Tooker, Koskinas Reflect On Historic Ukraine Trip

1st Selectwoman Jen Tooker and Police Chief Foti Koskinas will long remember many of the sights, sounds and smells of their recent trip to Westport’s sister city: Lyman, Ukraine.

Bombed-out buildings, charred tanks, artillery fire, an app alerting them to incoming missiles — those are seared in the memories of the first Americans to travel to the Donetsk Oblast since the Russian invasion more than a year ago.

But even more meaningful are their encounters with the Ukrainian people: the governor and head of the national police force, who traveled for hours to meet them. The mayor and police chief, finally in person after countless Zoom calls.

Most of all, the residents of Lyman: the people who put on the best clothes they could find, to greet the Westporters. The few children in the lone classroom still open.

And the man who skirted land mines to hike to a lake, bring back three fish, smoke them, and proudly present them as a traditional gesture of thanks.

Mayor Alexander Zhuravlov presents 1st Selectwoman Jen Tooker with a smoked fish: a Ukrainian gesture of friendship.

Tooker and Koskinas are still processing all that they saw and did, on their 4-day journey from the Polish border to far east of Kyiv. They took a circuitous route on pock-marked roads and over pontoon bridges, doubling back around destroyed bridges and other obstacles.

In armored vehicles and with a police escort, they sped through every traffic light and stop sign. “It’s harder to hit a moving target,” Koskinas explains.

Yet the tight security was comforting. Tooker always felt safe, under the watchful eyes of the police and military.

US and Connecticut flags, at the Donetsk Oblast border. From left: Brian Mayer of Ukraine Aid International; Police Chief Foti Koskinas; 1st Selectwoman Jen Tooker; Easton 1st Selectman David Bindelglass; a police officer, and Liz Olegov of UAI.

Still, it was not until they crossed — on foot — into Poland for the return leg that they felt out of complete danger.

The trip — privately financed, with no town funds — was a chance for the 2 officials to see how the $252,000 raised by residents over the holidays for our sister city had been spent.

Police chief Foti Koskinas, with 1 of 2 trash trucks bought by Ukraine Aid International, with funds donated by Westporers. When all such vehicles were destroyed by Russians, there was no way too remove tons of debris. 

Ukraine Aid International — the organization founded by Westporters Brian and Marshall Mayer — handled ground arrangements. Tooker and Koskinas got an up close look at their personnel and logistics.

“Their model is unbelievably effective,” the 1st selectwoman reports. “They go where no other group goes. They even deliver goods for other groups.”

“They’ve developed incredible relationships. When they drive in, the military recognizes their vehicles and waves them through roadblocks.”

Westpor donors have funded an array of initiatives: building materials for apartments; water purification systems; home heating devices; police and trash vehicles; communication equipment; bulletproof vests for utility workers; vegetable and fruit seeds, and more.

Tooker and Koskinas saw that all those goods and materials had been delivered efficiently. “That’s not always the case with humanitarian aid,” Tooker notes. “But Ukraine Aid International gets the job done.”

Utility workers repair equipment near the front lines. Westporters’ contributions paid for protective and other equipment.

A second reason for the trip was to cement personal relationships. Since the holidays, Koskinas has spoken almost daily to his counterpart, Police Chief Igor Ugnevenko. Tooker has been in frequent contact with Mayor Alexander Zhuravlov.

Spending time with those officials underlined the importance of Westport’s sister city relationship. “Foti and I are more committed than ever to do everything we can to help,” Tooker says.

They’re spurred by a cascade of images. In the one functioning classroom, in the only school left standing. students of all ages come on a rotating schedule. Despite the challenges, “it’s as warm and welcoming as our classrooms here,” Tooker says.

There is no running water or electricity in the building. But in a makeshift cafeteria, educators proudly set out a lunch of homemade food for their guests.

The school is like the rest of Lyman. As they toured the town, Tooker and Koskinas were allowed to walk in only a few areas — and only on asphalt. Land mines are buried everywhere.

“Picture the most graphic World War II documentary,” Koskinas says. “We saw it. There’s a ‘graveyard’ of Russian military artifacts. You can still smell the burning flesh.”

The perseverance and warmth of the Lyman people was “astonishing,” says Tooker. They found the best clothes they could, ironed them, and greeted the Westporters with smiles and hugs.

A Lyman resident hugs 1st Selectwoman Jen Tooker, as thanks for Westport’s help rebuilding her apartment.

A ceremony for the signing of the official sister city relationship was held in a remote area. The governor, and the heads of the national police (the equivalent of our FBI) and patrol police traveled for hours to be there. It was important for them to see the Americans who had traveled so far, Tooker says.

“They kept calling us ‘heroes.’ It was embarrassing. We were horrified,” she adds.

The chasm between the US and Ukraine was brought home in sharp relief minutes after their arrival at Newark Airport.

“People were fighting over taxis. I mean, really?” Koskinas says.

They came home a few days before Memorial Day. This year’s holiday “had a whole new meaning for me,” the police chief says. “You know the saying: ‘Freedom is not free.’ That’s so true. They’re giving up all they have to be free.”

“My respect for the armed services was always high. Now it’s higher than ever,” Tooker adds.

The officials are eager to share all that they saw, felt and did. They are filled with respect for the Ukrainian people — and for the help that Ukrainian Aid International delivers.

Discussing clean-up operations, amid the remains of Russian tanks.

“Brian and Marshall Mayer told us that going there would make a difference to Lyman,” Koskinas says. “It did. That’s my biggest takeaway.

“Foti and I made a professional and personal commitment to our counterparts,” Tooker says.

“We will communicate regularly. They face a generation of rebuilding. We will be there for them.”

(The second round of donations for Lyman has begun. Click here, then select “Westport” from the “Where it is needed most” dropdown menu. And mark your calendar for July 9: A town-wide “Lyman-AID”  celebration with food, music and more. It’s free — but there are also many ways to contribute to help our sister city. Click here for details.)

Connecticut and Ukrainian officials, after a meeting in Sviatohirsk .


6 responses to “Tooker, Koskinas Reflect On Historic Ukraine Trip

  1. charles taylor

    This article and civil generosity is what I’ve always loved about Westports Heart!

  2. Richard Fogel

    Thanks to Jen Tooker and police chief Foti. It takes a lot of courage to see war up close.

  3. Stephanie Frankel

    It would be fabulous if Jen would report to Trump, DeSantis, and the GOP all about these vile attacks on Ukraine from Russia! Maybe she can convince her party that Putin is evil and Zelesky and the people of Ukraine are good!
    A segment on Fox news would be a good start to undo the brainwashing.

    • Jack Backiel

      It’s too bad Zelensky didn’t live in the US. I’d have a job for him in 2024.

  4. Jonathan Hochhauser

    Bravo to Ukraine Aid International and the Mayer brothers. They are the true heroes in this story. While our 1st selectwoman is a master of the photo op, it is they that are saving lives and communities in a war zone.

  5. Linda Parker

    Such an important post , Dan – thank you