Odesa and Baltimore are two vital, vibrant port cities of international importance. Both are deep-water ports crucial to the commerce and well-being of their citizens, their countries and the world. Baltimore and the Ukrainian seaport Odesa are also sister cities — a relationship that was established in 1975.

The tragic collapse of the Francis Scott Key Bridge due to a maritime accident has brought the two even closer, with the Odesa Seaport under constant bombardment by the Russian Army and suffering losses of life and destruction of port and city infrastructure. Having lived in both cities for many years, I am amazed at how similar they are despite being thousands of miles apart.

In recent years, the connection between the cities has proved invaluable, particularly during the barbaric conflict waged by Russia against sovereign Ukraine. Millions of dollars’ worth of equipment and medical supplies from the United States were transferred through the Odesa Mayor’s Office by Ukrainian state medical institutions.

The Baltimore-Odesa Sister City Committee has played a crucial role in facilitating education and cultural exchanges. Sergei Tetyukhin, an Odesa deputy mayor and trusted friend, coordinated efforts with the Sister City Committee. Tragically, on March 15, during a vicious Russian attack on civilian infrastructure in the city, Tetyukhin lost his life while serving in the Ukrainian Army.

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As a former Odessite and now a full-time resident of Maryland, I have watched in growing horror and dismay as missiles pummel Odesa. The Russians are targeting Ukraine’s largest Black Sea port. They are aiming to annihilate the infrastructure that allows for transport of grain and agricultural goods. They are sowing fear and apprehension among civilians who are increasingly also being targeted. My heart aches whenever I see Odesa mentioned in war updates online, which is happening with increasing frequency. Tragedies thousands of miles away might seem remote, but for me, every new report of a missile strike could bring a tragedy that is very personal.

My cousin Larysa, a stay-at-home mom, fled Odesa for Romania in 2022. She and her family returned in 2023, in part because the education for their teenage son is better in Odesa. When we talk on the phone or Zoom, Larysa avoids the war as a topic of discussion. Instead, she says: “Tell me about your life in Baltimore?” She deflects when I try to get her to talk about her emotions. She was always a cheerful cousin.

Serious talks are especially hard for her now because her husband is ethnically Russian. Larysa is also the primary caregiver for her mother, Tamara, who celebrated her 85th birthday while the city was under Russian attack. There is no such thing as a “normal” celebration of milestones.

Since the full-scale invasion, I have exchanged more than 100 messages with my childhood friend, Ksenya, literally “a girl next door” for 20 years. Always a text, never a phone call, a sign of our technology-dominated world, but also for practical reasons — her ears need to always be ready to detect the outside sounds of danger.

From the war’s first days, Ksenya had been active in coordinating the temporary resettlement of our mutual friends to rural areas in western Ukraine. She provides updates on bombardments in places we once knew well, anticipating further attacks and rallying support. Ksenya stayed in Odesa with her elderly parents and volunteers at an animal shelter. War wears us all down, especially when you don’t know when or where the next missile barrage is going to hit.

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Although Ksenya and I no longer text regularly, my memory and imagination help transfer me back to the picturesque city of my youth. When I last visited Odesa in 2011, Ksenya took my wife and me around the city, showing us how many of the places we remembered had been restored, making this sunny city even more beautiful.

We took a long walk on the Road of Health, a pedestrian and bicycle path along the coast adorned with beaches and resorts. Odesa’s nickname is “the Pearl by the Sea” and it has long been a favored summer destination for vacationers. The warm climate and fertile soil of the region also made this Ukraine’s capital for summer fruits and vegetables, boasting early cucumbers, tomatoes, strawberries, apricots, sour cherries, peaches and grapes.

These cherished memories are what I have to hold onto. As the war enters its third year, with devastating human and economic consequences for Ukraine, and with U.S. military assistance stalled in Congress, the odds seem stacked against my homeland. But I must believe that righteousness, bravery and determination will prevail, just as they have in the past. The civilized world must unite against aggression, ensuring that the sacrifices made by the Ukrainian people are not in vain.

Oleh Voloshyn is a member of the Baltimore Odesa Sister City Committee.

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