Friday, April 25, 2014

Natalia D: English Teacher, Translator, Guardian Angel

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 Dohadailo is the revered English teacher at the Starobelsk branch of the Taras Shevchenko National University in Lugansk. I call her Natalia D, because I met so many Natalias it was hard to keep track. Natalia D saved my life. She was my interpreter and my translator, my guardian angel.

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 helped me in the same way with writing grants for the Starobelsk Public Library, interpreting between me and Iryna, the director.  In this way the Library got support for an infrastructure upgrade, new equipment, help with the English Club, books for an English-language book collection and community outreach projects, all leading up to a grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation (the Bibliomist Project) to get wired, with computers and internet access.  A huge project for Starobelsk.

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.
Natalia lives in a lovely two-story house in Lymon, about 15 minutes outside of Starobelsk.  She has a huge garden.  She finds pure enjoyment in working in it, like Luba.  I learned how close Ukrainians are to the land, and to "natural" farming." Natalia has the help of husband Vasyl, a wonderful man who drives a taxi by day (he knows Starobelsk roads and helped me out a lot), and her two sons, when they aren't studying. Natalia insisted education came first for her sons, and she made sure they were prepared for college, continued their studies, found opportunities abroad and good jobs for their future.

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.
While the soup simmered and fresh meat cooked on a makeshift grill (shashlick), we all walked to the river.  It was a hot summer day, and everyone plunged into the water.  I hadn't brought a swimming suit, but no problem.  I stripped down to my underwear and went in, to applause and laughter. Americans aren't so bad afterall!

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.  
Celebrating the opening of the English-language book collection
at the Starobelsk Biblioteca.  English Club members translated the
authors and titles into Russian so the librarians, none of whom spoke
 any English, had a bilingual list.
Natalia D, upper left; Iryna, library director, upper right; Alosha on guitar, below
Iryna; librarians presenting the program. . The had put up all the
English Club posters we had made since the beginning.

                          "Testament," by Taras Shevchenko 
When I am dead, bury me
In my beloved Ukraine,
My tomb upon a grave mound high
Amid the spreading plain,
So that the fields, the boundless steppes,
The Dnieper's plunging shore
My eyes could see, my ears could hear
the mighty river roar.
Oh bury me, then rise ye up
And break your heavy chains,
And water with the tyrants' blood
The freedom you have gained.
And in the great new family,
The family of the free,
With softly spoken, kindly word
Remember also me.

One of my favorite Ukrainian poets, jailed for writing these kinds of "nationalist" poems and in the Ukrainian language, during a period of Russification" in the 19th century. Same thing happened to poets and artists in the 20th century under the Soviets, sent to the gulags for the same reason: creating and preserving Ukrainian culture. 

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