9 unique ways locals are responding to events in Ukraine, including Birmingham Sister Cities

Ukraine gathering in Birmingham
Scenes from the gathering outside Railroad Park Saturday, February 25. (Thomas Diasio)

The events of February 24 thrust Birmingham’s ties to Ukraine to center stage. From exploring Birmingham’s longstanding Sister Cities relationship with two cities in Ukraine, we discovered a number of other ways Birminghamians are responding to the current situation. Keep reading to find out what we learned.

UPDATE: Community Interfaith Prayer Vigil March 2 at Kelly Ingram Park

Update 3/2: “Today, (Ash Wednesday), the Diocese of Birmingham in Alabama is calling together faith leaders and communities to observe a WORLD DAY OF PEACE. Together we will pray for an end of violence and strife in the Ukraine. All are invited to join the Ecumenical/Community-wide vigil. Faith leaders from across the City of Birmingham will gather in a public display of solidarity and pray for the citizens of both Ukraine and Russia.”

Where: Kelly Ingram Park, 500 17th Street North, Birmingham, AL 35203
When: Wednesday, March 2, 4:30 PM

1. 50-100 people gathered Saturday just outside Railroad Park to show support to the Ukrainian people.

Used with permission from local journalist Glenny Brock.

It was a chilly day, but the mood among the people who gathered Saturday from 2-4PM across from Hero Donuts, just outside Railroad Park, was warm. There were Ukranian songs, conversations about friends and family, sunflowers and many flags. I spoke with the organizers to learn more. 

Ilya Blokh was born in Moscow and raised in Birmingham. His family emigrated, along with many other Soviet-era Jews, to The Magic City in the early 1990s. His mother, Rita Meikson, teaches Russian at Alabama Waldorf School in Crestwood. His father, Alexander Blokh, a math professor at UAB, grew up in Kharkiv, Ukraine. 

Shocked by the current events, Blokh and his mother organized the gathering, which drew somewhere between 50-100 people. Blokh explained, “We have to bring people out to raise awareness and to show that we care, so that friends in Ukraine can see that they’re being supported.”

When I asked why two Russians would care about what’s happening in Ukraine, he mentioned his father, of course, and said “we’re ashamed of what this country that we’re from is doing, and we want to show that this is not Russia or the Russian people—there are also thousands of people protesting in Russia and being arrested.”

2. Birmingham has had a longstanding relationship with one sister city + one friendship city in Ukraine.

Scotty Colson
Scotty Colson during our interview outside Railroad Park. (Thomas Diasio)

Meet the Alabama Honorary Consul to the Ambassador of Ukraine 

Scotty Colson serves as the Alabama Honorary Consul to the Ambassador of Ukraine and is happy to have been to the country 15 times. He told me he’d be easy to find at the Railroad Park gathering, as he’s 6’9” with a cane. He was right, and he was kind enough to spend some time talking with me about Birmingham Sister Cities and its relationship with Ukraine. 

My first question was “what does it mean to be the Honorary Consul to the Ambassador”? 

He responded, “Basically, you are the liaison for the Ukrainian people who live here. You’re the liaison for businesses, and you’re the liaison for cultural affairs. Over the years, we’ve done Ukrainian holidays like the Independence Day festival and religious holidays, including Christian Orthodox, Jewish and Catholic.”

Now his work has shifted to helping people who want to get to an American embassy. He’s also working to set up a ham radio network for when the Russians presumably will take down the internet in the country. 

“It’s basically whatever I can do to help Ukraine and the Ukrainian people and getting the American people to help the Ukrainian people.”

Birmingham + Ukraine: a longstanding partnership

When we talked about how he got involved with Ukraine, Colson explained that he worked for the City of Birmingham from Mayors Arrington to Woodfin. During those three decades, he did all of the city’s international programs, and worked with the State Department after the fall of Communism. 

