Thursday, October 21, 2010

Musings: Me and Marat

Where I am. Ukraine (yellow) in eastern Europe, and Ukraine map with Lugansk oblast in red. Starobilsk is far east, Lviv far west.

Photo collage, Marat and Iryna (lower left), Olga and Natalia, Alex and Natasha at Library meeting, and lower left, Marat and Vera Flyat, Victoria NGO.

Marat Kurachevsky came to Starobilsk on Wednesday. He is a program director (Community Development Lead Specialist) at Peace Corps headquarters in Kiev, in charge of finding and placing Community Development (CD) Peace Corps Trainees (PCTs) at various sites throughout Ukraine. Youth development and TEFL volunteers are another matter. I met Marat during training in Chernigov. I admired his ability with languages, his thorough planning and training sessions, his dedication to our cause. He was articulate, positive, and helpful. Still is.

I also remember looking at him askance when I first learned that I was going to far-eastern Ukraine, to a place called "Starobilsk," in a county called Lugansk oblast. In a group of 55 trainees, I was placed the farthest east. As placements were announced, people held their breaths, then cheered. I held my breath, then groaned. Good lord, I thought, how can the Peace Corps send an almost 70-year-old trainee, the oldest in our Group 36, so far away from Kiev? It was a daunting thought. It hit me harder after I found out just where it was and how long it took to get there. I arrived in Starobilsk on June 19 with the flu and in a state of shock I think. It hit me even harder after I broke my arm and had to take an 18-hour train-ride-from-hell to Kiev, in excruciating pain with no medication, so I could be treated by PC-approved doctors.

I've thought about it ever since, mostly every time I have to make a long trip somewhere, and no matter where I go in Ukraine, it is always a long trip. So I've had to do some attitude adjusting in my thinking about this far-away placement.

I'm still of the opinion that volunteers over 60, let's say, should not be placed more than 6-8 hours away from Kiev, on a direct train or bus line. That might mean some shifting around, but for the most part I believe it can be done. I still wonder about a site near Poltava, say, or even Khargiv, someplace not so isolated, not so out-of-the-way.

But I've been here for a year and one-half now, and I've adjusted. I've come to love the town and its people. I've made many friends. I’ve learned the community, it's history, its culture, it people. Although I get frustrated at resistance to change, clinging to old times and old ways, the slowness of getting things done, I understand it, have written about it, accept it. In this way I am learning about patience, an ever-present challenge. and about "letting go and letting god," as they say in Al-Anon.

Above all, I've met many fantastic and talented people in Lugansk oblast who are creative, resourceful, forward-looking critical thinkers. Yes, here in the East. These future leaders and thoughtful citizens challenge stereotypes about eastern Ukraine, and give hope for Ukraine's future.

I've come to realize that the most important thing I have done here is in the category of human relations and cultural exchange. People skeptical of Americans and of America have become a little more open. People who expressed skepticism (to put it kindly) about how we could elect Barak Obama president are a little less closed-minded. Some organizations have become a bit more flexible in taking on new projects . Another saw that a Peace Corps Volunteer could be helpful even though he or she cannot speak Russian; a PCV can write grants, produce a bi-lingual program, do research, create handouts, find translators, and serve a need. New connections have been created between organizations and people who think alike but have never worked together before. The next PCV can build on this foundation to promote further collaboration for community change.

So when I greeted Marat here on Wednesday, it was with delight, and a more optimistic outlook. If Starobilsk does get other Community Development PCVs after me (Marat is exploring that option now), I hope I will have made it easier for them, paved the way a bit. It hasn't been earth-shattering change, but it's been a positive evolution in cross-cultural relations. An older Amerikanka has become an accepted fixture on the Starobilsk community scene. Some doors, and some minds, have been opened. And that's not bad.

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