A year in Dnepropetrovsk

An American volunteer in Ukraine

Zaporozhe and Donetsk

The story: over the past week and a half, I went on two excursions, to Zaporozhe and to Donetsk.

When: I went to Zaporozhe last Thursday. Amir and I left at 3 pm and got back at 9 pm. Amir, Karima (another JDC employee) and I left this Monday at 2 pm, Karina and I arrived in Donetsk at 7 pm, Amir continued to Ludonsk for the night, and we all left Donetsk the next day at 3 pm and arrived in Dnepropetrovsk at 7:30 pm.

The location: Zaporozhe is about one hour south of Dnepropetrovsk, and Donetsk is about four and a half hours west.

The backstory: I have begun a new project at work. In addition to teaching on Sundays and organizing the Hanukkah spectacle, I am now the administrative coordinator of Do Good, Ukraine!, JDC’s online volunteer forum for Eastern Europe. It’s a great idea. Beginning in Zaporozhe and Donetsk, and eventually moving onto all of Eastern Ukraine (and hopefully all of Ukraine in the more distant future), potential volunteers and organizations looking for volunteers can log onto our website. They post what they’re interested in, and then the coordinator of each city fixes the volunteers up with the member organizations.

The difficulty: Voluntarism isn’t very popular in Ukraine. My parents’ generation here remembers the days in the Soviet Union when there were “volunteer days” and if you didn’t attend, it was noted and you were possibly disappeared. My generation works very hard just to make enough money to either attend university or help their parents pay rent (virtually no one my age lives alone, sometimes even after marriage they stay with their parents). Salaries are extremely low here (most of the money is made in the black economy, the non-taxed unofficial economy which accounts for more than half of the transactions in this country), while certain goods like clothes cost more than in the US. People work extremely hard just to make ends meet, so the idea of volunteering in their free time is unheard of.

The purpose of the visit: I wanted to meet the coordinators and their teams in each city and explain to them what they’ll be doing. I wanted ideas for how to modify the website (I have a meeting with the web designer tomorrow and we will be launching it officially next month). Finally, I wanted to discuss strategy with them. Their job, in addition to coordinating the forum and matching volunteers to organizations, is to promote the site and make sure that young people want to go online to volunteer! Each city will have a kickoff event that we’ll help fund and will create fliers, posters, and other forms of advertising. Of course, I won’t be in charge of these, because what do I know about advertising in Zaporozhe and Donetsk? My job was to encourage the coordinators and their teams and to help them brainstorm. When they have decided on their plan, they’ll write a formal proposal, which I and Lena (a different Lena in the office who will be my Russian speaking partner in this project) will approve and send to JDC for budget approval. We will kick off the entire project in the beginning of December.

Of note: In Zaporozhe, I was amazed at how efficiently their JCC functions! They have an amazing director, Inessa, who only hires volunteers and who manages to get the most out of all her employees (all young). They do amazing things there. I got a lot of ideas from Sabina, the Do Good, Ukraine! coordinator there, and we got a lot done and really looked through the website. In Donetsk, meanwhile, I was surprised at how cynical the response was, having only Zaporozhe to compare to. I met not just with the director and coordinator, but with an entire team of people my age, six in all. Also, whereas Inessa and Sabina spoke very good English, I struggled in Donetsk. There was a student to translate for me, and he did fine, but I noticed that he wasn’t translating directly, merely paraphrasing. Since I was trying to motivate these people and explain the fine points of the project and get them excited and ready to work, rather than disheartened and doubtful, the lack of perfect translation was troublesome. I struggled through with as much Russian as I could muster. The next day there was no translator as I met with Mila, the director of Chessed (there’s no JCC in Donetsk; Chessed oversees the young people’s programs). I struggled through with my Russian and with the help of a woman who knew some English and clued me in when I was completely lost. I did ok, but by the end of the afternoon, I was completely exhausted and had a splitting headache. My Russian is barely passable right now. I have a long way to go.

Overall: I feel good about these trips. I got to see the two largest cities other than Dnepropetrovsk in Southeastern Ukraine (Kharkov, in Northeastern Ukraine, is smaller than Dnepropetrovsk, but larger than the other two cities) and got to know their Jewish communities a little bit. There’s a lot of work to be done on Do Good, Ukraine!, but I’m up for the challenge, and now I know what to expect. Now I set the schedule. I can travel to these cities whenever I need to, without Amir, and stay as long as I need. It’s pretty cool. I also got to see Amir in action. He’s really excellent with people– everyone respects him and enjoys his company. He adds a very personal touch while still being firm and setting limits. He gets the most out of people, because they are eager to work for him. I did not have such success as he did; I struggled quite a bit in the beginning, but I think that I’m understanding people here a little better and am learning to motivate. As my Russian improves, this will get easier. It was very good to hear from Amir that, his first year here, he struggled a lot with the people and with the Russian and always had side splitting headaches at the end of the day. (“So it’s good that you struggle a little bit! If I can struggle, you can struggle, too. You’ll get it soon. But I think next time we’ll send you with a translator.”)

A sidenote: Monday’s drive to Donetsk was absolutely BEAUTIFUL! It was a sunny day with blue skies and white clouds (you don’t always see these in Ukraine; Sharon warns me that there will be three months of winter in which the skies will be continuously gray and I won’t see any sun at all). It’s fully autumn here, and many of the trees are changing colors, with beautiful yellows, oranges, and browns. Eastern Ukraine is completely flat; it’s the West that has mountains. Most of the scenery looked exactly the same for the five hours we were travelling. There’s tons of farmland here, that’s basically all there is in the countryside. Up to 45 minutes outside Dnepropetrovsk’s center, there is city and then suburbs, and all of a sudden, you hit vast countryside, interrupted only by a few towns. The highway, only one lane on each side, is lined with trees almost the whole way. As we got closer to Donetsk, we saw mines, tons and tons of mines. They look like pyramids in the distance, but up close you can see that they’re just giant mounds of earth. It was quite exciting to see, especially framed by the gorgeous red and pink sunset we were driving towards, but in truth the mines are quite dangerous. Ukraine is mining some five times deeper than international standards consider safe, and each year there’s some accident and a few deaths. Last year, apparently, there was a huge tragedy in which 160 died, and now the country is trying to reform the mines. In any event, the drive, while long, was thrilling and beautiful. This is Eastern Ukraine at its best, and it didn’t disappoint.

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