On a spring afternoon in June 2017, I’m bounding along a country highway in a minivan with four other passengers. I’m gazing out the window across a green sea of a waist-high crop resembling corn. The landscape seems rural Minnesota-like, but I’m half a world away, in Ukraine.
It’s my first day as a Peace Corps volunteer. I’m traveling to a town in the southern Mykolaiv oblast to meet the head of the veterans organization I’m assigned to. The occasion is somber. Medals of honor are awarded to families of Ukrainian Army soldiers who died in the war in Donbas. I feel out of place. I don’t know enough Ukrainian to offer solace, and I look like a foreigner. The singing of the Ukrainian National Anthem concludes the ceremony. I get goosebumps and tears well in my eyes.
In meeting the leader of my organization, I’m a bit intimidated. He’s 6’4”, 240, with a buzz cut, in medal-adorned uniform. He lost both arms and an eye in a grenade explosion. He extends his prosthetic arm for a handshake. “Nice to meet you,” he says. “Duzhe pryyemno,” I respond in Ukrainian (very nice to meet you). Motioning towards his good eye, he tells me, with a facetious smile, that he's a “real” cyborg. My counterpart laughs. She explains that cyborgs are the “superhuman” fighters who withstood the Russian siege of the Donetsk Airport in 2014-15.
I came to Ukraine at a pivotal time. Three years after the 2014 Revolution of Dignity, fragile economic growth was returning. There was optimism that the building blocks were in place to develop as a democratic country. They appreciated the Peace Corps’ presence, that America had its back.
My role was to help strengthen my organization's capacity by applying my professional expertise and American perspective. I gave website consultations to entrepreneurs and got them listed on Google. Veterans and displaced people with PTSD got psychological help through my grant project. I tutored kids and adults, helping improve their English skills. I shared American culture in talks at schools, libraries and on the radio.
Now, the horrific destruction of the Russian invasion is shocking the world. For me, it feels like a punch in the gut. I see images of streets I walked, shops and buildings I've been in demolished. It's unreal. Someone recently remarked that my service was for nothing. I couldn't disagree more.
My 27 months there was the experience of a lifetime. When my group of 85 volunteers arrived in Chernihiv, our staff welcomed us with bread and salt. It's an ancient Slavic tradition, symbolizing trust and friendship between people. Ukrainians are the most generous and hospitable people I’ve met. (You haven’t lived until you’ve ate, sung, danced and toasted your way through a nine-hour Christmas party.)
I feel helpless as my friends tell of air raid sirens going off every hour and waiting out the shelling in cold cellars. Fleeing is an exhausting ordeal and not knowing if they’ll ever see loved ones or their homeland again brings added misery. Ukrainians shared their deep-rooted customs with me; laughed, cried and prayed with me. To see such a peace-loving and decent people getting slaughtered is heartbreaking. It's criminal. In the words of President Zelensky, “This is a war we didn’t start, and didn’t want.”
But with courage and heart, the proud Ukrainian people are defying the invaders and inspiring us. Against all odds, the unrelenting "cyborgs" are holding back the powerful Russian military.
Ukrainians are grateful for the outpouring of humanitarian and weapons aid. Yet their desperate plea for a no-fly zone persists. “Close the sky,” they say, “and we’ll take care of the rest.” I believe them.
There are many ways to show solidarity with Ukraine. Donating to on-the-ground relief organizations is an effective way to deliver urgent help. One thing everyone can do is write our government representatives. Want to help? Find email templates and other resources at HelpSaveUkraine.com.
To make a direct cash transfer to help my former NGO buy resources for soldiers and families in Mykolaiv, please contact email@example.com.
John Schmelig served as a Peace Corps volunteer in Ukraine from 2017-2019. He lives in Minnehaha and works as a digital marketing specialist in Eden Prairie, Minn.
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