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In visit to Mediterranean sister city, West Palm officials look forward to slice of Turkey

By Andrew Abramson
Palm Beach Post Staff Writer
Posted: 6:03 p.m. Thursday, May 20, 2010

WEST PALM BEACH — In Mayor Lois Frankel's ongoing quest to turn West Palm Beach into an international destination, she'll travel about 6,000 miles next week to pitch West Palm to the Turkish community.

Frankel is heading to Turkey on Monday to embrace Mersin as West Palm's new sister city.

Mersin boasts more than 800,000 residents and has its own established waterfront.

Frankel, along with city spokesman Peter Robbins, Westward Elementary principal Melvis Pender and Palm Beach County Director of Multicultural Education Margarita Pinkos are making the long trek to Turkey to establish ties with a city they knew nothing about until earlier this year.

"We get so caught up everyday in things like the red light cameras, and there's a lot more to life than that," Frankel said. "I think its important that we recognize we're part of a bigger world."

The trip won't cost the city or the school district — the Turkish government is putting Frankel and the others up in Mersin, and the airfare is being funded through grant money and out-of-pocket, officials say.

Al Cengiz, president of the Turkish American Chamber of Commerce President, approached Frankel months ago about pairing up with Mersin. He wanted to establish a Turkish festival at West Palm Beach's refurbished waterfront, while sharing economic and educational opportunities.

"I'm sure as we go forward we'll have some events that will highlight the connection, and hopefully we can create some synergy for an exchange of business and certainly educational opportunities for the kids," Frankel said.

The idea of sister cities, also called twin towns, has existed for about a century.

In 1931, Toledo, Ohio established ties with Toledo, Spain, creating the first sister city relationship with an American city.

This isn't the first time West Palm Beach has had a sister city. Under former mayor Nancy Graham, West Palm built ties with Tzahar, Israel. Frankel wasn't sure how or why that relationship faded.

Critics have argued that sister cities have no true benefits, although Pender, the principal of Westward Elementary, said it's a great opportunity for "cultivating internationally minded students." Westward Elementary is the only school in West Palm Beach with an International Baccalaureate program.

The fact that Mersin is a Muslim-dominated city should make it even more of an eye-opening experience for his students, Pender said.

"We know there are a lot of misconceptions and incorrect perceptions out there, about students and people in other cultures, especially that one," Pender said. "We want to foster different attitudes, and one of the attitudes is tolerance."

Pender said teachers from his school will have bi-monthly video chats with teachers at a school is Mersin, and Westward students will also team up with students in Mersin to work on projects together.

In addition to visiting schools, Frankel said, she will visit Mersin's chamber of commerce to learn about workforce training and green businesses, and enjoy some leisure time at an international music festival.

She'll also meet with her Turkish counterpart, Mersin Mayor Macit Özcan, who was elected to a third-term in 2009. That could also be a sore point for Frankel, who is prevented from a third go-round by term limits.

"It'll be very interesting," Frankel said of the trip. "We'll recognize and send a message that we're part of the world."

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