Pain and glory in Ukraine

Since 1992, more than 2,740 Peace Corps volunteers have served in Ukraine. One volunteer was JMU’s Pete Isaac (’05). When his service was up in December 2013, Pete left behind a country in turmoil and people he came to love and understand. As the world watches Ukraine struggle, Pete offers a unique perspective on the conflict…

Glory to Ukraine (Слава Україні)

by Pete Isaac (’05)

Pete with his host mother on his induction day

Pete with his host mother at his swearing in

Ukraine is a very special place for me. I was lucky enough to serve as a Peace Corps Volunteer in the city of Zaporizhzhia in the southeast portion. Reflection has been hard, however, as just before I left the country on December 1st, 2013, the country was dealt a huge blow at the hands of its president. In late November, then-president, Viktor Yanukovych, made an eleventh hour decision to back out of an agreement to join the European Union. This action, for all intents and purposes, serves as the catalyst for what will be etched in Ukrainian history books as a victory of the people.

When I applied to become a Peace Corps Volunteer, I had no idea where I would be placed. Honestly, to me it did not matter. Location wasn’t the point; service was. Fast forward to my arrival in Ukraine on March 23, 2011. Here, I found myself in a large room, full of people I didn’t know, snow on the ground, and a plate of beet salad topped with mayonnaise and cheese in front of me. The first words out of my mouth were, “So this is what we get to look forward to for two years…”

Like many of my fellow volunteers, we had amazing experiences in what many now consider our second home. As we integrated into our communities, we began to form relationships. We made valiant efforts to learn the local language (which was not always Russian or Ukrainian). We learned where to find the best tomatoes and other fresh produce. We learned which public taxis would take us where we needed to go. We overcame the fear of buying our first train ticket on our own. Some even mastered the local post office (trust me…this deserves a badge of honor). We became parts of our communities, we began to refer to these cities, villages, and towns as home.

This is the Ukraine I remember: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UfjKHjsaQKI  (The original song and video are from two other Peace Corps Ukraine Volunteers.)

Sometimes, the conversations would turn toward a feeling by some Ukrainians that their situation “is what it is.” That there was always going to be economic disparity, corruption was going to run rampant throughout the country top to bottom, any ideas they had would simply be scoffed at, that nothing they did could possibly lead to a change for the better. To sit and hear that come from educated adults and youth is an emotional pain I did not know existed. This is the mindset I and other volunteers set out to change.

Humans are naturally resistant to change. Try this experiment to get an idea of what I mean: Ask a friend, loved one, coworker to raise their hand like they are about to give you a high five. Next, say nothing, and take your hand and push against it. Did he or she push back without you saying to do so? If yes, natural resistance to change. If no…you just gave the strangest high-five ever, congratulations!

Imagine trying to change a mindset that has become woven into a society through the generations. Now imagine the feeling that sets in when you see a group of people collectively stand up to a political regime that has consistently lied to, stolen from, and manipulated the population all while amassing incredible personal wealth while the national economy falls deeper in debt. Enough was enough, and many Ukrainians took to the scene of the 2004 Orange Revolution, Maidan Nezalezhnosti (Independence Square), to hold peaceful protests voicing their displeasure with the decision.

As the protests grew in number, the pressure built on the president to act. The democratic thing to do would have been to listen to the concerns of the people and figure out some way to compromise. Instead, the peaceful protests were met with violence. On November 30, an order was given to violently clear Maidan (one of my favorite places in Kyiv). A peaceful encampment was met with batons, fists, and boots. Men, women, and journalists were beaten…savagely. This only caused more people to show up at the protests. Protests spread throughout the country.

See more pictures of Ukraine at BusinessInsider: http://www.businessinsider.com/ukraine-protest-pictures-2014-2

See more pictures from Ukraine at Business Insider: http://www.businessinsider.com/ukraine-protest-pictures-2014-2

January 16, 2014 was essentially the tipping point. On this day, parliamentary procedure was thrown to the side and 16 laws were passed to end protests. Among them included police immunity for acts committed dispersing protesters and 7 year prison terms for speaking negatively about a politician. These laws were all passed in less than five minutes using a hand vote that was not even counted. The papers were quickly handed to the president, who in turn quickly signed them. THIS is when it became a revolution in Ukraine. People were essentially stripped of human rights, a dictatorship was created, protesters began disappearing, and people began to die.

This video literally brought tears to my eyes: http://youtu.be/HpgYu2p9CE4

Yes, things can escalate quickly, and they did. I have often told my friends and family about just how resilient Ukrainians are, and in the past few months they showed it to the world. Now, there is a new parliament with elections scheduled for May 25th and a fugitive president on the run. Peace Corps is an apolitical organization that does not get involved with politics, so to see the rest of the world show the support it did for the Ukrainian people was amazing!

