ashland.news
June 14, 2024

Ties between Ashland and Ukraine grow closer with new sister-city relationship

Residents of Sviatohirsk gather. Image from city of Ashland staff report for meeting of June 20, 2023, under the heading "НАШІ МРІЇ" (our dreams).
June 21, 2023

City Council unanimously approved proposal delivered by steering committee members Tuesday

By Holly Dillemuth, Ashland.news

The Ashland City Council unanimously approved a sister city partnership with Sviatohirsk, Ukraine, at the end of Tuesday’s regular business meeting. The action, which authorizes Ashland Mayor Tonya Graham to sign a memorandum of understanding with the mayor of Sviatohirsk, came on the eve of Ashland city officials first official return visit to its current sister city of Guanajuato, Mexico, since 2019 on Wednesday. 

The move to bring the proposal forward was led by Ashland resident Ben Stott, who volunteered with aid organizations across Ukraine in fall 2022 and serves as secretary of the Ashland Ukraine Restoration Project/A Sister-City Initiative, and a steering committee aimed at the restoration of the Ukrainian city. Stott, a semi-retired acupuncturist, has lived in Ashland since 1989. The committee, which is working on creating a 501(c)(3) nonprofit status, currently accepts donations via Ukraine Aid International

“The idea came to me that that would be a good thing for Ashland to do because it would be a way to create more of a city-wide concern about Ukraine than I could generate on my own,” Stott told Ashland.news Wednesday morning.

Stott acknowledges, from his own travels in-country, that for those who want to help, the huge level of need can be daunting.

“There’s hundreds of cities that have been bombed,” he said. “Many people, they don’t know where to start.”

Ashland residents and proponents of a new sister city in Ukraine, Jim Nagel and Ben Stott share with City Councilors on Tuesday their plans to help support a newly created sister city in Sviatohirsk, Ukraine. Screen shot of RVTV cablecast.
‘Focusing on one city’

Creating a sister city brings the mission home, in more ways than one.

“Our idea was, by focusing on one city that had some kind of affinity for our city, we could engage people’s compassion because it’s at a human scale,” Stott said.

The Ukrainian city is located in the northern part of Donetsk region of Ukraine and sits among hills and forests, he said.

Longtime Ashland High School and Southern Oregon University coach Jim Nagel serves as president of the committee. 

Nagel approached Stott at a fundraiser talk earlier this year, Stott said, and he took him up on his offer to help. Nagel is helping to create a concert fundraiser in August that will likely also feature speakers.

Stott and Nagel presented the pitch to councilors early in the meeting Tuesday, with the official vote taking place near the end of a three-and-a-half-hour meeting.

“We’re in our infancy … We have not asked for a cent from anyone at this point,” Nagel told City Councilors. “That’s why our first intended fundraiser is in August, which we hope will give us time to establish all of those necessary things to ensure to our citizens that we are a legitimate organization.”

In an interview at an Ashland coffee shop Wednesday, Stott praised Mayor Graham for her support of the project throughout the process that led up to approval of the new sister city agreement, which will become official with the signature from the mayor of Sviatohirsk.

“They did all the legwork,” Graham later told Ashland.news. 

Ashland residents and proponents of a new sister city in Ukraine, Jim Nagel, left, and Ben Stott, right, share with City Councilors on Tuesday their plans to help support a newly created sister city in Sviatohirsk, Ukraine. Screen shot of RVTV cablecast.
Mayor-to-mayor Zoom call

Stott approached her in recent weeks about the concept.  It wasn’t long before she was on a Zoom call with Sviatohirsk Mayor Volodymyr Rybalkin. 

Rybalkin is “the head of the local military administration, who acts as a sort of interim mayor,” according to a New York Times report.

Graham was able to gauge through the call the tense conditions Ukrainians face daily in Sviatohirsk.

“When you talk to someone who is 50 kilometers (about 30 miles) from the Russian front in the Ukraine, there is just a strain through their entire body that you can pick up on even from Zoom,” Graham said. “His phone was ringing constantly and I told him through the interpreter, feel free to take any call you need. And he said, ‘My phone rings all the time. If I answer it, you and I will never talk.’”

“It was a really interesting call,” she added. “What came through really loud and clear for me was how much he loved his community.”

As soon as he started to talk about his community, all of the visible strain in Rybalkin’s face softened, Graham said.

“You could just tell how proud he was of being from this place,” Graham said, “and 

how much it mattered to him that it would continue to be a beautiful place where 

people could live and farm and be OK.”

Sviatohirsk’s population numbered in the 4,000-5,000 range prior to the invasion of Ukraine, but now hovers around 500 people. 

The city is noted for its beauty — it’s called “the Switzerland of the Donbas Region” by France 24, an international news agency.

The town of Sviatohirsk, Ukraine, marked by the red pin, is southeast of Kharkiv and north of Mariupol. Map data ©2023 Google
Rebuilding civic infrastructure

The new sister city relationship will involve various reciprocal activities in education, the arts, and business, such as exchange programs, scholarships, cultural events, language training programs and potential business partnerships, according to the council staff report. However, due to the ongoing conflict in Ukraine, Ukrainian cities are currently in need of immediate assistance and are unable to reciprocate in the short term, the report states.

