Current, former WDBJ7 journalists recall exchange trips to Ukraine

Published: Mar. 9, 2022 at 9:48 PM EST
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ROANOKE, Va. (WDBJ) - WDBJ7 shares a special connection with Ukraine. Over the years, several journalists visited the country in an exchange program which also brought Ukrainian journalists to Roanoke. Some of the local journalists, including our Senior Reporter Joe Dashiell, reflected on those experiences Wednesday on the Digital News Desk.

As they explained to us during the livestream, the exchange had a lasting impact on the work done here at Channel 7.

The program was supported by the U.S. Department of State. IREX, or the International Research and Exchanges Board, brought Ukrainian and Roanoke journalists together to share best practices in the field.

But the overall exchange was even greater than that.

“The place, the only way I can describe it is electric,” said Kelly Zuber of Kyiv in 2005.

Zuber was News Director of WDBJ7 from 2013 to 2016. She traveled to Ukraine several times in the early 2000s, including right after the Orange Revolution.

There she said found a vibrant emerging democracy, fresh on freedom, enthusiastically pushing boundaries with their work.

“They really felt they had once again won their freedom,” she recalled. “That they had overturned an election that was corrupt and that it was done by the people. So it was just electricity in Kiev. And the journalists were fired up and they were ready to cover anything and everything because they had pointed out the corruption and something had happened because of it.”

It wasn’t and still isn’t an easy job.

“In the past, the newspaper had been bombed,” said Dan Sweeney.

Sweeney was a manager at WDBJ7 for many years. He spent his time in Ukraine in 2013 with a newspaper, showing them how to get accurate information to the web quickly in an environment that was still challenging.

“There was a journalist, I think when we were there, who was also attacked; they had some type of permanent ink sprayed on them,” he said. “So what really stands out is the courage of the journalists, and you continue to see that today.”

Zuber and Sweeney said visiting Ukraine and seeing the struggle of journalists up close made them thankful for the comparatively easy work back home.

“Walking away from it, I was really inspired by how tenacious the journalists were and continue to be today,” he said.

“I left that country with a renewed feeling about what I did for a living.” said Zuber. “I was proud to be a journalist and, you know, I took a lot of things for granted before that. The freedoms we have here. They would cover a news story and if the government didn’t like it, they unplugged the electricity to the news station.”

Senior Reporter Joe Dashiell was among the first groups to go in 2004, making stops in Kyiv, Ivano-Frankivsk and Lviv.

“These are beautiful people who welcomed us into their community,” Dashiell said, “and we’ll never forget that. And we’re certainly praying for their safety right now and hopeful that all the progress with the development that’s happened now almost 20 years since we were first involved with them won’t be lost in the course of this conflict with Russia.”

Sweeney and Zuber have been keeping up with the friends they made all those years ago. Sweeney said he’s in a group text where he’s hearing about efforts to collect helmets, ammunition and medicine.

“That desire to be democratic, to be independent, that’s just not going to go away,” he said of the fight. “That spirit and that freedom, that’s what they’re fighting for. And I don’t see them ever backing down.”

Zuber said it’s been heartbreaking to see the images of destruction in a country she said was so intent on being a democracy, uniting with Europe and striving for journalistic independence.

“I look back on my pictures now and it really chokes me up,” she said. “Because sometimes you can know people for all your life and really not know them, and then there’s sometimes you meet people and you spend a week with them and you feel you’ve known them all your life. And that’s how I feel about the people I met in Ukraine.”

While time and space and crisis have filled the gaps in the years since their visits, all three say the impact of the exchange will last a lifetime.

“My respect, my heart and a little piece of me is still in Ukraine,” said Zuber.

You can watch our full conversation on the WDBJ7+ Digital News Desk here:

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