Saturday, August 11, 2012

Ukrainian group visits Toledo

Welcome reception in Maumee for Ukrainian
delegation from Rivne and Ternopil Oblasts
(counties) in Western Ukraine. Above, Elissa shares
Sylvania Advantage with Rivne journalist Volodymyr Torbich. 

Ukrainian Flag, photo by Peter Musolino, flickr. 

“Hello, my name is Iryna.”  Iryna is one of a nine-member delegation from western Ukraine visiting the US, thanks to the Great Lakes Consortium of Training and Development, with funding from USAID.  I was at a  welcome reception in Maumee, Ohio, just south of Toledo, for the newly arrived group, with my daughter Elissa, who’s a graphic designer at the Sylvania Advantage, and her friend Laura Kline, a professor of Russian Language and Literature at Wayne State University.  

“I’m Fran and happy to meet you.  I spent two years in Ukraine, but in the East, not the West; I’m sorry I do not know Ukrainian.”   She smiled and nodded, but I don’t know if she fully understood me.  Maybe I was talking too fast. I'm told some of the delegation understands more English than others. For those with little English, the translators are essential. 

I understand. It can be very frustrating, the language barrier. I learned survival Russian during my Ukrainian stay, but for the most part I was in the dark for two years, unable to have a normal conversation about what I was seeing, doing, feeling, about the simplest things.  My host moms in Chernigov and in Starobelsk were as frustrated as I was. You want so much to be able to converse, but it’s difficult to impossible.  Language becomes a huge barrier, and it takes time to find ways around it to build relationships.  

But I was delighted to be with this group of lively and inquisitive people from Ukraine.  Elizabeth Balint, project manager of the Consortium’s international exchange program, introduced each one, all from Rivne or Ternopil oblasts in Western Ukraine:
* Serhiy Anoshchenko, mayor, Kuznecovsk City Council 
* Ivan Bashnyak, mayor, Borschiv City Council
* Vitaliy Undir, mayor deputy, Ostroh City Council
* Ihor Hul, mayor deputy, Berezhany City Council, and a great guitar player who led the group in a patriotic song.
* Andrii Hreshchuk, City council secretary, Rivne City Council
* Mykola Orlov, Chairman, NGO Analytical Center of City Development “ZEON”
* Volodymyr Torbich, director, main editor, Rivne NGO “Agency for Investigative Journalism" 
* Yulia Parfenchuk, lawyer, leading specialist, and member Kremenets City Council  
* Iryna Pakhniuk, Consultant for coordination and cooperation with local government departments, Rivne Regional Council.

What a powerful and talented group! How I’d love to sit with each and every one and talk about what they do, how their cities are faring, what goals they have, what dreams for the future of Ukraine.  Instead, I can only hope that their three-week stay in the Toledo area will provide the opportunities they seek to learn more about strengthening local government and economic development.  

I'm sure that the cultural exchanges--staying with host families, attending local events and festivals, museums and parks, even baseball games, along with attending seminars and professional development programs--will have a strong impact and strengthen the ties between Ukraine and the US.  

“I hope to learn more about your government and also about journalism practices and the media here,” Volodymyr  said through the group’s interpreter Sasha Etlin. He looked over the Sylvania Advantage newspaper Elissa had with her.  He couldn’t read it, but the idea of a community newspaper supported by local advertisers interested him.  

Community-based journalism is, afterall, relatively new in Ukraine, where for so long the State, the central government, controlled the news, and some say still does.   Journalists there have been silenced and imprisoned for telling true stories about human rights abuses, corruption, injustice and central government interference in local affairs.

I was once again reminded of how new the ideas of  government of, by, and for the people are in Ukraine; how new the idea of local governance, transparency and community involvement in decision-making; how brave the people, like the members of this delegation, who are working for change.  

Like American democracy, Ukrainian democracy is in process, and the challenges are daunting.  But I learned while in Ukraine that change is happening from the bottom up, all across the country, east to west. It's often not visible, yet, but I have faith that it will be one day.  

This 9-member delegation of Ukrainian local officials and activists is testimony to this development and this hope.  I wish them all the best of luck.   Я бажаю їм усім удачі.
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