha residents make the trip annually, including students and teachers on exchanges and medical personnel taking classes, developing projects, undertaking research and doing residencies.

That relationship made Changsha “a natural sister city,” Youtz said, and today the ties between the two run a bit wider than Yale. Then-mayor Toni Harp visited Changsha in 2018 with a New Haven delegation to make a pitch for Chinese business investment in the city. Students at Hopkins School and Educational Center for the Arts have undertaken exchange programs with Yali students, and teachers from Yali have taught Mandarin Chinese and Chinese culture at John C. Daniels Interdistrict Magnet School of International Communication.

Although Changsha and Yale go way back, New Haven’s relationship with another sister city, Freetown, Sierra Leone, goes back even further by way of the 1839 Amistad mutiny. When the ship arrived on American shores, the enslaved Mende people of Sierra Leone who had overtaken the ship were imprisoned in New Haven, eventually being tried and released. Many returned to Africa.

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In 1995, a delegation from Freetown came to New Haven to participate in the worldwide Special Olympics, jump-starting a relationship that continues today. Volunteer Althea Norcott was among those who visited Freetown in 1997 on a “fact-finding mission,” while bringing everything from toothbrushes to roofing supplies. Every other year, Norcott says, the Freetown New Haven Sister City Project, maintained by a group of local volunteers, sends whatever is most needed. In the wake of the 2014-15 Ebola outbreak, the group raised over $100,000 to send four vans, which were converted into ambulances, along with water and medical supplies. In 2019, they collected sporting equipment to send to Freetown schools. Norcott calls the work “a community effort,” citing assistance from James Hillhouse High School, New Haven Reads, local fraternities and sororities and doctors at Yale, who stepped up to raise funds for the ambulances.

On her visits to Sierra Leone, Norcott has seen the nation change. “The first time we went [to Freetown], it was a beautiful city,” she recalls. “And then, of course, there was the rebel war [from 1991 to 2002], so the second time… we were trying to help build it up again.”

The city of Leon, Nicaragua, has been a sister city to New Haven even longer, since the mid-1980s. Concerned about the nation following its bloody revolution and the Reagan Administration’s support of the counter-revolutionary Contras, a group of New Haveners traveled to Nicaragua in 1984. Upon their return, they established the sister city relationship, and in the 38 years since, well over 1,000 people from greater New Haven have traveled to Nicaragua to volunteer with projects focusing on education, public health and domestic violence prevention, says Chris Schweitzer, program director for the New Haven/Leon Sister City Project, which operates as an independent nonprofit.

Though the group’s work began in Leon, it has since shifted its focus to two rural communities, Troilo and Goyena, which were largely displaced by Hurricane Mitch in 1998. Today, the sister city project in New Haven provides fundraising and support for Nicaraguan colleagues. The organization has also taken up the cause of climate change, which Schweitzer sees as the primary issue that must be addressed if any other problems are to be solved. “The real concern,” he says, “is if we don’t cut greenhouse gases significantly in the short term, no matter what you do to help these countries adapt, we’re not going to keep up.”

These are just three of New Haven’s eight sister city projects worldwide, which also include relationships with Afula-Gilboa, Israel; Amalfi, Italy; Avignon, France; Hue, Vietnam and Tetlonohcan, Mexico. Real siblings don’t always get along, but these sisters—whether sharing resources in an exchange of cultures or drawing support from New Haven for deep-rooted, ongoing problems—have ties that bind. “I feel like the world needs more sister cities,” David Youtz said on the line from Changsha. “We need to bring people together.”

Written and photographed by Kathy Leonard Czepiel. This updated story was originally published on May 2, 2019.

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About Kathy Leonard Czepiel

View all posts by Kathy Leonard Czepiel
Kathy Leonard Czepiel is a writer and communications pro whose perfect New Haven day would involve lots of sunshine, a West Rock hike, a concert on the Green and a coffee milkshake. She posts twice-weekly content for book clubs in her Substack newsletter, Better Book Clubs.

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