Six people in front of giant yellow letters that spell \"VCU\"
Six Ukrainian national security experts visited Richmond recently, and VCU facilitated their work to target land mines in their country. (Photo courtesy of GEO)

Ukrainian delegation visits with VCU experts and others as part of effort to eliminate the threat of land mines

National security experts from a country at war meet with faculty and other leaders to learn and share insights.

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Six Ukrainian national security experts visited Richmond recently, and Virginia Commonwealth University facilitated their work to target land mines in their country.

The delegates’ meetings with faculty, state lawmakers and officials, and members of the Ukrainian-American community in Virginia were made possible by Open World, a program sponsored by the Congressional Office for International Leadership. Open World brings young leaders from countries around the globe to the United States to learn how governments, media and other institutions operate here.

“This program is extraordinary both for VCU and for the Ukrainian delegates, as we have much to learn from each other,” said Jill E. Blondin, Ph.D., associate vice provost for global initiatives.

“We feel immensely privileged to facilitate a program focused on the elimination of the threat of land mines to the people and children of Ukraine,” added Stephanie Tignor, VCU’s director of global learning. “The Open World program is especially rewarding at this critical moment in time for the delegates and their important work for the people of Ukraine, and also for VCU's faculty, staff, students and community members engaged in this program. All have had the opportunity to witness first-hand the power of cultural exchange programs and be active participants in citizen diplomacy.”

Oleksii Bezruchko is the head of the military department for the Come Back Alive Foundation, a nonprofit that supports the Ukrainian military. He speaks with units to determine and obtain their needs, and since 2014, the organization has raised more than $175 million to buy supplies, including armored vehicles and drones.

Bezruchko praised the Open World program and VCU, which facilitated visits beyond campus. This included the Center for International Recovery and Stabilization at James Madison University and, notably, Fort Lee. At that Army base, the Ukrainian delegation spent time at the Humanitarian Demining Training Center.

“This program gave us a great opportunity to learn and observe how humanitarian demining is organized by competent specialists in this country,” Bezruchko said.

The visitors experienced a practical training ground for demining specialists. Anton, who is a Ukrainian instructor for pyrotechnic unit specialists, was impressed by the work and how it could improve efforts in his country. “This knowledge will certainly be utilized very soon just because we train our demining specialists on a day-to-day basis,” he said.

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The delegation established important professional connections during their visit, and they appreciated the opportunity to speak with Virginia state legislators. (Photo courtesy of GEO)

Bezruchko added that the delegation established important professional connections during their visit, and they appreciated that officials from Washington came to speak with them.

“We're going to stay in touch, stay connected, and we'll be able to ask our difficult questions,” he said.

Judy Twigg, Ph.D., a professor of political science in the College of Humanities and Sciences, helped organize the delegates’ activities alongside Sarah Carrier, associate director of global learning. Twigg said VCU's Global Education OfficeL. Douglas Wilder School of Government and Public Affairs and College of Humanities and Sciences came together to provide an array of opportunities to share insights among academic partners and public officials.

“It was a deeply meaningful and humbling experience to host guests from the State Emergency Service of Ukraine and the Come Back Alive Foundation,” Twigg said.

"It was a pleasure to liaise on behalf of the Wilder School with the delegation from Ukraine,” said Robyn McDougle, Ph.D., associate dean of research and outreach for the Wilder School. “The meetings with state government officials and key legislators were informative and productive. I’m grateful to our Ukrainian friends for their time spent with us and hope we can continue our partnership moving forward.”

VCU previously hosted Open World delegations from Ukraine (in 2012, 2013 and 2017), Russia (2011 and 2014), the Republic of Georgia (2015), Tajikistan (2018) and Serbia (2019).

Bezruchko said the program is meaningful because in addition to professional meetings, delegates live with American families during their stay. This gives them a taste of what work and home life is like in America.

“I was very strongly and pleasantly impressed by how authentic the people are,” he said.

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At the end of their visit, the COIL delegation gave a presentation about their country and held a Q&A with the VCU community. (Photo courtesy of GEO)