Peace Corps - Ukraine

The Evacuation: A Detailed Retelling

On Tuesday, Feb 18, violence erupted in Kiev. I was sitting with my new across-the-hall-neighbors Gregor Ivanovich and Valentina Paulivna, who had abruptly invited me to their house when they heard me coming up the stairs. February 18 is their granddaughters birthday, and in true Ukrainian birthday fashion they had prepared a feast and invited their two closest friends – Babusya Anya and Lida. They had the tv on in the background, and in the midst of my conversation about the state of Arizona where Anya’s daughter lives, I heard gunshots from the tv and saw snipers on rooftops shooting at running targets.
I thought it was a movie but then recognized the streets of Kiev and saw that it said “Live”. Gregor explained that it started today because they had revoked the Constitution from 2004.

I had an underlying feeling of anxiety that only continued to grow as I felt isolated and helpless in my village with no Internet or TV.

Later in the evening we received an email from Peace Corps saying we were back on Standfast (Step 1 of our Evacuation Plan, where we are not allowed to leave our sites. This has been our status off and on since demonstrations began in November).

The situation Wednesday was peaceful, but transportation in most major cities remained closed through the center due to demonstrations.
I called Volodia, our Peace Corps Language program coordinator, and one of my favorite people in Ukraine – who had invited me to play chess and spend time with his family for the upcoming weekend.  I told him I wasn’t sure if I could still make it to Jytomer. I wanted to still go despite being on Standfast. He told me to listen to Peace Corps, and I listen to Volodia, so I listened to Peace Corps.
I then canceled my plans to teach at the Windows on America Library, and the seminar I was to teach at the Center for Culture in Vinnytsia later in the week.

On Wednesday evening a curfew was established for volunteers by Peace Corps – we were to be inside by 7pm every night.

Thursday morning my mom called and said Jacqueline, I don’t care what Peace Corps is telling you to do, I want you to come home right now.

I tried to explain to her that I wanted to be home but that I couldn’t abandon Ukraine right now.
At the same time I was barely able to remain calm myself, as my underlying feeling of anxiety was only growing. I tried to appease her by saying Peace Corps was taking care of us, but after getting off the phone I only felt more anxious.
My gut reaction to the uncertainty and instability of the situation in Ukraine was that I just wanted to be with my family, at home.

When I got to school I saw Volodomir Ivanovich and asked about the news. He said another 31 people had died. His voice shook, he said he couldn’t concentrate on lessons, he couldn’t do anything. The news was too horrible, to see his country like this.

Hanz, fellow PCV and head of our Safety and Security committee, called to say he was meeting with our Security Officer later in the day and he wanted to know honestly how I was feeling.  And he asked me about my general sense of how other PCVs were feeling to.

I told him I couldn’t hide my anxiety. That I trusted Peace Corps but that I personally was feeling pangs to be home. And more – what does it take to constitute a consolidation? How much blood must be shed?

I walked through the halls of a school during lunch time and every kid greeted me as they do every day: Jakleen!!! Xello!! Taras from 6th grade ran up behind me and have me a cookie in the shape of a rose. Alina and Alona from 6th grade asked me “How are you?” in English. First time ever. I was so proud.

I started telling people that my mom called and wanted me to come home. That I was worried for the future of Ukraine. That I didn’t know if I would stay here.

They told me, Jakleen, you can’t go. We will stand by your window and guard you. We won’t let anyone hurt you. We will hide you in our basement with the potatoes.

The fact was it wasn’t about my safety, it was about the future of their country, but they continued to just care for one another.
This is what Ukrainian culture is about. About loving your neighbor, about caring for the health of one another, about worrying, about wanting to keep loved ones close.

While I wanted to go home, I also felt like I was home. That Zoziv is my home now too. That Ukraine is my country. That leaving would only show that we were abandoning them in a time when we should stand together.

Thursday after school I watched the news with Volodomir Nifonovich and Nadia Ivanivna. We drank wine together and drank to the future of Ukraine. And to friendship. We laughed about how Kate had said shmacho at our Christmas feast.
I fell asleep on their couch wrapped in their kitten blanket, due to effects of their homemade wine.
When I woke and went home, Nadia ivanivna walked me home and we commented about how beautiful the sky was. The stars were so bright. Nadia asked me if the sky was as beautiful in America. And I said yea. Not in the cities, but in the mountains it looked the same.

And then the orders came from Peace Corps to consolidate the next day.

