Two women in energy—unlikely friends—live 5,600 miles apart. One worries as her friend faces an uncertain future in war-torn Ukraine.

By Ted Case

A climate-change advocate, Alessia Shapovalova from Kyiv, Ukraine, relished the beauty of Oregon’s landscape during her 2018 visit. “I hope the leaders of my country will be as progressive as yours,” she said. Photo by Robert Chandler

The Russian Army was amassing at the Ukrainian border, and Britni Davidson— deputy executive director of the Oregon Rural Electric Cooperative Association— worried about her good friend, Alessia Shapovalova.

Davidson sent a text to Shapovalova: “Are you guys still in Kyiv? Are you OK?”

To her relief, the reply came immediately.

“Yes, my family is still in Kyiv,” Shapovalova wrote. “We have a bomb shelter in our house so people from other houses can come and stay in safety.”

The surreal text exchange gave Davidson some comfort after Russian President Vladimir Putin launched a brutal invasion of Ukraine.

News organizations reported an indiscriminate campaign of mortar and artillery shells killing innocent people in residential neighborhoods of Kyiv—a sprawling capital city of 2.8 million people.

Satellite images showed a snaking 40-mile convoy of Russian tanks and troops marching on the capital.

While Americans are mortified by what they witness on television, arguably few have a personal connection to a distant country with a complicated history and even more complicated politics.

For Davidson, the tragedy had a human face—one she never anticipated.

Britni Davidson from ORECA, left, and Alessia continue to stay in touch as Ukraine fights for its freedom. Photo courtesy of Britni Davidson

The two women met in the fall of 2018 when Shapovalova came to Salem as a participant in a U.S. State Department Fellowship Program for emerging leaders from partner nations. Shapovalova, who worked for Ukraine’s Ministry and Ecology of Natural Resource, had a deep interest in climate change and renewable energy policy.

The city of Salem asked leaders with Salem Electric— a 19,000-member urban co-op with one of the cleanest energy portfolios in the nation—to host Shapovalova.

The co-op readily agreed. Davidson, who then served as Salem Electric’s member services manager, volunteered to be the point person.

“All I knew was that I wanted to make it a meaningful experience for her,” Davidson said. “She was incredibly eager to learn.”

Davidson introduced Shapovalova to scores of local leaders and energy experts across the state.

The two went on the road, with Davidson scheduling an ambitious tour of Oregon’s vast renewable resources: solar farms, landfill gas projects and a memorable day with Davidson’s two daughters at Bonneville Dam.

“It was a whirlwind month,” Davidson said. “I’m not sure who learned more—she or I.”

Shapovalova clearly learned something. Her mandatory U.S. State Department project for participants won a prestigious award. She was effusive about Salem Electric and the Northwest energy program.

“I appreciate that your energy and environmental policies are so progressive when it comes to climate change,” she said during her time in Salem. “I hope the leaders of my country will be as progressive as yours.”

A visit to Multnomah Falls was a must after touring Bonneville Dam with Davidson and her daughters. Photo by Hasmik Barseghyan

During the month together, the two women also became fast friends, shopping for Levi’s jeans—which cost several hundred dollars in Ukraine—and staying in touch long after Shapovalova returned to Ukraine to work on energy policy. There was talk of Davidson visiting her in Ukraine, but no one could foresee a worldwide pandemic—or a senseless war.

During Russia’s military build-up, Shapovalova acknowledged they were “stressed a little about informational attacks,” but that “everything is working OK.”

Soon, everything would be far from OK as Russia launched its blood-soaked assault, killing innocent civilians and ripping the country apart. After more than two months of warfare, the United Nations estimates more than 10 million people have fled their homes.

Davidson has reminded her friend that she and her family have a place to stay in America if they want to flee the country.

“My family doesn’t want to leave Kyiv,” Shapovalova wrote, noting that her family plays an indispensable role in a conflict.

Her father works for the government. Her mother is a doctor, and her brother is with a Ukrainian National Guard unit protecting Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky from would-be assassins.

“Alessia is a talented person who wants to make the world a better place,” Davidson said, lamenting those dreams appear secondary to surviving a cruel onslaught with no end in sight.

If Davidson was initially the mentor in their relationship, she knows their roles are now reversed and have nothing to do with clean energy.

“Alessia and the Ukrainian people are teaching all of us a lesson in humanity and resilience—each and every day,” Davidson said.