RPCV Spotlight: Andrew Meyer

Tuesday December 11, 2018

RPCV Spotlight: Andrew Meyer.

December 2018

This quarter’s RPCV Spotlight is about Andrew Meyer, a Group 32 Youth Development volunteer who served in Crimea from 2007-2009. When I started talking with Andrew, I immediately got the sense that I already knew him. Our interview started a bit off kilter, as I was Skyping him from the rooftop of my office building in DC and was distracted by the sirens and honking cars, but the intrigue of Andrew’s story quickly made me forget about the background noise of the city. What interested me most was how he ended up back in Ukraine with the Danish Refugee Council as the Head of Office in Slavyansk and Severdonetsk a decade after his Peace Corps service. As I learned, his experience in nonprofit work, his master’s degree in Peacekeeping Operations, and his marriage to a Ukrainian woman he met as a PCV all catered to the needs of his current role.

*Note that this interview was conducted on 11/19/2018 before the current events with the Ukrainian naval ships.

Elena: Let’s start with your background. Where are you from? What did you study?

Andrew: So, I actually grew up near the DC area in Woodbridge, VA. I spent my whole childhood there. Then I went to the University of Kansas for a bit of a change of scenery and studied Political Science and International Studies.

Elena: How did you end up applying for PC?

Andrew: Right as a I graduated, I was accepted into the Peace Corps. I had applied with an open application, so I was willing to going anywhere, but since I took a semester of Russian in high school, I guess they flagged my application for Ukraine.

Elena: What was your Peace Corps experience like?

Andrew: I was based in Crimea, not the nice resort part, but the northeastern part in Nizhnegorsky rayon as a YD volunteer. My host organization was a public secondary school in a village. I was their first PCV. Overall, it was a good experience—it was kinda tough in the beginning because my hosts didn’t know what to do with me and YD is such a broad topic–you can do pretty much anything as long as it’s with kids. I started by helping the English teachers to get to know the kids and immerse myself in the school, then I started some extracurricular activities. We set up a computer lab and connected the school to the internet through a SPA grant. We also got a grant for some HIV/AIDs awareness activities around the rayon.

Elena: What did you do after you COSed?

Andrew: While in Crimea, I met my future wife. She is from Crimea and her name is Yulia. And then we moved back to the states together—she actually moved back ahead of me on a veterinary internship at Ohio State University. So, she was working as a veterinary resident on a goat farm when I moved back to DC to start working again. We lived apart for a year then we got engaged and married in 2010. I was working in DC for an American literacy nonprofit called First Book. Essentially we gave books to kids in low-income communities. I was with them for 4 years. During that time, I also got my masters in Peace Operations at George Mason University School for Public Policy. While living in DC, my wife unfortunately got sick—she had Hodgkin’s lymphoma and passed away in September 2012, so I dealt with that while I was working and going to graduate school. It was an extremely difficult time for me.

Elena: That must have been devastating. How did you move on from there?

Andrew: A year after Yulia died, all of a sudden Maidan happened, everything flared up in the east, Crimea was annexed and I finished graduate school…I was like, “ Well here I am, I’m this guy that has this deep connection to the country, in a way I’m unattached now, but I’ve gotta get back over there.” So, initially I got a job with a French NGO called ACTED (Agency for Technical Cooperation and Development) based in Turkey, but working on Syria. All of our projects were implemented in Syria through our partners. Then 6 months later, I secured a job with a Czech NGO called People in Need because I wanted to get back to Ukraine. First, I worked as the shelter program manager for about 2 and a half years rehabilitating homes damaged in the conflict zone. Later, I was promoted up to Head of Programs overseeing all of our humanitarian work throughout the Donbass region including government and non-government controlled territory. We were the only international NGO that had access on the non-government side. I had the ability to go over there and work with people who were very much underserved. We made negotiations with authorities over there, so it was interesting but very complex work–often dangerous and frustrating. Then, in April this year, I left People In Need and made the jump over to the Danish Refugee Council (DRC).

Elena: Can you describe the work of DRC and talk about your role a little bit?

