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For Westporter, Ukrainian War Is Personal

Many Americans became aware of Ukraine only recently. We’d heard the name for years — usually as “the Ukraine” —  but knew little about its remarkable history, culture or people.

We’re learning quickly. Just as Ken Bernhard did, a few years ago.

A former state legislator (now running again), and a volunteer working hands-on with a long list of local and international organizations, his day job is attorney.

Ken Bernhard

In 2005 he was invited to join the Center for International Legal Studies. One of the non-profit’s goals is to spread understanding of legal principles around the globe.

After a week-long course at its Salzburg, Austria headquarters, Bernhard headed off every year to a new country. Latvia, India, Mongolia — wherever he was, he explored the land, taught, and learned.

Three years ago, Bernhard traveled to Ukraine. After a 12-hour train ride from Kyiv (the country is nearly as large as Texas), he was warmly welcomed in Berdyansk, on the Sea of Azov, a northern extension of the Black Sea.

He knew little about Ukraine before he went. But he was captivated by the museums and architecture of Kyiv, and the friendliness of the people he met everywhere.

His Berdyansk University law students were “terrific,” Bernhard says. “They were very engaged. They had a real desire to become effective advocates for the rule of law.”

Berdyansk University

They acknowledged their nation’s “endemic corruption,” he says. And they had “a palpable desire” to change it. Their enthusiasm inspired him.

“We don’t fully appreciate in this country what we have,” Bernhard notes. “Our concerns here are minor, compared to what people endure there, and in other places around the world.”

When he returned to Westport, Bernhard — a Sunrise Rotary Club member — wanted to do more. At his urging, the Sunrise Rotary and noontime Rotary Club joined in raising funds to construct a moot courtroom in Berdyansk. It was another way for students to learn courtroom skills.

Ken Bernhard (left) with students in Berdyansk, Ukraine. They hold a Connecticut state flag.

The news from Ukraine has become very personal. He fears for the professor he worked most closely with, and who became a good friend, along with his former students.

Bernhard — who helped found The Syria Fund, a non-profit providing education, medical supplies, household goods and food to families living in dire, desperate areas — draws parallels between that nation, Ukraine, and other trouble spots around the world.

“People are the same all over. They worry about putting food on the table, getting their car repaired, educating their kids. They are normal, productive people, wanting to live a decent life.

“Suddenly they are uprooted. I can’t imagine having to grab luggage and flee, before a missile strikes. Americans don’t have any sense of what that’s like.”

Ukrainians, Bernhard says, “had worthy aspirations, which they thought were achievable. The last few days have quashed that.”

He waits for the next update from his professor friend in Berdyansk. And he worries about the 40 million people who want to live free and in peace, in a land now under siege.

A bombed-out apartment building in Kyiv. (Photo/Lynsey Addario for The New York Times)

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