A long courtship between the state of Iowa and the southeast European country of Kosovo is about to become formal; the two governments are preparing to tie the diplomatic knot with the opening of the first foreign consulate in Iowa.
Iowa is becoming part of Kosovo's modern history after years of conflict following the breakup of Yugoslavia. Kosovo's struggle for independence hit bottom in 1999, and NATO forces intervened on behalf of those who wanted autonomy from Yugoslavia. The struggle was given widespread news coverage.
"Mile after mile of southern-most Kosovo, emptied of its people, houses looted and then gutted by fire."
Some 800 Iowa National Guard troops have deployed to Kosovo, first as peacekeepers, and later as mentors. Since declaring its independence from Serbia seven years ago, the Iowa guard has helped the fledgling republic build its own security force. Now, those military connections are paying dividends, as Kosovar civilians flow into Iowa, spreading the word that Kosovo is open for business.
Four members of parliament visited Iowa in October and told their stories.
"Kosovo is known as the country with the youngest population in Europe. That sets us apart from many other countries in the world."
Former journalist Doruntine Maloku is newly elected and is following her father's footsteps in politics. He was assassinated in front of their home in 1999.
"It may sound weird for you, but for us it is very important. In ever village in Kosovo you can find a house flying your flag, American flag."
The bond grew closer two years ago, when Governor Branstad went to their capital to welcome Kosovo as an Iowa Sister State. National Guard Commanding General Timothy Orr laid out his vision for the future.
"I've now linked all the ministries of the Kosovo government to the department heads of the Iowa government. This now opens the way for business, industry, education, agriculture in any aspect we want to look at."
The trans-Atlantic connections are reaching into grassroots Iowa. Johnston and Fort Dodge have friendships with sister cities. Kosovar students are being educated here, at Graceland, the University of Iowa, and Johnston High School, where Rina Lipa is a junior.
"The most challenging thing that I tried is that I started running here and I'm doing cross country and it's really going well."
Michele Poss is her Iowa mother.
"The youth in Kosovo are just very smart everyone in our neighborhood now knows where Kosovo is."
If Iowa had a foreign minister, it might be Kim Heidemann. She is director of the Sister States program which now extends to nine countries, Kosovo being the newest.
"You know, these are truly their founding fathers we are working with and it's amazing to have the opportunity to walk with them as they put together their civil society."
Iowa isn't some frontier outpost in the diplomatic world; it makes sense for foreign interests to be closer to agriculture, where it's affordable and where one-on-one contacts are easier than in big cities. Ryan Carroll is with the Greater Des Moines Partnership and represents the business community.
"What it shows for Kosovo and what some of the attractiveness is, it really allows some of these folks that would look at Des Moines, the opportunity to be a big fish in a small pond if you will."
The Balkan republic, while much smaller than Iowa, is getting oversized attention as it prepares to make history when it opens the state's only full time diplomatic mission. Pending final approval, a grand opening for Iowa's first consulate is expected in downtown Des Moines later this year, and officials say it could lead to more national flags flying over Iowa. I'm Rick Fredericksen, Iowa Public Radio News.