Vickroy: A wish for Ukraine
BY DONNA VICKROY email@example.com Twitter: @dvickroy March 12, 2014 3:06PM
Updated: April 14, 2014 8:03AM
Janine Gawel wants America to know there’s so much more to Ukraine than recent headlines.
There are beautiful churches, rich comfort foods, a stunning coastline and, among its people, a spirit of compassion and generosity that persists despite their many hardships, she said.
Gawel, 29, recently returned from Slavyansk, in eastern Ukraine, after a 2½-year stint with the Peace Corps. She worked as a community development volunteer, advocating for vulnerable groups such as orphans and people with disabilities. She also worked to increase awareness of a growing HIV/AIDS problem there.
“It is a country with some of the nicest, most wonderful people I have ever met,” said Gawel, a graduate of Tinley Park High School. “They’re really generous, they take you into their homes, stuff you full of food and invite you back.”
But, like so many people around the world, she added, they want a better life. “They want things to change for their country,” she said. “The young people especially want improvements.”
For many in this Eastern European country, she said, that means aligning with the West and breaking away from Russia.
Gawel was in Ukraine in November when President Viktor Yanukovych backtracked on a trade and cooperation agreement with the European Union, leading to a three-month protest occupation of Kiev’s central square, according the Central Intelligence Agency website. When the government introduced force to break up the camp in February, violence ensued and Yanukovych was ousted.
Gawel said she and other Peace Corps volunteers received daily warnings not to travel. Since then, all of the volunteers have been evacuated.
Though an interim government under acting President Oleksandr Turchynov has scheduled new presidential elections for May 25, the site states, the standoff continues.
As tensions build, Gawel fears for the safety of the people she met and came to love.
“They just want a better life,” she said.
They want job opportunities, a better standard of living and an end to rampant corruption, she said. In Ukraine, she said, corruption is apparent at every level. It is understood that you will bribe your way out of a traffic ticket, you will pay for better medical care and that you will pony up for your child’s good grades, she said.
“The people don’t like it, but they understand that’s how it is,” she said.
Though Peace Corps volunteers are not allowed to engage in political discussion — they are instructed to be apolitical — Gawel said it was readily apparent that most of the Ukrainians she met wanted to break away from Russia and align with Western Europe and the United States.
“They have this impression that all Americans are rich, that they all drive nice cars and live in nice homes,” she said.
And when you live in a country where indoor plumbing is a luxury and running water is only available during certain times of the day, it is hard to want to keep things status quo, she said.
Improvement will only come, Gawel believes, through a better relationship with the West. Unfortunately, the country’s history and economic dependence on Russia stands in the way of that happening. Adding to the conflict, some Ukrainians, particularly those living in the Crimean region, side with Russia.
“Whatever happens, it won’t be easy,” she said. Already, she added, the violence has been heartbreaking.
“It’s one thing to read about it,” she said. “But I know people there and I worry about them. It’s incredibly sad that it had to come to violence.”
Gawel, who returned to the United States in December, said, after Russia sent troops into Crimea on March 1, her heart sank.
She’d spent time camping along the coast there. It is a beautiful part of the world, she said, that now “looks like a war zone.”
Ironically, Gawel said, before the uprising, Ukraine was a very safe place. “I felt safer walking through Kiev than I ever did in Chicago,” she said. “People in Ukraine don’t have guns.”
Gawel, who lives in Tinley Park, earned a bachelor’s degree from Southern Illinois University and a master’s from Indiana University. She’s known since she was a child that she wanted to travel.
“I knew there was a bigger world out there,” she said. “As soon as I learned about the Peace Corps, I knew I wanted to do that.”
Though it sounds cliché, she said, “I want to make a difference. This is not just a Peace Corps focus; it’s my life focus.”
During her first year of service in Ukraine, she lived alone in an apartment. After meeting an older woman who also lived alone, Gawel asked if she could move in with her.
“I was kind of lonely and that ended up being a great experience,” Gawel said. She was able to better grasp the language and got to enjoy some great meals.
Living in a foreign country, she said, “Is like living at a more intense level. You’re constantly thinking, constantly facing challenges and overcoming them — that’s the best feeling in the world.”
Gawel, who is of Polish descent, said Ukraine and Poland share some of the same foods: pierogi, borscht and crepes among them.
“I had some of the best potato dishes there,” she said. “And salads — they put mayo on everything.”
Ukrainians are also big tea drinkers, she said. They conduct interviews, catch up with old friends and meet with colleagues over tea.
Getting to know Ukrainian culture, she said, gave her a better understanding of her own ethnic background.
“My mom always drinks tea,” she said. “Now I understand why.”
Navigating the language was a bit of a challenge, she said. Ukrainian, which is similar to Polish, is spoken in the west; Russian in the east. In the middle, a combination of the two. Though Ukrainians speak both languages, geography dictates which is spoken on the street.
“It’s more of comfort thing, a respect thing, to speak the right language in the area you’re in,” she said.
Though most Ukrainians are Orthodox Christian, they don’t always go to church — except on holidays, especially Christmas and Easter. The women wear head coverings and everyone stands during the service — sometimes for hours.
“Some of my most beautiful memories are of the churches,” she said.
On Easter one year, she attended a predawn service and marveled at the beauty of the congregants all carrying candles.
“Ukraine is a wonderful, beautiful country. I had a great experience there,” she said. “And I hope to go back.”