|Natalia and husband Vasyl seeing me off to America at the Lugansk train station. |
Natalia gave me a gift of beautiful earrings, a family heirloom. It was hard to say goodbye.
Natalia was born in Poltava, but spent most of her adult life in Starobelsk and environs. Her native
language is Ukrainian but she is fluent in Russian. It's not uncommon. In fact, it's pretty much the norm. Natalia studied English in Gorlivka, famous for its language institute, a center for English-language learning. Gorlivka's main buildings are now occupied by armed Russian special ops and militia.
When I arrived in Starobelsk and knew nothing, not the town, not the geography, and not the language well-enough either, I had a difficult time connecting with my counterpart Vera at Victoria NGO, who spoke not one word of English. I'd sit in her office in Lenin Park in silence, Russian dictionary at the ready, but it seemed impossible in the beginning. I wrote questions: What do you want me to do? How can I help? Maybe I can help with a project? Что вам от меня хочешь? Каковы ваши цели? Как я могу помочь? Может быть, я могу помочь вам с проектом? She'd rattle off in Russian. I grasped a few words, went home, tried to translate. I spent hours doing this. I wrote in my journal: Vera helps people whose rights have been violated and they do not know their rights. She gave several examples (an invalid in a car, a mother whose son was murdered, planted drugs, others?)."People need knowledge; we need an education campaign."
It was a start. I'd return with written responses. I'd practice saying it in Russian, but she didn't understand my poor attempts at the language. I tried Google Translate for the first time, but it took patience and Vera didn't have time. The language barrier was a mountain. I did hear "Yes, I want to do that." Да, я хочу это сделать. I wrote it up in the form of a Peace Corps Community Project Grant called "Know Your Rights" and hoped she would take the draft and run with it. That didn't happen right away.
In fact, it didn't happen until Natalia D came into the picture. I approached her first about being my Russian tutor. I was so relieved to find a person I could converse with in English, however, I didn't focus on the lessons. I never knew how isolating it was not being able to communicate. That's how Natalia D saved my life. I was so hungry for conversation, it's all I wanted to do. She saw that, and became my confidante.
At some point, probably because I was fretting, Natalia agreed to come to a meeting with Vera. It was a breakthrough, because now Natalia and Vera could share the drafts for Vera to develop, putting in all the things she needed. She liked the title "Know Your Rights." The narrative shaped up. The budget took time. There were lots of ups and downs, we missed the first deadline (bummer), but the proposal got done, the grant was funded. Oh thank god. О, слава богу. It would not have happened without Natalia.
Vera was happy when she saw the results, and the possibilities. She was able to get a new computer and printer, a projector for education programs, supplies, support for a lawyer, money for a Know Your Rights brochure. It was a good turn of events, and that's when Vera saw that this earnest but deficient-in-language Amerikana could be of help. My role in the project was to talk about "The Rule of Law" on the education circuit in seven rural towns around Starobelsk. I translated the talk into Russian and passed the sheet out as I spoke. It was an amazing experience, going to these small towns and meeting the people. Some meetings were canceled at the last moment by city officials and had to be rescheduled . One meeting was held in a hallway, another under a beer tent. After this grant came another, and another. Vera was on a roll. Ntalia made it happen.
Natalia and I had more meetings at the library than anywhere else. Natalia was also on the book-buying committee for the Library, which included an incredible trip to Lugansk, about an hour away, during a summer heat wave.
Lugansk is a wonderful town with a great university named after poet Taras Shevchenko, beautiful grounds and a prehistoric women's sculpture garden (Vovo introduced me to it); parks and public spaces, lots of internet cafes and restaurants, some great bookstores. It's where I met Vovo and Yulia of the Eastern Ukraine Center for Civic Initiatives, at various training workshops that Vera attended. I met Wyoming and Caroline and other Peace Corps Volunteers there, too. It was a great meeting location for PCVs serving in the east. The Russians are around there now, striking fear into the hearts of good people.
The car the library donated to the cause, unfortunately, had to have the heater on in order to go forward. The driver said nothing. Just turned up the heat and drove on. We almost burned to death, but we made it both ways, in stoic silence, moving about this way and that, stopping a few times to open the hood and let out steam, stopping once for water. I guess all that sustained us was the knowledge that we were doing important work for the Public library!
On the other hand, Ukrainians are some of the most stoic people I know, suffering in silence for a long time, then going on as if everything is normal. That's probably what's happening now in eastern Ukraine in the face of the Russian invasion.
Natalia and I got together as often as possible; she fit me in between her classes and busy schedule. We walked and talked, shared tea and precious time. I was happy she invited me to give some literature seminars for her advanced students. Many of them, like Maria, Sveta, Artom and Tonya the drummer, were in the English Club. We read short stories together: Mark Twain, Thomas Wolfe, Jack London, Kate Chopin. It was challenging, and fun.
She took me up on a suggestion that she think about a grant, too. What would you like to do? I asked her one day. She thought about it. Maybe work with teachers of English in Starobelsk schools, and also have a summer tutoring program for English students in rural areas who are having trouble passing the National English Test, which you have to pass to go onto college. "Those with the least resources, like money for tutors, have the greatest need." Okay, let's do it. I worked with Natalia on drafts; she finished them up and submitted them. Natalia wanted to level the playing field, and she did, almost singlehandedly, with amazing dedication to helping young people learn English so that they could expand their opportunities in life.
|Natalia, her sister and brother gathered|
in Lymon for a family picnic.
I also remember a special visit from her siblings at her home, which borders a lot of land on the winding Aydar river. A great place for playing soccer and family games. Natalia's brother and sister-in-law, who live just over the border in Russia, cooked a special Russian fish soup in which, with great ceremony, he dipped a burnt stick. Wow! It turned out to be a delicious Russian specialty. Friend Laura, who teaches Russian at Wayne State, thinks it's called Ukha.
|A burnt stick goes |
into the soup.
|Preparing a picnic feast.|
As the sun set, we sat in wonder at the beauty of this special place. We were grateful for good food, family and friendships. We toasted to health, life, nature. I saw the magic of eastern Ukraine and its people. I could never thank Natalia enough for making my Peace Corps service a positive experience. I hope one day she can come to America, her dream. Natalia D, the adored English teacher of Starobelsk, who quietly but firmly continues to make an enormous contribution to the people of eastern Ukraine.