“The city (of Sviatohirsk) was 70% destroyed by the Russians,” Stott said. “They were occupied for four months. When they (Russians) left, they stole pretty much everything.”

Items plundered include, but are not limited to, infrastructure for civil society, as well as ambulances, police vehicles, garbage trucks and dump trucks — all gone.

“They cleaned out the hospital,” Stott said. “They just wiped out everything and stole it, and so what we’re hoping to do through fundraising and public awareness is to help them rebuild the civic infrastructure so that they can get a working government again so people will start to move back to the city.”

Graham said she heard from Sviatohirsk’s mayor about the destruction of many parts of the Ukrainian town, but the Ukrainian mayor emphasized there is hope in the future of reciprocating the relationship with Ashland. But right now, resources are needed.

“I could just tell that he didn’t want to ask,”Graham said. “It just strikes me that that’s not his normal way of operating in the world, is to be in this position where he just is in need of so many things.”

“He said, ‘Just knowing that someone sees what’s happening to us and cares does so much for what this is for us,” Graham said.

Graham emphasized that the city isn’t promising the Ukrainian city financial resources, but that they are partnering with the local steering committee to fundraise for their new sister city.

“Being able to respond to specific requests, I think, is part of the magic of this type of community-to-community program,” Graham said.

“Ashland signed on as a City of Peace years ago,” she added. “We didn’t sign on and say we’re a City of Peace when it suits us or we’re a City of Peace when it’s not going to cost us anything that we feel uncomfortable with … We have said we will do what we can and that’s all we’re signing up for with this is to help the community of Ashland channel what it feels like it can contribute to this other community in the Ukraine. We’re not promising any particular material aid from the city, but we are essentially partnering with this community group to channel the compassion of our community in a direct community-to-community relationship in the Ukraine.”

Benjamin Stott. Ashland.news photo by Holly Dillemuth
Proposal put to council

City Councilor Dylan Bloom on Tuesday night praised the concept of the sister city partnership and made the motion to authorize Graham to sign a memo of understanding creating the new partnership.

“I think this is really important,” Bloom said. “If a bunch of cities around the United States, around the world, can all team up and partner with cities in Ukraine, we can all contribute just that little bit …. It doesn’t put a lot of burden on us as an individual city and it could go a long 

way to getting them some sense of normalcy, which has been absolutely ripped away from them.”

In a statement to the city of Ashland, the steering committee writes that members intend to provide support to the new sister city that has demonstrated courage and resilience in the face of immense suffering, with the belief that once the war is over, the partner city will regain its strength and become a generous partner in an “ongoing, mutually supportive relationship,” according to the staff report. 

Stott also hopes that Ashland can serve as a model for how cities can play a positive role in Ukraine’s recovery.

“The vision is for the Ashland community to assist the partner city in restoring necessary physical infrastructure to enable its city government to function and protect its citizens,” read a statement by the steering committee. “This may involve replacing looted vehicles such as garbage trucks, police cars and fire engines, as well as rebuilding medical clinics and damaged water treatment plants. 

“By establishing direct communication between the two city governments, facilitated by translation services provided by Ukraine Aid International, specific needs can be identified and targeted for fundraising activities by the committee and the Ashland community.”

“The steering committee has already initiated communication between the mayors of Ashland and Sviatohirsk through an introductory Zoom call. Now, they are requesting the approval of the Ashland City Council to establish a sister city relationship with Sviatohirs’k in the Donetsk Oblast of Ukraine.”

Stott said the steering committee isn’t trying to rebuild anything permanently until the war is over, due to ongoing conflicts.

“They do need to have working civil organizations, primarily a police department and a fire department and a sanitation department, those kind of things,” Stott said.

Stott been there, knows the need

The steering committee members hope the Ashland community will support the general intent of providing humanitarian aid to Ukraine and participate in specific activities determined by the steering committee to support the recovery of the partner city. Direct financial support from the city of Ashland is not being requested, but they would appreciate “the city’s communications assistance mobilizing community support for fundraising events and raising awareness about the challenging conditions faced by all citizens of Ukraine.”

“We want to help them rebuild their agriculture,” Stott said. “They asked for seeds so that farmers could plant and they probably will need some fertilizer.”

Stott’s interest in Ukraine stems from meeting with a mutual friend and humanitarian volunteer who lived in Ashland last summer who volunteered in the eastern European country.

“I felt an instantaneous calling to do the same,” Stott told Ashland.news. “She gave me sort of … a doorway of how to do that because she’d already been there.”

He traveled to Ukraine in late September 2022 and stayed through early December. 

“I went everywhere,” Stott said. 

He drove aid to various cities in Ukraine, first to Khiv and then to Zaporizhzhia in southern Ukraine. 