Lilia and Nastia (the school nurse and her 7th grade daughter, my new downstairs neighbors) and Sasha (the maintenance guy who put in my toilet and had been giving me eyes lately) were drinking tea with me when the news came. I told them. I told Sasha I wanted him to have the toilet he had just spent all week putting in for me.
At this point I thought we would consolidate for the weekend, maybe a full week and then be back at sites. 
Zach called and he asked what I was packing. I said all my technology and some clothes and peanut butter.  He said… Socks. He asked if I thought this was it. And I said, No. No way, this isn’t it. We’ll be back. 

Nevertheless I made a list of the stuff I was leaving behind and specified who I wanted to have what.
It felt like writing a will. Like I was dying in Zoziv and only my memories and things would remain.

Friday I went to Lypovets to meet Anya and Yura (my original counterpart and her husband who moved to Kyiv last summer). They told me the news that they would be going to America in August because Yura just received his acceptance into a college program. The sun shone, we ate at a restaurant to celebrate – it was the first time in Anya’s life eating out in Lypovets despite her living there her whole life.
I complained about my new counterpart, and we made a plan for Spring and Summer in Zoziv – working closer with other teachers, doing Romeo and Juliet with Victoria Victorivna, beginning teaching at a school in Lypovets one day a week.

I spent all day with this family, who had originally invited me to Zoziv. I joked with her mother and step father. Ate more borscht. After dinner, as I waited for the final call from my Regional Manager coming from Kyiv to meet her at the bus stop, I sat on the floor watching the TV – a live broadcast of the parliament. They voted to reinstate the constitution. The members of Parliament cheered and hugged, as the votes were counted.  Yura said it’s over, it’s all ok.
And I said no Yura, this is far far from over. This is good, but it is a long road until everything is ok.

I finally got the call, that it was time to go. Yura, Anya and I walked to the bus stop. I walked through the mud. The stars shone bright. I heard dogs barking. The echoes of a man drunkenly singing Ukraine’s national anthem.

These are the sounds of the Ukrainian village.

I was picked up at 7:15 pm by a Peace Corps van, along with my RM and a few other PCVs in my region to go to our consolidation point.
I sat in the front next to the driver and we spoke the entire ride  – first about cars, how popular Toyotas are in America. Then about philosophy. About philosophers, eastern literature writers, French artists, existentialism. All in Ukrainian. And I understood every word.
It was beautiful.

The call came from John while we were still on the road. John is one of the Borova 5, who had been keeping me updated with News and Peace Corps alerts, as I didn’t have access to internet. He had just received the email from Peace Corps. We were evacuating.
My stomach dropped.

Part of me was convinced I was never coming back. Part of me felt like I should not be leaving in the first place.

I didn’t say bye to any of the kids. What would they do without me? What would they think when I wasn’t at school on Monday?

We all met and our RM’s voice shook as she told us she didn’t know what would happen. But that after working here for 18 years with Peace Corps she had seen the change. Her first volunteer had asked back in the early 90s when there was whispers of unrest, why don’t you protest? And my RM had replied, How? What do you mean?
And now there are people in the streets self-organizing, marching, protesting.

Ukraine has risen.

I slept restlessly, as the only thing on my mind was our impending evacuation the next day at 11am. We had one final meeting to turn in our house keys, and give the inventory of our things we wanted sent to us, in the event that we weren’t coming back. At the meeting everyone was worried about their things. I felt so detached from my things. Who cares? It’s all replaceable. I just couldn’t believe that we were leaving Ukraine. 

I called my director, Olga Volodomirivna, and explained I wouldn’t be at school Monday morning. She couldn’t believe it. And asked about my things, I told her I didn’t care – it wasn’t important. The only thing I wanted was the handmade Ukrainian doll and headwreath the kids gave me on my first day in Zoziv. And this made me just cry and cry. The doll represented all the hope I had when I first came to Ukraine – the uncertainty of what lay before, but the openness and acceptance Zoziv received me. It was a manifestation of the best aspects of Ukrainian culture – warmth, generosity, hospitality, hand-work, thoughtfulness, and my connection and friendships I had built in just 9 months in this foreign little corner of the world. And I was being forced to just leave it all behind. 

