New PCVs Heading Up the Reopening of Oblasts

Monday November 26, 2018

New PCVs Heading Up the Reopening of Oblasts.

 

Written by Sara Sherman, PCV Ukraine Group 51

On October 25, 2018, 153 Peace Corps trainees swore in as official Volunteers serving in 21 out of 24 oblasts in Ukraine – for the first time since the Revolution of Dignity and 2014 Peace Corps evacuation. Peace Corps Ukraine was recently nudged into the spotlight of being the largest contingent in the world, according to a statement made by the Deputy Chief of Mission, Pamela Tremont at the swearing-in ceremony in Kyiv.

The current Country Director, Michael Ketover, affirms the decisions made by himself, the Safety and Security Managers of Peace Corps Ukraine, and the previous Country Director for the reopening of these oblasts since the evacuation in 2014. Ketover stated that the process of re-entry began in 2017-18 with a series of visits by the previous Country Director, Denny Robertson and the Safety Security Managers. Ketover and the Safety and Security Manager, Ivan Nykyforuk, made a final assessment in April 2018 and began responding to PCV requests from partner organizations, government officials in amalgamated communities and NGOs.

“We hope that the PCVs serving in these oblasts, each selected for their emotional maturity and cultural adaptability as demonstrated during PST, plus their strong technical and language skills, have safe, healthy, and productive services, collaborating closely with our Ukrainian partners to support Ukrainian developmental needs while promoting world peace and friendship, Peace Corps’ enduring mission,” Ketover stated in an email interview.

The PCVs who entered these reopened oblasts were trained in Zhytomyr Oblast. Groups were trained in Ukrainian and Russian languages. During their training, they were given the opportunity to watch a documentary-style film that discussed the Revolution of Dignity and the impacts the evacuation made on the current PCVs at the time.

The conference hall in the Irpin Conference Center in the Kyivska Oblast was brightly lit with fluorescent lights at the end of a long training day at Arrival Retreat, and trainees were scattered among the rows of chairs silently absorbing the sorrow and soon-to-be uprising that Ukraine and its people endured in 2014, not only in Maidan, but throughout the country.

“I had also been following the news on Ukraine ever since the revolution, and it had been a large part of my decision in choosing to serve in this country during such a pivotal time in its history,” said Thomas Choi, a PCV now serving in the Kherson Oblast.

“I remember that the Volunteer testimonies were so sobering to hear because they brought such a human element to uncertainty and sadness of the evacuation,” said Mary McCormick, a PCV now serving in the Kharkiv Oblast. “It’s nearly impossible for me to truly comprehend what it must have felt like to be in Ukraine during that time. That being said, since coming to Ukraine, I have been working to gain as much perspective as I can about the Revolution of Dignity as well as the subsequent evacuation. I feel that it’s essential to understanding the relevance and value of Peace Corps in Ukraine.”

“It was really emotional, because hearing from Ukrainians who were at Maidan, who vividly remember the Revolution and can articulate the effect it has had on their country and their livelihoods, helped bring everything into perspective and makes it all the more significant that Peace Corps is back now to continue our work,” said Whitney Cravens, a PCV now serving in the Kherson Oblast. “Additionally, although I had heard about volunteers being evacuated and knew a few myself that had gone through that experience, it was even more surreal hearing from them firsthand.”

 

After their first week at their permanent site, the In-Country Committee of the RPCV Alliance for Ukraine checked in with them on their experiences.

When you discovered that you were chosen to take on the reopening of one of these oblasts, what were your initial thoughts?

Thomas Choi, CD, Kherson: Though I was expecting to be placed in the East or South because I was in the Russian cluster, I was still very excited and humbled to be given the opportunity! I had already heard about how beautiful the Kherson Oblast was. To make it even better, I found out I was serving in the same city my LCF was from!

Mary McCormick, TEFL, Kharkiv: I was extremely surprised! My initial thought was nervousness, because I knew the reality that Russian or Surzhyk would most likely be the primary language at my site. I was a little worried that communication would become an obstacle. However, more than anything, I was absolutely thrilled. I felt so grateful to be amongst the group of volunteers representing Peace Corps by taking some of the first steps back into the Kharkiv Oblast.

Whitney Cravens, CD, Kherson: I was really excited! My LCF (Language and Cross-Cultural Facilitator) during Pre-Service Training is from Khersonska, so I had always hoped I would be in Khersonska Oblast given all the awesome things she had told me about her Oblast, and felt somewhere in my heart that it would happen. So when I found out I would be going there, I was floored. However, I didn’t realize the importance of going to one of these newly reopened oblasts until we started to talk more about it, and I really became excited about the opportunity to start rebuilding Peace Corps Ukraine’s relationships in Khersonska and pave the wave for future volunteers for years to come.

Mackenzie DeMore, TEFL, Kharkiv: I was very excited as I had hoped to work in Kharkiv Oblast since hearing it would be reopening.

 

What are your hopes for these oblasts as they reopen this year?

