By Irada Akhoundova
I was born in Azerbaijan but came to Houston 20 years ago with my husband, who is a petrochemical scientist. I was surprised that my adopted city could feel so much like home.
My hometown of Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan, and my adoptive home of Houston are natural siblings. Both are port cities. Both have economies built on the energy industry. Both are international cities with diverse and inclusive cultures.
That's why, for the past 12 years, I have volunteered with the Houston-Baku Sister City Association.
The idea of sister cities may seem purely ceremonial to some in the United States. But I can assure you, when Houston and Baku became sister cities in 1976, it had a big impact on Azerbaijan.
Azerbaijan was a part of the U.S.S.R., and there was not much contact between East and West. There was not one single Azerbaijani living in Houston. Former Mayor Louis Welch had the idea of linking the two oil-producing cities. A few years later, the two cities' relationship was established by then-Mayor Fred Hofheinz.
Under the sister city program, many Azerbaijanis got their first look at America. They were welcomed by Houstonians and formed real bonds, allowing both sides to cut through some of the Cold War tension of the time.
After Azerbaijan gained its independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, many Texans came to work and live in Baku to help Azerbaijan develop its oil and gas resources.
Our organization is non-political, so it would be in inappropriate for me to comment on the op-ed "Sister city violates Houston values" (Page A17, Nov 4). There are a couple things I can say, however.
First, America's sister cities overseas have never been selected based on whether their home countries' governments are like the U.S. Indeed, quite the opposite is the case. The sister city program is designed to bring people together and to celebrate our common humanity. If U.S. cities chose only foreign cities that look like ours, what would be the point?
Second, it would be a shame to allow politics to harm or possibly end the tremendously friendly and productive relationship that Houston and Baku have built over the past 41 years. I remember the old ways in my home country when leaders were eager to restrict humanitarian contact between countries and turn person-to-person programs into political tools to punish foes and reward friends. Doing the same again has no place in Houston or in America.
In addition to the annual musical and cultural events our organization puts on - often in cooperation with the Sister Cities of Houston, which includes all 18 Houston sister cities - we are working to provide opportunities for Azerbaijanis and Texans alike.
We were a key part of the 2014 visit to Houston by the Baku Higher Oil School to the University of Houston. A year later, a group from the University of Houston visited Baku. As a result, three of the top universities in Azerbaijan signed an agreement with UH for education exchange. Already, UH is hosting four Azerbaijani students. In turn, UH students from several majors can study at ADA University in Baku.
Our group also organizes reunions of Houstonians who have lived and worked in Azerbaijan's oil fields to help them reconnect and to thank them for their profound impact on my home country's development.
I know on a personal level how much these opportunities have meant to the people who've had a chance to take advantage of them.
I'm happy to have lived in Houston for the past 20 years because of the warmth and friendliness that Houstonians have always shown me and my family. We've been here long enough that my second grandchild is on the way. Maybe aside from Baku, I can't think of a better place for a baby to be born.
Irada Akhoundova is the president of the Houston-Baku Sister City Association.