Ashland draws on sister city program to support Ukraine

By Erik Neumann (Jefferson Public Radio)
Dec. 9, 2023 6:27 p.m.

The Southern Oregon city’s official ties with Sviatohirsk was unanimously approved by city council in June

When Ashland, Oregon, resident Ben Stott came back from doing humanitarian work in Ukraine, he wanted to raise money for the country that had been pulled into war. But he was having trouble getting public support.

Then, he got the suggestion of establishing a sister city program. The idea, he said, was that by focusing on a single city, rather than the overall Ukraine-Russia war, giving aid might feel more tangible.

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“We just say, ‘Okay, we can’t help the whole country, but we can help one small town.’ That’s kind of our motto,” Stott said.

He and a group of collaborators decided to partner with Sviatohirsk, a city that’s similar to Ashland and that they thought Rogue Valley residents might be able to relate to.

“It’s a lovely small town along a river that’s surrounded by a really large forest, so it has a similar geographic kind of environment to Ashland,” Stott said.

It’s also a tourist destination, due to its large monastery.

In this undated supplied photo, Ashland resident Ben Stott, right, establishing a sister city agreement with Volodymyr Ribalkin, the mayor of Sviatohirsk, Ukraine.

In this undated supplied photo, Ashland resident Ben Stott, right, establishing a sister city agreement with Volodymyr Ribalkin, the mayor of Sviatohirsk, Ukraine.

Courtesy of Ben Stott

He and the group Ashland-Sviatohirsk Aid Project took the proposal to Ashland Mayor Tonya Graham, who said she’d back it if the city council was on board. In June, the sister city proposal was unanimously approved.

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This isn’t the first sister city in Ashland. In 1969, another program was created with Guanajuato, Mexico, through Southern Oregon University. Since then, there have been numerous cultural exchanges. Students and faculty travel between universities. Guanajuato sent firefighters to help after the 2020 Almeda Fire, and Ashland donated two decommissioned ambulances to Guanajuato last year.

Related: State and resettlement groups help Ukrainians in Oregon

Sviatohirsk was heavily bombed by Russia. It’s in the Donetsk region in eastern Ukraine. Now, Stott said they’re working with the mayor of the Ukrainian town to identify its most urgent needs.

They’re currently working with an NGO called Insulate Ukraine that installs makeshift windows out of PVC tubing and polyurethane film. They can be installed in damaged buildings to keep residents warm and dry.

“It looks like somebody’s pool noodle project, but it works. And it can be done for as little as $15 a window,” said Paul Huard, another member of the Ashland aid group.

Related: How one Ukrainian family finds refuge in Southern Oregon for their children’s future

Next, the group hopes to buy a utility truck to help repair electrical lines that were destroyed by shelling so that residents can have heat this winter.

Both Huard and Stott said they hope that after this acute need is met, they can maintain a long term cultural exchange with Sviatohirsk. And maybe, they said, Ashland partnering with one Ukrainian city can be a model for others in Oregon to start their own sister city projects.

Huard is a humanities teacher at Ashland High School and said his motivation for this work comes from his training as a historian.

“Frankly, as I tell people, I’ve read this book before. I know how it can end unless people intervene and support a fellow democracy,” he said.

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