Sister City Partnership Will Contribute Funds to Support Embattled Sviatohirsk Residents

There’s a coffee shop in the rural town of Sviatohirsk in the Donetsk region of Ukraine owned by a man who collects car license plates from U.S. states. 

His hobby of acquiring license plates from distant places might help to distract him momentarily from the destruction that surrounds him. His once picturesque town lies in ruins. Many of his neighbors were killed when Russian forces occupied the town last year. Those who remain rely on humanitarian assistance to survive.

He has license plates from Hawaii and Alaska and hopes to add one from Connecticut. 

He may soon get his wish.

A coffee shop owner in Sviatohirsk, Ukraine. – Courtesy of UAI

Easton has recently partnered with Sviatohirsk through a sister city program with Ukraine Aid International (UAI). The organization is made up of volunteers in Ukraine who organize the hand-to-hand delivery of humanitarian aid to more than 100 front line communities impacted by the Russian invasion.

The Easton Board of Selectmen approved the partnership and a steering committee of local residents has been formed to help implement the initiative. First Selectman David Bindelglass said the steering committee’s task will be to raise money to resupply and support Sviatohirsk’s efforts to rebuild the town and to foster a lasting relationship with its residents. Members of the committee are Alison and Abby Bonoff, Kelly Higgins, Gale Bellas Papageorge, Bob Nicola, Claire Wilkes, Diane McCann and Cleo Sonneborn.

Bindelglass said Sviatohirsk resembles Easton in many ways.

Humanitarian aid being lowered to residents in Sviatohirsk, Ukraine. – Photo courtesy of UAI

“It’s a town of about 7,000 people and agrarian,” he said.

Through UAI’s Sister City Initiative, Easton’s main mission will be to get the humanitarian aid donated from all over the world directly to Sviatohirsk residents many of whom are living with little infrastructure, electricity, heat and clean water.     

Easton residents who would like to contribute to the partnership can visit the Ukraine Aid International website and select “Easton – Sviatohirsk Sister City” to ensure that your donation reaches the right place.

More than 8,400 Ukrainian civilians are believed to have been killed and 14,023 injured since the Russian invasion began in February of last year, according to the latest United Nations human rights office data

In the Donetsk region where Sviatohirsk is located and in the nearby Luhansk region there have been 12,180 casualties, including 4,508 killed and 7,672 injured, according to UN statistics.

Liz Olegov, UAI’s chief operating officer, is one of several members who resides in Ukraine and travels weekly to the various sister city locations to get real-time updates of what aid is most needed for civilians.

“We are really looking at what the individual needs of the city are, aside from the basics,” said Olegov. “How can we start giving them a more regular quality of life? People are not desperate, life is continuing. That is what we are helping to rebuild.”

Olegov shared the difficulty some Sviatohirsk locals must go through to receive much needed aid. A bridge that once connected the Sviatohirsk area to a nearby village was blown up. To get aid to the several families that remain in the village, the police wrap a box of humanitarian aid with a wire then lower it from the top of the bridge down to a resident waiting below some 30 meters, or about 100 feet. 

“A local has to cross the river to receive the aid. One will wear a special suit to cross the river by foot around the collapsed bridge to collect these aid packages,” she said. “Then, one by one walks them back across the river in zero temperatures.” 

Video of collapsed bridge in Sviatohirsk, Ukraine.– Contributed by Ukraine Aid International.

Brian Mayer, executive director of UAI, said the partnership with Easton will help to rebuild Sviatohirsk in the short term but that the long-term goal is to build a lasting relationship between the towns. 

“The long term is about educational relationships, cultural exchanges, community information sharing, visitor exchanges and exchange students,” said Mayer. “We will be here long, long after the war is over, and especially with Easton.”

Easton is not the only Connecticut town to participate in such an initiative. In December, the UAI partnered the town of Westport with the Ukrainian city of Lyman. Since its partnership, Westport has helped to raise over $250,000 in private donations to support the “resupply and rebuilding” of Lyman, which was almost completely destroyed by the war.

After seeing the positive effects Westport’s contribution had in Lyman, Peter McCrea, a member of UAI’s steering committee, wondered what impact Easton could have on the program. 

“When I heard about what they had done in Westport, I thought, ‘Easton should have a connection as well,’” said McCrea. “They had a great response and reaction from the people in Westport, and it felt like there should be something in Easton too.”

For more information about Ukraine Aid International and its Sister City Initiative, please visit the UAI’s website.

A coffee shop owner in Sviatohirsk, Ukraine. – Contributed by Ukraine Aid International.
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