Return to Ukraine: This feature is part of an original Milwaukee Independent editorial series that recorded news from areas across Ukraine, including Milwaukee's sister city of Irpin, from June to July of 2023. It was the second time in the span of a year that the award-winning Wisconsin news organization traveled to the country during the war. The purpose of this journalism project was to document a humanitarian aid mission by the Milwaukee-based nonprofit, Friends of Be an Angel, and report about conditions 17 months after Russia's brutal full-scale invasion.

Milwaukee Mayor Cavalier Johnson and Irpin Mayor Oleksandr Markushin spoke for the third time on June 27 to discuss plans for further cooperative efforts between the Sister Cities.

The meeting was the second online meeting within a year, the previous being in-person during Mayor Markushin’s visit to Milwaukee last May. The recent opportunity to talk came about in conjunction with a visit to Irpin by Anya Verkhovskaya, director of the Milwaukee-based humanitarian nonprofit, Friends of Be an Angel.

Verkhovskaya served as the translator between the two Mayors during their video chat. The Irpin side of the conversation took place in Mayor Markushin’s office. The meeting was also extensively covered by both local and regional media outlets across Kyiv.

In footage from the ZOOM call, numerous TV crews can be seen floating in the background behind Mayor Markushin, to film the computer screens showing his conversation with Mayor Johnson.

“I mentioned before, and it remains to be true today, that Milwaukee, the state of Wisconsin, the United States, and folks around the world, have found a renewed sense of patriotism because of the work that you and so many Ukrainians have done over the past year defending your homeland against the Russian invasion,” said Mayor Johnson.

The Mayors outlined a list of cooperative community and business initiatives, from art to sports and Internet infrastructure.

“I’m grateful to Mayor Cavalier Johnson and the entire Milwaukee community for their support. We became Sister Cities 5 years ago in March of 2018. Since then, we have been exchanging experiences and staying in touch,” said Mayor Markushin. “In the first days of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, Milwaukee announced a fundraiser for Irpin. All the time since, the city’s community has been holding rallies in support of Ukraine, in which the Mayor of Milwaukee has personally participated.”

Mayor Markushin was the only Mayor in Ukraine to personally defend his city, leading Irpin’s Territorial Guard. He had not previously served in the military, but he mobilized his entire administration to hold back the invasion force. His efforts were critical in saving the capital of Kyiv from being captured, delaying the Russian advance until the Ukraine Army could arrive and counter-attack.

The Russian military was never able to cross the Irpin River, and within weeks were forced into a humiliating retreat from the entire region. After Irpin was liberated, Mayor Markushin entered Bucha next door to inform that city that they were also free from occupation. For all his efforts to defend Irpin and his country, Mayor Markushin is celebrated as a national war hero.

During the video meeting, Mayor Markushin also expressed his gratitude to Friends of Be an Angel, and Anya Verkhovskaya personally, who visited Irpin as the head of the delegation – for their constant support and the work done at home in Milwaukee to support Ukraine.

Included in the video conversation was Darryl Morin, President and CEO of Metro Milwaukee-based Advanced Wireless, on behalf of local businesses.

“Any time I’ve been at a vigil for Ukraine, a remembrance ceremony, or anything of the sort in Milwaukee, Darryl has been there leading the way to make that happen,” said Mayor Johnson.

Mayor Johnson characterized Morin as being a stalwart champion of efforts to raise the profile of Irpin and bring attention to the tragedies of war that have taken place across Ukraine in the past year.

“As we discussed the last time we met, we want to do whatever we can to keep the Ukrainian story alive for many generations to come,” said Morin.

He then presented a plan to make an extensive donation of Wi-Fi equipment to Irpin, in support of its online infrastructure. During its occupation, Irpin’s fiber-optic connection had been severed by Russian forces. The ingenious techniques used by engineers to quickly bring the city back online became the standard protocol for restoring Internet services in territories liberated by Ukrainian forces. But the restoration process did not leave Irpin any less vulnerable to a future attack on its network.

Milwaukee Independent, which has extensively reported on the relationship between Milwaukee and Irpin since 2018, was also in Irpin to document the meeting between the two Mayors. In May of 2022, the award-winning daily news magazine sent an editorial team to the Ukrainian city soon after it was liberated from Russian occupation. For that work, the staff recently earned three awards for journalistic excellence from the Milwaukee Press Club.

The logistics for last year’s assignment by Milwaukee Independent were coordinated by the efforts of Halyna Salapata, founder of Ukrainian Milwaukee and president of Wisconsin Ukrainians Inc.

On March 15, 2018, then-mayor of Milwaukee Tom Barrett signed the agreement with Irpin’s then-Mayor Volodymyr Karplyu, formalizing the Sister City relationship that had been approved by the Common Council.

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Series: Return to Ukraine

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Milwaukee Independent has reported on Russia’s brutal full-scale invasion of Ukraine since it began on February 24, 2022. In May of 2022, Milwaukee Independent was the first news organization from Wisconsin to report from Milwaukee’s Sister City of Irpin after its liberation. That work has since been recognized with several awards for journalistic excellence. Between late June and early July of 2023, Milwaukee Independent staff returned to Ukraine for a second assignment to report on war after almost a year. The editorial team was embedded with a Milwaukee-based nonprofit, Friends of Be an Angel, on a humanitarian aid mission across Ukraine. For several weeks, Milwaukee Independent documented the delivery of medical supplies to military and civilian hospitals, and was a witness to historic events of the war as they unfolded.

Return to Ukraine: Reports about a humanitarian mission from Milwaukee after a year of war