There really is no better explanation than right here: http://youtu.be/Hvds2AIiWLA (two weeks ago, this had less than 5,000 views…needless to say, that has changed)

This is not over yet, there is a lot of work to be done. Like I said, people are naturally resistant to change…yet change is inevitable when people are passionate and driven by more than greed. I can’t help but smile in the past few days when I break news to my parents about what is happening and I like to think that, along with the over 2000 other volunteers to serve there, I may have somehow helped. Not sure how, but it sure is nice to think!

Ukraine has a call-response chant that is commonly heard. The past three months have brought new meaning to “Слава Україні! Героям Слава!” (Slava Ukraini! Heroyam Slava) or “Glory to Ukraine! Glory to her heroes!” Glory indeed…

From UREC to Ukraine

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November marks Pete Isaac’s last month of a 33-month commitment as a Peace Corps volunteer in Ukraine. During his time there, the 2005 Integrated Science and Technology graduate, who was once an operations supervisor at JMU’s University Recreation Center, has helped change lives in numerous ways — most recently, by helping local artisans expand their business opportunities. Since arriving in March 2011 as a community development volunteer, Pete has helped talented Ukrainians market their products and goods internationally through ETSY.com, an e-commerce website that specializes in handmade arts and crafts.

The project is named Eastern Rinok. Here’s how Pete describes it on his blog:

Eastern Rinok is a project designed to help Ukrainian artists and entrepreneurs sell their handmade goods using the online sales platform, Etsy. The name “Eastern Rinok” is a word combination derived from Ukraine’s location in Eastern Europe, and the Russian word for marketplace, Rinok (ринок).  Ukrainian artists of all backgrounds and influences interested in selling their handmade products (such as soaps, dolls, flags, blankets, souvenirs, etc.) are encouraged to join the vibrant and international Eastern Rinok community. With the help and guidance of Peace Corps volunteers in select cities Ukrainians artists will have the opportunity to open online shops to begin selling their products to a wide international market, all the while learning important business and language skills. In addition, the Eastern Rinok Peace Corps community will help promote the products of its members among friends and family in the United States and throughout the world.

One of Rinok's artisans at work

One of Rinok’s artisans at work

“It’s really gaining a lot of steam. We have trainings taking place all over the country now,” Pete told Kelly McCormack (’05) a public affairs specialist with the Peace Corps Mid-Atlantic Recruiting Office who first told us about Pete’s story.

To facilitate the program, Pete and fellow Peace Corps volunteers host workshops for Ukrainians, helping  them set up and operate their businesses. The workshops usually have four to five artisans and one Peace Corps volunteer.

Currently, the volunteers work with eight trainers and 28 shops online. A workshop this month will train an additional 8 Ukrainians and expand the project into new communities. As a result, the variety of products now available through Eastern Rinok includes beautiful beaded jewelry, dolls, knitted apparel, cards, figurines and more. (See the samples below, and go to the website http://easternrinok.wordpress.com to see more.)

It’s been a success. In less than a year, they have sold more than 115 items, earning $3,400, to customers in the U.S., Canada, Belarus, Ukraine, Sweden, Russia and Australia.

Pete, far left, and friends

Pete, far left, and friends

Pete told Kelly how JMU greatly prepared him for his Peace Corps service: “JMU provided a lot of great life lessons about leadership, flexibility, patience, perseverance, how to think outside the box, and civic responsibility,” he said. “I think most importantly, JMU taught me how to ‘fail forward.’ The professors and staff I had the privilege of meeting and working with taught me that not only was it OK to not always have things go your way, but in fact, that makes you a better person. It causes one to seek out potential solutions to problems, not lose control of your thoughts, determine what outcomes are most important, and learn from your past experiences.”

Since 1961, more than 400 JMU graduates have served as Peace Corps volunteers worldwide. Currently, there are 35 JMU grads working abroad in the Peace Corps.

“I often tell people that the two best decisions I’ve made in my life were applying to JMU and applying to Peace Corps,” Pete said. “Both experiences have provided me the opportunity to grow as a person in many different ways. Not only has Peace Corps given me an opportunity to see the world through a completely different perspective, it has provided me an opportunity to try to have a positive impact on the future leaders of a country emerging from the former Soviet Union.”

What Pete will leave behind when he returns stateside is an invigorated work force of small business owners and crafters who have a new, worldwide outlet for their wares.

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You’ll find lots more information about Pete’s Ukrainian adventure, the collaboration he helped build — as well as product information at these links:

FB: https://www.facebook.com/TheEasternRinok

Etsy: http://etsy.me/Yo6oT8

Pete’s Peace Corps Blog: http://peteisaac.wordpress.com/

Thanks to Kelly McCormack (’05) for telling us about Pete and his Ukrainian Peace Corp service and for her original article from which much of the content of this blog post comes. The quotations included herein originally appeared in Kelly’s story.
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