This relationship led to involvement with the US-Ukraine Community Partner Program, where they worked on democratization, economic modernization and other initiatives. 

From that grew a partnership between UAB and the Vinnytsia National Pirogov Medical University, which grew into the Sister City program. 

Colson explained that Birmingham is also part of the Open World Program, which brings a dozen or so young leaders from Ukraine to Birmingham each year. There have been about 25 of these visits over the years, and a group was scheduled to come this March. Of course, given current events, that’s been canceled. 

Over time, hundreds of Ukranians have come to Birmingham, and dozens of Birminghamians have gone to Ukraine, “working as consultants on expanding democratization, how to run a city and things of that nature.”

Also, Colson estimates that there may be 3-400 Ukranians and Ukranian-Americans living in the Greater Birmingham Area.

Vinnytsia: Birmingham’s Sister City since 2003

A message to Birmingham from Mayor Serhiy Morhunov of Vinnytsia, Ukraine. (Birmingham Sister Cities)

According to Colson, because Vinnytsia, located in the western part of Ukraine, is the headquarters of the Ukrainian Air Force, it has been hit hard with cruise missiles. When he spoke to their deputy mayor, he said they’ve had several people killed by bombs and dozens who are in the hospital with injuries. 

Birmingham has also had a friendship agreement with the city of Krasnodon, also known as Sorokyne, in the east, but Colson explained that that city fell in 2014 and is now controlled by the Luhansk People’s Republic, not Ukraine. 

What Sister Cities is doing now

Colson highlighted what the program has accomplished in the past and is doing now to help the people of Ukraine. 

How regular Birminghamians can get involved

Colson said that right now, as you can imagine, everything is in flux. The biggest problem, he said, is going to be helping refugees who make it into Moldova, Romania, Hungary and Poland.

He urges people to give to the International Committee of the Red Cross right now and then check back in with Sister Cities for other legitimate organizations down the road. 

Colson says Ukranians are a lot like Alabamians:

“They remind me of the people in Alabama. They’ve got a wonderful sense of a humor and a very good sense of family. They love pork, and they’re sick and tired of somebody telling them what to do.”

3. Connecting with community to stay strong for family + friends in Ukraine

Alina Tuganova
Alina Tuganova is staying strong for friends and family in Kiev. (Sharron Swain / Bham Now)

Alina Tuganova is proud of the work Avanti Polar Lipids, the Alabaster-based biotech company where she works, has done to make lipids and nanoparticles which are involved in the mRNA vaccines against COVID. Originally from Kiev, she came to the US to work on research in universities. 

Tuganova was holding a sign with family photos of her mother, a dear friend she says is like an adopted sister and her daughter, who she sees as her adopted niece, and her goddaughter. All are currently in Kiev, and she’s grateful that she can still talk with them. 

When I asked what brought her out at the rally, she said “community, because these days, my heart is broken. I feel so helpless, so the only thing which keeps me together is community around me. I need to stay strong for my family. I use resources to stay strong so I can be strong for them. Right now, they’re very strong. I am amazed how strong they are.”

4. Lighting up City Hall to show support

On Saturday night, February 26, the City of Birmingham lit City Hall in yellow and blue, the colors of the Ukrainian flag, to show support.

5. Supporting Jews in Ukraine

Ukraine is a place a number of Jews in Birmingham have a complex relationship with. Many came to find safety from pogroms, the Nazis or the Soviets. 

Chabad of Alabama, on Overton Road, has a relationship with many rabbis and others on the ground in Ukraine working to support the Jewish community of Ukraine through the crisis. 

Rabbi Yossi Posner sent out an email stating that Ukraine is home to 350,000 Jews, including 384 Chabad emissaries. They are encouraging donations to the Ukraine Jewish Relief Fund

6. A word from Max Rykov

Max Rykov
Max Rykov. (Beau Gustafson)

Although he recently moved to Nashville, Max Rykov was a beloved figure in Birmingham for many years. We reached out to him, and this is what he said: 

“Ukraine is so dear to my heart. My father was born in Ukraine. My maternal grandmother fled Ukraine to escape the Nazis, and arrived in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, where my mother and I were born. I have family on both my mother and father’s sides, as well as many friends, currently in Ukraine.

