This year’s Sebastopol World Friends’ Friendship Dinner, which is scheduled for Saturday, Nov. 3, was supposed to be a 25th anniversary celebration of Sebastopol’s sister city relationship with Chyhyryn, a small town in eastern Ukraine.
Unfortunately, most of the Ukrainian delegation will miss the celebration, having been denied visas by the U.S. Consulate in Ukraine.
Sebastopol World Friends, which runs the city’s Sister City program and operates student exchange programs for Takeo City, Japan, and Chyhyryn, Ukraine, was expecting to host a delegation of seven Ukrainians. Now only two of those, who already had visas, are expected to come—and they are considering staying away in protest.
Steve Levenberg of Sebastopol World Friends said the denial was particularly surprising because “three of those five applicants have previously visited the U.S. and Sebastopol in the last few years as part of a U.S. Congressional program called Open World that is specifically designed to expose young leaders from former Soviet states to various aspects of U.S. democratic civic institutions.”
“They’re pretty upset,” Levenberg said. “We’re trying to figure out why they were denied visas and if there’s anything we can do.”
Levenberg said that the organization has turned to congressional representatives for help, appealing to the offices of Congressman Jared Huffman and Senators Dianne Feinstein and Kamala Harris.
“They are looking into it, but they have cautioned us that decisions aren’t overturned,” Levenberg said. Senate staffers told Levenberg that the Ukrainians could reapply, but that’s not practical because the time window is so short and the cost of a visa is equal to one month’s wages in Ukraine.
Liudmyla Birko, one of the Ukrainian organizers of the trip, said the Ukrainian participants were shocked by the decision.
“They don’t understand the reason for their denial; no explanation was really given,” Birko wrote in an email. “Each of them was interviewed by a different consular officer. Only two of our people were asked to show the invitation letter. The questions asked were: Why are you going to visit the USA? What are you planning to do there? Why were you included in the list of those invited? Who is Leaf Roberts?” (Leaf Roberts is a longtime Sebastopol World Friends organizer.)
“All of the candidates were given a note that simply stated the denial of entry to the USA. When they called me from Kyiv and let me know about it, I thought they were joking. I simply could not believe it!” she continued.
“With so much history and evidence of this amazing partnership between the two countries, the Ukrainian candidates were very saddened by their denial to come to Sebastopol. Since the inception of the organization in 1993, the people from Chyhyryn and Sebastopol have been freely visiting each other and making a difference in each other’s lives.”
“Even though our delegation won’t be coming to Sebastopol next month, we are very happy to have friends across the ocean and believe that next time their applications for visas won’t be denied. Meanwhile, Ukrainians will be celebrating the 25th friendship anniversary happily in Ukraine,” wrote Birko.
Their American counterparts in Sebastopol are especially disappointed because Sebastopol World Friends’ first major donation project to Chyhyryn just came to fruition. For the past year, members have been raising money for Project C.U.R.E., a nonprofit organization that collects donated medical supplies and equipment and distributes it to hospitals and clinics in over 130 developing nations. Sebastopol World Friends raised $30,000 to send a cargo container of medical supplies to Chyhyryn’s hospital. The container arrived in Chyhyryn last week.
In the meantime, Sebastopol World Friends is going ahead with its yearly Friendship Dinner. Their many supporters in town—plus their yearly contingent of Japanese exchange students and their Sebastopol counterparts—are counting on it.
Sebastopol World Friends’ Sister City Friendship Dinner happens on Saturday, Nov. 3, at the Enmanji Buddhist Temple Memorial Hall, 1200 Gravenstein Highway South, Sebastopol. Doors open at 5:30 p.m., and dinner and the program start at 6 p.m. The all-you-can-eat buffet-style dinner, themed “Where Sushi Meets Borsch,” will showcase food from Ukraine and Japan. There will also be related cultural entertainment. Suggested donation amounts are $20 for adults and $10 for children.