Whether you catch a few minutes of a local news segment, scan through the daily headlines of a major newspaper, or simply listen to a conversation while running errands, stories of devastation, hardship and turmoil emerge . But while it might seem like the bad times always take center stage, it’s in these moments that we often see the best in humanity.
Take, for example, the Russian-Ukrainian war. Since Russia first invaded the Eastern European country on February 24, massive destruction has followed. Buildings that once served essential purposes have been turned into rubble. Many structures still standing echo the vacancy. People had to take refuge in the subways or fled west to find safety in countries like Poland. And as of April 12, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights has reported 1,932 civilian deaths, with that number likely to be even higher.
Horrible is the only way to describe what has happened and continues to happen in this country. Amid all that happened, however, glimmers of hope and good shone. Ukraine has shown what true bravery and courage entail. People around the world have offered their support (substantial and symbolic), and many American communities with sister cities across the country have stepped up to help their Ukrainian counterparts.
Founded by former President Dwight D. Eisenhower in the 1950s, Sister Cities International is a nonprofit organization that works to promote peace through mutual respect, understanding, and cooperation by fostering connections between people of different communities around the world.
When choosing a sister city, communities often look for similarities, whether in demographics, interests, or industries. And to formalize a relationship, the mayor (or highest elected or appointed official) of each city signs a memorandum of understanding.
We caught up with people from Rockford, Illinois and Cincinnati, both of which have sister cities in Ukraine, to learn more about the connections they’ve made with these communities and how they’re providing support. during this difficult time.
Rockford, Illinois and Brovary—bond over football
A visit by a Kyiv football team in 1994 sparked a relationship between Rockford and Brovary, a suburb of Kyiv in northern Ukraine, with the two officially becoming sister cities in 1995. Soon after, a group Rockford-based called Kids Around the World, which works with children in multiple countries to ensure their spiritual, physical and emotional well-being, traveled to Brovary to build a playground. Since then, the link between the cities has only grown. The then mayor of Bovary visited Rockford, his wife lived in the town for six months, and their son married in the area, among other things.
“I think it really cemented a lot of our relationship,” said Rockford Mayor Tom McNamara, who took office in 2017.
While McNamara says he generally keeps in touch with the mayor’s office, checking in occasionally and exchanging pleasantries over the holidays, he began reaching out regularly to see if they needed anything. when the threat of invasion began to escalate.
As soon as their sister city mentioned a need, which McNamara says arose immediately after the Russian invasion, Rockford sprang into action, providing money, medicine and food.
“I think that’s why you have sister cities, isn’t it?” I mean, you obviously have sister cities when things are going well, and you learn best practices — if it’s crime prevention, if it’s economic development — you have partnerships,” McNamara says. “But really, you need friends when you’re struggling the most, and when we saw Brovary struggling and going through this horrible time, we had to do something.”
Four organizations — the city of Rockford, the Rockford Area Convention and Visitors Bureau, Kids Around the World and the Community Foundation of Northern Illinois — came together to develop the Brovary Relief Fund in early March. Since then, Rockford has raised more than $160,000, bought more than $50,000 worth of medicine, and sent more than 270,000 meals.
Regarding the distribution of collected resources, McNamara says they have partnered with Chicago Rockford International Airport and other companies like Senator International, a global logistics company. Although it took a lot of coordination, they were able to deliver supplies to Brovary in about a week.
“They are overjoyed. They are humble, but I would also say they need so much,” McNamara says of those in Brovary. “I’m not minimizing what we’ve done, but what we’ve done is really a small, small gesture of what they really need.”
Going forward, McNamara says Rockford will continue to work hard to meet Brovary’s needs.
“I think we’re just called to do whatever we can,” he said. “And I think we’re going to continue to fundraise, and as Brovary’s requests are detailed and we think we can meet or we can find partners to meet, we’re going to do everything we can to do that. do it for them.
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Cincinnati and Kharkiv—relationships and friendships
Cincinnati and Kharkiv, a city in northeastern Ukraine, saw many opportunities for collaboration and became sister cities in 1989, when Ukraine was still part of the Soviet Union.
After becoming independent in 1991, Bob Herring, president of the Cincinnati-Kharkiv Sister City Partnership, said things had changed significantly as Ukraine sought to establish a functioning democracy and free market.
Cincinnati was better able to help its counterpart in this way after the US Congress launched the Open World Leadership Center. It began in 1999 as a pilot program and was formalized in 2000. This international exchange agency introduces young leaders from emerging countries, including Ukraine, to American democratic systems of government and free market operations.
“So, for example, there was a group during my tenure as president that came from Kharkiv to look at energy efficiency – what are the best practices here,” Herring says. “So we would connect them with Duke Energy, with the University of Cincinnati, with solar energy companies…just to talk about best practices and energy conservation.”
Over the past 33 years, these cities have connected in many ways, resulting in many friendships. For example, the Cincinnati Jewish community helped restore the Kharkiv Synagogue, student exchanges took place regularly before the pandemic, and an international children’s art program was held each year, where the art of local and Ukrainian students was exhibited in Cincinnati, then transferred to Kharkiv for display in a museum, according to Herring.
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Everything – from the frequency of their communications, to the topics they discuss, to the plans they make and the general appearance of Kharkiv – has changed since Russia invaded Ukraine.
“We have a photo of a gallery in the museum where the windows are blown out and all sorts of things are strewn across the floor – this is Mariemont (primary school) children’s art, as well as children’s art of Kharkiv,” Herring said.
And while several text messages and emails were exchanged between the two cities when the war started, Herring says these decreased as many people left Kharkiv.
To help and support their sister city and country, citizens and organizations around Cincinnati immediately stepped up. City Council passed resolution supporting Ukraine and US sanctions on Russia, Cincinnati Police Department donated nearly 1,000 ballistic helmets, landmark buildings lit up blue and yellow to show solidarity and several nonprofits and charities in the greater Cincinnati area raised supplies and funds.
One fundraising organization is the Cincinnati-Kharkiv Sister City Partnership, which to date has sent approximately $84,000 to the Kharkiv Red Cross. Herring says the organization will soon start sending money to mayors of towns surrounding Kharkiv as well. A city needs funds to buy a generator to keep their hospital running.
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As the money continues to be raised every day and new, as yet unannounced initiatives are in the works, Herring has other things in mind as well.
“The interesting question, which it is far too early to ask, but never too early to think about, is reconstruction. “How can Cincinnati help Kharkiv rebuild? “And that’s all, of course, based on the assumption that there remains a part of Ukraine, free and independent,” he says.
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