My heart is broken at the unspeakable tragedies the world is witnessing unfold in real time. I am thinking constantly about my family and friends in Ukraine, and praying for their safety and for peace. Ukraine is a sovereign nation, and Russia’s unprovoked military aggression toward its neighbor is unfathomable. 

The people of Russia and Ukraine are brothers and sisters, friends and family.”

7. Lecture at Birmingham-Southern College

Randall Law
Dr. Randall Law (Birmingham-Southern College)

If, like a lot of people, you’re still wondering what’s going on and how we got into this mess, Birmingham-Southern College has you covered. 

  • Who: Dr. Randall Law, Professor of History. He holds a Ph.D. in Russian and Soviet history from Georgetown University and is an internationally recognized expert on the history of terrorism. He spent four months in Odessa, Ukraine, on a Fulbright fellowship in 2009.
  • What: Short talk and Q + A 
  • Why: To demystify the centuries-old relationship between Ukraine and Russia and illuminate the key issues that are in play today. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has plunged Europe into its worst geopolitical crisis since World War II. The human, economic and political costs are potentially enormous for the two countries involved, but the conflict also threatens to draw in Europe, the United States, and the rest of the world. So how did we get here? Who are the Ukrainians and what is Ukraine? 
  • When: Tuesday, March 1, 2PM in person | 7PM on Zoom
  • Where: Norton Campus Theatre, Birmingham-Southern College | Watch via Zoom

8. The international adoption community is coming together

Lifeline Children's Services
Rick Morton and his family, when his children were younger. (Rick Morton)

We reached out to the local office of Lifeline Children’s Services to learn more about how the conflict is impacting families who are in the process of adopting from Ukraine as well as families who have children from Ukraine. 

Rick Morton is Lifeline’s VP of Engagement and the adoptive father of three Ukranian children ranging in age from 19-25. When they counted the other day, they realized they’d been to Ukraine 26 times. 

He says his children are all dealing with the news of their birth country in different ways, but they’re all grieving and feeling a sense of tension and loss. 

Lifeline is also seeing a significant impact for families that are in the middle of the adoption process from Ukraine. “We had a family this week who was supposed to have a virtual court hearing to adjudicate their adoption. An hour or two before it was supposed to begin, they had to cancel because of active shelling in the city where it was supposed to take place. All the people involved spent the day in a bomb shelter.”

He predicts that if Russia takes over Ukraine, the same thing that happened when Russia took over Crimea in 2014 will happen—they will institute Russian Child Welfare Policies which will effectively shut down international adoptions. 

Lifeline is staying in close contact with their families that are in the process of adoption and those who have kids who are struggling through the current situation, offering counseling and other family support services. 

Additionally, they are working closely with partners in Romania to build their capacity to receive refugees. 

They’ll be doing an episode of their Defender podcast on Wednesday at noon focused on updating people on the situation in Ukraine. 

For more information, visit Lifelinechild.org

9. The World Games 2022 Birmingham Organizing Committee Bans Russian and Belarusian Athletes and Officials from Competition

While I was working on this story, we got word that the Board of Directors of The World Games 2022 Birmingham Organizing Committee voted to ban athletes and officials from Russia and Belarus from participating in The World Games 2022 in Birmingham this July. Many in the Ukranian community here and elsewhere were calling for this decision.

Now tell us, Birmingham, what other ways are local people responding to the situation in Ukraine? Tag us on social @bhamnow and let us know, or email me at sharron@bhamnow.com.

Sharron Swain
Sharron Swain

Writer, Interviewer + Adventurer | Telling stories to make a difference

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