Thomas: I have already been overwhelmed by the support and excitement of the community that has taken me in, and I hope that the stability can continue so that Peace Corps will be able to send more volunteers to these oblasts next year.

Mary: I have many hopes about the reopening of the oblasts, especially Kharkiv! There are only three volunteers who have reentered into Kharkiv from my group, and I hope to soon see that number grow as time moves forward! By the end of my two years, I hope to see meaningful development in my community as well as in the other communities with Peace Corps volunteers. Most importantly, I really hope to see the rebuilding of a strong and long-lasting relationship between the Peace Corps and Ukrainian communities in the Kharkiv Oblast.

Whitney: My hopes for these oblasts as we reopen are that we are able to start the process of rebuilding productive relationships in areas crucial to the development of Ukraine, where Peace Corps can be the most effective, and that our safe, healthy, and successful work can help pave the way for future volunteers to serve in these oblasts for years to come.

Mackenzie: I hope these oblasts will remain safe for PCVs so more PCVs can work in and visit them and we can work together across Ukraine to promote Ukrainian unity.

 

You have now completed your first full week at site – how was it?

Thomas: Since I am working with an organization for regional development, I had the chance to spend my first week getting to travel and meet with mayors, administrators, and businesses of various cities and amalgamated communities in the Kherson Oblast. It has been an incredible experience for me to witness firsthand all that this region has to offer, and I have hit the ground running with all of our projects. My wonderful host family has also kept me busy with games, barbecues, and adventures like mushroom picking in the forest to help me settle into the community. I could not have asked for a better site, and I’m excited to see what the next two years hold.

Mary: It was incredible! Everything was a little overwhelming at first, as we had been swiftly transferred directly from Swearing-In to our permanent sites. But as soon as I was able to get introduced to the school I was working in along with other parts of my community, I really began feeling a sense of purpose as a volunteer. During my first day at school, I had a chance to sit down with my counterpart and members of the administration to discuss aspirations and goals. They told me about some of the challenges that Kharkiv was confronted with after 2014, when many development opportunities and initiatives were halted or lost in the region. That truth was humbling. But my counterpart is happy to have Peace Corps back in Kharkiv, because she believes that it portrays the growing opportunity for this region of East Ukraine. The optimism and excitement shown by the school administration during my first week gave me a clear sense of purpose in my community, and it entirely humanized the significance of Peace Corps reentering the Kharkiv Oblast.

Whitney: It was like a roller coaster ride – full of fun but a lot of whiplash! Going from the structured atmosphere of Pre-Service Training where everything had become familiar to a new place full of new people with a lot of time on my hands was difficult, but it was fun getting to know my organization and explore my new home for the next two years. It was challenging to have to put everything I learned in PST to the test, but also rewarding to see how far I have already come since my arrival in Ukraine. It was comforting to see how excited everyone in my site was to have me here and how excited they are at the prospect of having Peace Corps back in Khersonska, and I’m just really thrilled to be here.

Mackenzie: My site is wonderful. The teachers are very welcoming and excited to work together and the students are interested in learning. I frequently have to remind myself to focus on getting to know my community and building relationships right now instead of letting my American desire to check all the tasks on my to-do list off get the best of me.

 

The number of PCVs entering the reopened oblasts are easily counted on one hand, but the number of RPCVs who served in these oblasts before 2014 who reached out and expressed their thrill of the news was heartening, as they displayed the true sense of community that Peace Corps encompasses.

Some RPCVs reminisced on the minor details and fond memories of their time as PCVs in these oblasts.

Alia Scheirman, a Group 37 (2009 – 2011) TEFL RPCV from the Kherson Oblast shared her memories.

“My favorite thing about living in the oblast was that we had pretty mild weather, it wasn’t far to get to the sea, and the produce in the oblast is outstanding,” she said. “Watermelon in particular is the absolute best in that oblast! Ukrainians in other oblasts often mentioned the excellent veggies and fruits in Kherson when I told them I lived there.”

Brenda Robertson, a Group 5 (1995 – 1997) Business Development (now known as Community Development) RPCV from the Kharkiv oblast shared her wildly contrasting experiences between what life must have been like in 1995 versus 2018.

“Back then, the currency was a mess. They came out with ‘couponi’, which they used recycled roubles pressed into paper. They disintegrated in the rain or after a few uses. They pulled those eventually (became toilet paper, how ironic, yes?),” she explained. “Foreigners were rare in Kharkiv at that time. A few African students from soviet-desirable countries were around, but just a few. We few PCVs were met with serious apprehension and worry, but never anger (except if you carried a camera or video camera).”

Gerilynn Toresdahl, a Group 27 RPCV from Kherson shared how her service completely changed her future, in the best of ways!

“I actually married a Ukrainian man and we travel back to Bilozerka every summer for a month,” she said. “My mother-in-law is still a teacher in school number 3 in Belozerka!”

If you are an RPCV from either Kherson or Kharkiv and feel inclined to share your experiences with the new, current PCVs serving there, please do not hesitate to contact the Communications Representative for the In-Country Committee to connect with the corresponding PCV at [email protected].

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