Tuesday, November 11, 2014

The Best of Ukraine in the USA

From left to right, just arrived in Toledo, Ohio: Tamara, from Kyiv; Vera, Tonya, and Natalia, from Starobelsk and region; Stanislava and Antonina, from Burtyn. We couldn't believe it was true!
Ukraine is a world away, several thousand miles from Ohio, seven hours ahead in another time zone, and it is in a war with no end with its Russian neighbor. Invaded, occupied, destabilized.  Crimea is gone and the war in Lugansk and Donetsk continues unabated, with Russian-backed separatists proclaiming new republics and more Russian troops, weapons and heavy artillary coming into eastern Ukraine every day. The violence is escalating again.  Few people think Ukraine, with it's almost non-existent army, has much chance against Russia, with its massive military might. The Big Bear attacking a lamb. More than 4000 people have died, mostly young men around 19 years of age, and thousands upon thousands of refugees have flooded other parts of Ukraine from Crimea and the east.  It's a humanitarian crisis of enormous proportions, and winter has arrived.

In Port Clinton, on Lake Erie, with NGO director,
 learning about their work and Head  Start.

And yet, six brave Ukrainian women leaders are now visiting the USA on an Open World international exchange program to learn about how our democracy works, about tools for change and educating the young, about modern agricultural methods and entrepreneurship.

Tonya, Natalia and Vera are from the Starobelsk region of Lugansk oblast in eastern Ukraine, about 50 miles from the Russian border, about 20 miles from the heaviest fighting front in Lugansk. It's where I served as a PCV. They have seen young men off to war; collected food and medical supplies for soldiers without warm clothing and poorly equipped; buried at least 27 unknown soldiers who ended up in the Starobelsk morgue.  They are teachers, NGO workers, civic and rural activists trying to keep their community together during the most difficult time, and trying to keep the fighting itself at bay. So far, Starobelsk is outside the Lugansk area taken over by the Russians.   But the town of 18,000 is inundated with refugees who have no shelter, clothing, food or medical care. So they have out of necessity turned their attention to the daily needs of residents who are overwhelmed with the effects of this war that the world denies exists.

Stanislava is the mayor of Burtyn, a town in western Ukraine where our Congressional representative, Marcy Kaptur, has a close relationship because her grandmother was born there.  Also from Burtyn is Antonina, a young teacher of English. The war has come to them too, through the pre-occupation of the federal government, economic dislocation, war-time casualties, and refugees.  Making positive progress in a time of war is tough, the Burtyn mayor acknowledges.

The women spent two days in DC, meeting the Open World
ambassador and touring the sites.  They thought it was beautiful.  
The sixth woman, Tamara, a vivacious professional who lives and works in Kyiv for an organization called Save Ukraine Now (SUN), is the group coordinator and facilitator.  She made sure the women got to Kyiv (no easy task from Starobelsk), caught their flights, spent two positive days in Washington, and made it to Toledo, Ohio. She is still with them as they travel around the area on an educational tour, with them all the way.

I worked with Rep. Kaptur and the Great Lakes Consortium for International Training and Development (GLC) for almost three years to bring a Ukraine delegation here.  The last big push came when we worked together on an Open World application, a program of the US Congress operated through the Library of Congress (www.openworld.gov). There are several layers of operation and policies; Marcy helped us get through all of them. So did GLC program director Elizabeth Balint. As far as I am concerned, these two women hang the moon.

Host families and guests: Back row standing: Tamara, Gary & Beth Anne Varney
with Antonina and Slava; Diane Kelb, Sally and Fred Vollango, Elizabeth Balint,far right.
Karen Tank on sofa between Tonya and Vera.
It's almost overwhelming to have these wonderful women warriors here at this time, in our city, in our Great Lakes region.  Elizabeth oranized a powerful program.  The women are learning so much, and we are learning from them.  Our host families are impressed with their guests from Ukraine, and new friendships are forming.  Through the various programs Elizabeth has organized with local officials, NGO leaders, universities, agricultural entrepreneurs, our guests are learning tools to take back to their communities. The people of our region are learning about Ukraine, its culture and past and Ukraine today.

The women don't sing the blues.  They embody activism and courage.  They are engaged; they are funny.  They are the human face of eastern Ukraine and western Ukraine.

I am overjoyed to see my friends from Starobelsk again.  When we said goodbye in April 2011 I think we all felt in our hearts we would never see each other again.  "Our dreams have come true," Natalia said, as we hugged at the Toledo airport.  Vera and Tonya said the same, tears of joy welling up.

We learned so much from each other then. We know that we can't give up. Hard as it is to believe, things are worse now than they were then.  The future is far from clear. It might be dreadful, even deadly.  But we can fight against the odds. I know these women, these brave, good souls, will persevere. The world is a better place because they are in it, doing God's work on earth, no matter what happens.
At my place with Toledo City Councilwoman Lindsey Webb
 (and her daughter), Natalia, Tonya and Vera, my Starobelsk
friends, for a "Conversation on Local Government and eastern Ukraine Today."  


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