I continued to cry and cry, as I called the other people I was closest with. Volodomir Ivanovitch, I told him – Ukraine would be a better place if everyone was like him. That Zoziv and Ukraine needed him. He said, oh no, jakleen. We got used to you here. I told the 1st grade teacher Larisa Vasilivna that her pizza was the best in the whole world, and that I wanted her grandson Taras from 3rd grade to have my guitar. I told Olena from 11th grade that she was like a sister to me, and I was sorry I never showed her how I made cookies. I told Volodomir Nifonovitch and Nadia Ivanivna that my last meal in Zoziv was with them, and I didn’t know it would be the last, but I was so glad it was. That their Christmas meal with me and Kate was the longest I ever sat with someone at a table, and I wish we could’ve sat even longer. I told Vova from the 7th grade that he had a wonderful character, and was smart, and humble, and funny, and that I remember even the first week in Zoziv when I saw him riding his bike around and he would wave, he always made me feel good. I told Lilia that I wanted to be back to help her plant potatoes, and that I would come back. And to tell Sasha I would miss him. I called Misha from Vinnytsia and he said, go eat chocolate and don’t be depressed. We will skype. I love Misha.

There were so many other people I wanted to call, but I didn’t have the time.

We were corralled into an 8 passenger vehicle – all 11 of us PCVs from Vinnytsia, with our luggage, our 2 Ukrainian escorts, and the driver. We ate the last of our Ukrainian Roshen chocolate, and shared tangerines as we crossed the border to Moldova. The officer at the border asked us – are you going to a wedding party or something? And we all looked at each other and said, yea yea, that’s it. A wedding party. 
Peace Corps staff and vehicles met us at the other side of the Moldovan border where we had our last tearful goodbyes with our RM and Lena Nastenko, our Language program facilitator. I had never seen a Ukrainian cry before, but they cried. And we promised to see them again. 


The rest of the evacuation period was a blur, for so many reasons… 

As I moved farther from Ukraine, I became more excited to return to America. We were held for 2 days in Moldova, where yes, I was piledriven into the wall by an overly friendly other PCV who just wanted to dance, resulting in a colorful black eye. We flew from Moldova through Frankfurt, to Detroit, and finally to DC. At our layover in Detroit, Drew and I sat at the very back of the plane, and I don’t know exactly why, but the flight attendant took a liking to us. She secretly gave us little chocolate cupcakes just before landing. And as we descended, through turbulence, I heard the flight attendant say, Whoa there, cowboy. It was so nice to be back in America. 

During our brief layover in Detroit, we all sat at the bar and the nice businessman at the end of the bar bought us all a round of Sam Adams. We signed 5 griven for him, (50 cents) and thanked him. It was good to be home. 
The next few days was a whirlwind Peace Corps conference where we were given all of our options, information about the forms we needed to complete, and a few sessions by a psychologist to help us cope with our sudden evacuation and re-adjustment to America. It was a necessary conference, but it was insane and overwhelming in every sense. 

I arrived back in the beautiful Bay Area on Friday night, where my mom and dad picked me up from San Jose, all of us teary-eyed. They treated me to a nice seafood dinner at Market Broiler, where I didn’t think twice about eating a crab cake, tasting clam chowder, scallops, salmon and crab legs. Momma’s back and she ready for some meat. 

I have now said a few hellos to my closest friends, and I feel as though I am seeing America with new eyes. Everything is so familiar, yet slightly different. The walls of Tacqueria Cancun seem more colorful. The roads are extra-smooth. The toilets flush impeccably.

There is no sense in being sad about being home with people I love, so I am not. I am really happy to be home. But my heart is with Ukraine. I am nervous about the near-future, but I know that Ukraine is strong, unified, and will become a better and more stable country in time. The people there are too good – too smart, too wonderful, and too hard-working for anything less.  

So what next? I am currently on “Admin Hold” for the next 45 days, until April 15. This means I am still a PCV, and can be invited to Ukraine at any point during this time. If not, I can apply for a transfer to a new country where I would have to start at day 1 of a 27-month service. I can also choose to close my service, and would receive all the benefits of a PCV who completed their full 27-month term. It is still impossible for me to hypothesize into the future, so I am remaining in a state of quiet calm. I really don’t know what will happen, but I am at peace with this. I know everything will be ok. And of course I am thinking a little bit about my future, but only time will tell… I’ll KYP. (Keep You Posted).

Україна – я з тобою!


2 thoughts on “The Evacuation: A Detailed Retelling

  1. Thank you for writing this, Jackie, and thank you for your lovely postcard. Wishing you the best, and looking forward to hearing what you’ll do next.

  2. I love this posting – cried, laughed … especially at this one paragraph:

    They told me, Jakleen, you can’t go. We will stand by
    your window and guard you. We won’t let anyone
    hurt you. We will hide you in our basement with the

    .. It’s like stepping back in time to the 1800s in Bialystok with my great great parents and their kids … Wow. Talk about the circle of life, flat circles and all that jazz … And, your trip back was easier than my great grandmother Bertha’s – no doubt.

    So be well and onward to what’s next.

    David and Shanon

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