Sunday, July 13, 2014

Helping out

Before coming here, I worked with refugees and immigrants. A few of those refugees had come from Ukraine (or through it... at that point in time, Ukraine didn't have that many of its own refugees but rather operated as a transit point for refugees from many other countries). There was the young and somber Ukrainian family, 2 kids in hand and third one on the way. The Somali guy who'd been living in Kyiv, waiting for clearance. The large family who had left Russia, also counting the days until their paperwork would allow them to enter the US. One winter I designed and taught a citizenship class for elderly Pentecostal Ukrainians and Russians. That may sound like a dull combination but it turned out to be a blast
We had Bingo, History Jeopardy, Mock Interviews. They assigned powers to the state government and federal government and identified the freedoms of the first amendment. Our lessons went way back to the Declaration of Independence and as far forward as Sept 11th. And they took their studies quite seriously, always completing the homework assigned, always coming to class early. Imagine yourself in your 70s or 80s, doing this all in a foreign language with a different alphabet.

Well, everyone worked enthusiastically except for a particular old woman. She was the rain on our parade, the classroom Eeyore. Although she never missed a class, she grumbled her way through all of them. Her response to every question- especially if she knew the answer!- consisted of turning to a neighbor in our tiny group and saying "Что она сказала? Я ничего не понимаю, не могу", What did the teacher say? I don't understand anything, I can't. I didn't know what to do with her, so I just kept on keeping on, welcoming her to our group and encouraging her even when she launched into the occasional "Гражданство- это больше грех!", Citizenship is a sin! tirade (which struck some serious fear into the hearts of her other equally-religious classmates). But on the very last day of class, she approached me afterwards with a strange expression: a huge smile. I learned so much, this was so good! she told me. I'm not going to give up, I'll keep practicing!

Hoping to make some kind of similar positive impact here, I contacted a local group called Social Service Assistance one September day. Social Service Assistance, or SSA for short, aims to assist a wide variety of people, youth to elderly, locals, foreigners, you name it. They've hosted a Super Granny competition, organized a Second Youth Club for other older folks, and done a lot of good things for refugee families and children.

A response came the very next day- Yes, we have need in volunteer and especially in learning English! And so followed a few months of classes, not for the general public but for the employees of the agency. The employees were great yet insanely busy people (walk-in crises, meetings, appointments) so the lessons lasted a short while, eventually devolving into Scrabble games and finally falling off the calender by the end of the year.

Anna, a sunny blond who worked at SSA as a child psychologist, invited me to join her children's group on Saturdays. This led to many wonderful afternoons! The idea was ostensibly to teach some English but really, it turned out to be a hodgepodge of activities and cultures. Anna's kids ranged from shy toddlers holding hands with their hesitant moms to rambunctious teens who loved to turn on loud music and dance away the hours. Some kids would pull me aside and start chatting in Russian while others preferred to use their native Arabic or French. We drank strong black tea out of plastic cups and, of course, got in a Scrabble game or two ; )
After a few Saturdays a friend and former student joined me. Marina loves children and takes every opportunity she gets to practice her English. She even brought in her guitar one week...
...and led a circle of kids through several spirited rounds of "Let it be" from the Beatles.
We played with toys-
read books-
- played endless alphabet games and just plain hung out. 

A German volunteer from the MultiKultiUA association also came to spend time with the kids. She went so far as to organize an awesome special event one weekend- 

Let us organize a little international party! First of all, the children/teenagers will tell us something about their countries of origin (food, flag, geography, etc). We could put that into some games I could think about. Then Katherine and D will present some photos, words, facts, music, etc about the USA. And afterwards Germany will be presented by me, and I hope my colleagues Valentin and Sylvana will join me too. We could bring some little German “snacks”, music, etc so that we can create a rather active atmosphere.   