Andrew: [The DRC] is a similar sort of humanitarian program–providing shelter, economic assistance, livelihood support, business support and legal assistance to people who have been displaced by the conflict or heavily affected by it. Now we are transitioning more toward development. I’m still based in Slavyansk, but we only have access on the government side, so I work in Donbass, but only the Ukrainian controlled areas. We also have a large demining team—we are one of the main NGOs that does this kind of work. We provide mine risk education and landmine clearance in Lugansk oblast. Needless to say, we have a broad array of activities! We will be restructuring a little bit and essentially consolidating our field office down to Mariupol. My position is probably going to be nationalized, so I will most likely leave my current position in February or March next year. But then we will see what happens!

Elena: How many landmines are estimated to be in the region?

Andrew: I’m not sure if we have reliable statistics—it’s a heavily contaminated region, especially as you have this protracted conflict that is dragging on and on. The two sides are dug in and constantly planting new mines along their battle lines/ trenches and checkpoints. I do know that Ukraine has the highest level of contamination of anti-vehicle mines in the world and as a result the highest number of incidents related to anti-tank mines. This is largely because this is a heavily-mechanized sort of technical conflict with more traditional tanks and modern warfare. Basically the entire Donbass is contaminated all the way up to Slavyansk where the war started. You have all these areas along the current contact line which are extremely contaminated. Every week you hear about farmers running over mines with their tractors, children stumbling across anti-personnel mines, there’s a high number of “ERWs” –explosive remnants of war. Kids find [undetonated] grenades and put them in their backpacks and then there was one case where the kid then got on a bus and the grenade detonated and killed something like 11 people. The reality is that these incidences will only exacerbate, even if the war ends, people will come home and start plowing their fields…so we are doing our best to educate the population about the warning signs and the risks. We do clearance, but humanitarian clearance which takes a lot of time. There are 3 large International NGOs that are doing it and the Ukrainian government is also starting to do it. It is us and other NGOs that are building their capacity, but there is a lot of work to do.

Elena: What skills/knowledge did your Peace Corps experience give you to prepare you for the work you do today?

Andrew: By far, the biggest advantage [from my PC service] is the language. As you know, the level of English [in Ukraine] is considerably lower than it is in other parts of Europe, so having familiarity with Ukrainian or Russian is extremely useful for any expatriate staff here. Not only do I just feel more comfortable, but I understand how things work. I can go to government and stakeholder meetings and get a feel for how things are really working as opposed to dealing with a filtered translation. I am able to communicate directly with our beneficiaries and it makes a big difference. It’s clear that I have an advantage over a random expat that comes here from an Africa or Syrian operation. Some things transfer, but a lot of things don’t…it makes me unique and competitive for jobs here.

Secondly, I was able to get an understanding of project cycle management…terms like project development, budgeting, reporting, monitoring and evaluation were already familiar to me when I came back overseas.

Lastly, Peace Corps built my confidence from a young age to be immersed in a foreign culture and a foreign work environment. It can be difficult at first, but I came back to Ukraine with that familiarity…you know… “I did this for two years, I can do it again” and my familiarity with the language is only going to get better. Peace Corps really forced me to work independently. I didn’t really have any PCVs near me, the closest one was an hour away so I basically did everything on my own. All of our regional managers were based in Kyiv.

Elena: If you could give some advice to returnees who want to stay involved, what would you tell them?

Andrew: Definitely try to stay in touch as much as possible with your key contacts back in Ukraine whether it’s friends, a host parent, a colleague at your org, you know, monthly Skypes? For me, it was mostly my in-laws. There were a couple people from my school that I stayed in touch with for a few years, but I’m not in touch with them now. But the point is, there is a lot of confusion about what is being said in the media about Ukraine…I think it’s important to keep personal contact with people who are here on the ground. Even if they have a confused perception of what’s happening, you still get a different perspective than whatever the American or Russian media is churning out.

In terms of employment, if people are seeking to come back here, the two best job sites I’ve seen are Kyiv Post and Relief Web. I think those are the best for expat jobs here in Ukraine. And there’s actually a lot of American funding that’s coming in for development that’s creating a flood of jobs, so now is the time to keep an eye out!

Lastly, if you can, try to find your way back here. Even on a volunteer basis. Americans can come here for 90 days visa-free. You know, it’s really cheap too. You could save up a couple thousand dollars back home and you could live off that here for 6 months. It’s incredible! Just get here. I know for organizations like my own and other international NGOs, they would rather hire someone that’s already here. Then they don’t have to pay for all your travel costs. Humanitarian funding is always tight, so it is important to save where you can.

 

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