Community Columns

Citizen diplomacy builds friendship, peace

Second of two parts.

Seven people, 7,500 miles from their Modesto homes, are escorted down a mostly deserted hallway in a theater in Khmelnitskiy, Ukraine. We are here to attend a ceremony commemorating the 20th anniversary of the signing of a Sister City relationship by Modesto Mayor Peggy Mensinger and Khmelnitskiy Mayor Ivan Bukhal.

Strange. So few people about. Our guide opens the door to the auditorium, and as we enter, there is a burst of applause from a full house of our sister city friends -- people we've met here or in Modesto. What an unforgettable and gratifying moment for those who have strived to promote peace and friendship through people-to-people diplomacy.

There followed mutual expressions of support for our relationship: Modesto Vice Mayor Garrad Marsh brought greetings from our city and did us proud, as did Oscar and Jennifer Ardans, who had gifts for three students who had won a poetry contest sponsored by Modesto's Peace-Life Center. Musical and dance presentations followed.

The Modesto-Khmelnitskiy relationship is very important to them, as it is to us. For them, Modestans' visits in '85 and '87 nudged open the door to the outside world. Once open, ideas, cultures, material goods flowed, slowly at first and then more quickly.

Igor Novchenkov and his father came to Modesto in 1991, when Igor was 16. Igor was stricken with a crippling disease similar to muscular dystrophy. They sought help in America. Gould doctors in Modesto referred him to the University of California at San Francisco. When the San Francisco doctor told them there was no help for Igor's condition, his father wanted to return home immediately. Igor chose to stay and see something of America.

In addition to visiting San Francisco and Calaveras Big Trees, we made a point of showing him how wheelchair-bound people functioned in this country -- sidewalk access, ramps, elevators, wider restroom stalls, etc. Igor and his father were resistant to purchasing a wheelchair. The disabled, like Igor, were basically homebound in Ukraine. Reluctantly, they acquired a chair.

At home, he hesitated to go out in public, but finally screwed up his courage and became a pacesetter in Khmelnitskiy. Today, wheelchairs are common, although ramps and other accommodations are in their infancy.

Igor went on to get a university degree in law and is an accomplished notary (a notary there has more power than in the United States). He has been recognized nationally in his profession.

I relate this story as an example of how people-to-people programs affect lives. Igor and his parents credit the Modesto experience as a defining point in Igor's life. He saw that there was a life beyond home confinement. His is a true profile of courage and determination.

Former Mayor Ivan Bukhal is another profile in courage. He was mayor when the first Modesto contingent visited in 1985. That was a dangerous time in U.S.-USSR relations. Bukhal had been admonished by the KGB to not answer our letters. He was told to be out of town when we arrived. He left town, but that night he convinced the KGB that Vladimir Lenin, in his writings, encouraged the Soviets to mingle with their adversaries to glean useful information. The KGB relented and Bukhal met us the following morning. As the 25 of us introduced ourselves and expressed our interest in promoting peace and friendship, I know that Ivan Bukhal sensed that we were not spies, but just ordinary, peace-seeking citizens.

We invited Ivan to Modesto. Two years later, he and two others came to Modesto on a peace and friendship mission. There was KGB opposition, and in Moscow they almost decided not to come. But, as he explained, "we bought a bottle of vodka, went to our hotel room, drank it and decided to come!"

The Ukrainians had a very positive experience in our city. I was extremely proud of our citizens. We extended a hand in friendship. Bukhal responded as a courageous man who views the human family as one on this small planet, Earth.

And as you read this, seven Khmelnitskiy citizens, including Bukhal, are in Modesto for 10 days.

President Eisenhower established the people-to-people philosophy and program. Thanks, President Ike. You would marvel at the ways your wisdom is playing out in people's lives and international relations.

Palsgrove is a retired Modesto educator. A LITTLE HISTORY

An American organization, Ground Zero, alarmed about the Cold War confrontation between the U.S. and USSR, initiated a project called City Pairing. Thirteen hundred U.S. cities were paired -- from an atlas -- with 1,300 Soviet cities. Instructions were simple: Try to initiate communication. Modesto was paired with Khmelnitskiy, a city of 260,000 in west-central Ukraine. Twenty-five Modestans visited Khmelnitskiy in 1985.