The kids had a great time, treated to a slideshow on Germany and getting rewarded with chocolate souvenirs afterwards. D and I brought a ball of yarn and had the kids share what they knew about the US (or tall tales they had heard, haha) while tossing the yarn from person to person. Afterwards came the fun, messy challenge of trying to untangle themselves all at once. 

In attendance every week was a kind Ukrainian woman who served as a Red Cross volunteer. She was super upbeat and gave presentations on handwashing, CPR, everything from A to Z! I wish we'd kept in touch. She's probably pretty busy these days with other things though.

Actually, I've since lost touch with pretty much everyone from these English classes and Saturday afternoons but I plan to send Anna an email one of these days. One other lasting regret is not making the time to check out the agency's language classes for immigrants.
The books above are the books used for these classes. I found it fascinating to look through the materials; the books on the left focus on the Ukrainian language while the book on the right is a city guide to Kharkiv. Lots of pictures here so you can see too : )

Language for All: A Beginning Guide to Ukrainian for Foreign Students in Preparatory Courses

Click on photos to see a larger version


Above: What is this?, What's your name?, and other basics 

Above: A page from Lesson 1 and a page from Lesson 10  

Above: Do you speak Ukrainian? Other languages listed: Russian, English, Arabic, Chinese, French.

Above: If you study a foreign language, you probably recognize this.

Above: Ugh, grammar alert!

Above: More grammar, this time referencing "to" and "from" different cities.

Above: Verbs, yum!

Above: The glossary in the back. Bet you can guess all 4 languages!

As for the other book, I think it's quite cool, a combined history lesson and guidebook + lots of pictures. 

Kharkiv- The First Steps

It opens with Freedom Square-

And a few other landmarks-
"Ask a passerby the correct names for these places."

City center vocab-

An unsurprising emphasis on the ballet and opera theater, including a sample schedule-
The following page contains sample dialogs for inviting a friend to the theater to see (of course) Swan Lake.
Even the Memorial of Glory, which I think is more interesting than the theater, gets a mention-

The back of this book contains a bilingual glossary and the English text of a city tour-

We had a similar book back when I worked with refugees, but there isn't much old-world splendor in Anchorage, Alaska so the book was more about buying cheap groceries and how to survive the wait for the bus in the winter. By spending just that small bit of time involved with SSA, I feel like I got a peek at the complexity of the situation here: who's coming, where they're from, how they're doing. It's comforting to see that throughout the world people are working to help other people. Currently Ukraine is experiencing a number of internally displaced people (see June 27 UNHCR report) and from what I've seen and heard, the pattern of people opening up their homes and hearts to others continues.

How You Can Get Involved:

1) For anyone in town interested in local social work efforts, here's the website for Social Service of Assistance, Kharkiv Oblast Charitable Foundation.

2) The Kharkiv Red Cross is collecting donations for those who have been internally displaced. They can be contacted by the email at the top of their website.

3) And if you're a Brit interested in Ukraine, MultiKultiUA offers short-term teaching internships at several universities.


  1. Hi Katherine, a good post, which suggests you are doing the pre-relocation purging of "what do I take, what do I leave behind", when do the two of you fly?

    1. You caught me, Rupert :p Always feel like a minimalist until it's time to move!

      I'd been hanging on to those books (and photos too) for a while, thinking I'd use them to study. Now I'm thinking they'll be more useful for someone else. 2 weeks to go : )

    2. Two weeks! So soon. I am going to miss seeing my city through your eyes. Right decision, a sad moment.

    3. Very glad to have you as a reader, Sergey!

  2. What a great experience! I'd love to get involved in something similar in Russia (as it's quite similar to my specialization), but all of the organizations are pretty well into the religious which I find hard to get behind. I'm happy to help out, but not when the English lessons are taught through the Bible :/

    I've seen some recent non-denominational orphan and elderly care open up, though, so hopefully there's a bit of a shift to the secular.

    1. Hope it works out, Polly! It would be really interesting to hear about that kind of stuff in Moscow.