“I based in Kyiv for a while, then I moved to Kharkiv,” Stott said, noting he worked with various aid groups. “I drove with a French filmmaker and we went pretty much all over the country.”

Stott became extensively involved with a group called Ukraine Aid International (UAI) during his travels in Ukraine. The aid organization is headquartered in Easton, Connecticut, which is also a sister city to Sviatohirsk.

“Aid comes to Ukraine through large organizations quite easily, like Red Cross, Rotary, UNICEF, groups like that,” Stott said. “It comes to big regional warehouses in large cities in Ukraine and then it gets stuck there because of bureaucratic reasons and turf battles … The aid doesn’t get out to … to the little villages where people have had their towns destroyed and the people are starving.”

“The villagers, they don’t have a home, they don’t have electricity, they don’t have computers,” Stott added. “They don’t have the capacity to do anything like that … because of the bureaucratic morass there, that people are not getting aid.”

Because of this state of affairs, Stott said there’s a whole group of people coming from all over the world, like himself, who make the deliveries in towns around the war torn nation.

“These aid workers will take the aid and they will drive out on these bombed out, mined, difficult roads out to the villages and actually get the aid in the hands of the people who need it,” he said. 

“That’s what I was doing, too, so I saw a lot of this,” he added. “I saw how heroic and amazing these people were that just kept working under really difficult and dangerous conditions to try 

and actually do the humanitarian aid that really counted.”

Stott became acquainted with UAI, which acts as a “pass through” agency that can direct funds to those who need it in Ukraine.

“I started raising money and giving it to them with directions to send the money to the groups that I’d been working with that I thought really needed support,” he said. “I found them to be very reliable.”

Stott discovered the aid agency also helped facilitate sister city projects, including providing translation services and introducing the cities to one another.

When he returned to Ashland last December, he brought with him a sense of having a mission to fundraise for Ukraine. He gave talks about his trip and shared about his travels.

The rest is not just his story, but is now Ashland’s, too.

“In Ashland, we only have limited resources so we needed to choose a place that isn’t too big (for a sister city),” Stott said.

Home to Russian Orthodox monasteries

Sviatohirsk is home to four monasteries, including The Holy Dormition Sviatohirsk Lavra and the Monastery of the Caves — which, according to a New York Times report, is one of the five holiest sites of the Russian Orthodox Church. 

Stott said while Sviatohirsk is located in a heavily Russian-speaking area of Ukraine, that doesn’t mean they are proponents of the Russian invasion.

“You can speak Russia without identifying with Russia,” Stott said. “The language issue is a red herring.”

There are divisions and political and religious tensions that are present in the Russian Orthodox Church, which has divided into the Ukrainian and Russian Orthodox churches, and Sviatohirsk is representative of that.

But it is most known for its beauty, according to Stott, attracting tourists in the hundreds of thousands to see the monasteries and the beauty.

“They have 200,000 tourists a year in a non-war time,” Stott said. “So it’s similar to Ashland in that they have a large tourist industry. They also have a lot of forests around the town, which is on a river, so it has a similar geography to ours.” 

The city has a large agricultural base, too, Stott said, and there’s a growing need there for seeds for planting.

“There’s enough similarities that we felt that Ashland maybe could empathize and identify with some of the issues that that city has in terms of rebuilding their infrastructure,” he said.

“In the future, they would be a good partner for a more reciprocal relationship … it wouldn’t just be us giving to them but they are very proud and they want to participate and give back in 

the form of cultural and maybe even economic ties of some kind.”

There’s concern about restoring the forests in Sviatohirsk because much of it has been burned by Russian bombardment, he said.

Stott hasn’t been to the city but he hopes to, and he will be traveling there in July to present a memorandum signed by Graham.

“I’m thinking it’s a very workable relationship,” Stott said.

Ashland Deputy City Manager Sabrina Cotta and City Councilor Bob Kaplan flew to Guanajuato, Mexico, on Wednesday morning for an official city visit, led by sister city founder Chela Tapp-Kocks, known simply as “Señora Chela,” who traveled ahead of them. The sister city relationship was established in 1969.

It is the city’s first visit to Guanajuato, Mexico, by city officials since before the COVID-19 pandemic.

Southern Oregon University President Rick Bailey, along with members of his administrative cabinet, visited Guanajuato in August 2022.

“We will find out in this process with the local organizers, what does our community want to do in relation to helping Sviatohirsk with these imminent needs, and my hope is that it does turn into something like what we have with Guanajuato,” Graham said. “We have one of the longest, if not the longest, sister city relationships with Mexico … It’s a very unique relationship and, I’m hoping, over time we will get to do something similar with Sviatohirsk.”

Reach Ashland.news reporter Holly Dillemuth at hollyd@ashland.news.

Related article: Ashland High School teacher Paul Huard will be volunteering in Ukraine in July. Look for dispatches about his experience in Ukraine in Ashland.news in early, mid and late July.

Picture of Bert Etling

Bert Etling

Bert Etling is the executive editor of Ashland.news. Email him at betling@ashland.news.

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