Editor’s Note: On a sweltering hot Thursday in the US capital, Razom volunteers met for a Get Together to update each other on ongoing initiatives and to agree on how to keep working to support a prosperous Ukraine.
Kate Tremont participated and shared her impressions here about the event on July 14, 2016.
I went to my first DC Razom get together last night, and I couldn’t have had a better time or felt more connected to and inspired by the Ukrainian community here in DC. It’s wonderful that even living so far away from Ukraine itself, I have been able to find Ukrainians who value my connection to their country and who welcome me into their circle with open arms despite the fact that I’m just this foreigner with no blood ties to Ukraine at all. This lack of ancestral connection has never made a difference to me in the six years that I’ve spent in love with their country, and I’m beyond honored that Ukrainians are so amazed and excited to learn that an American went to their country, lived there for over a year, and her heart never left.
I have been busy with two jobs and disconnected from my passions lately (although I do keep up my Ukrainian language) and this Razom get together really reminded me of what drives me and what matters to me. It was wonderful to hear Ukrainian spoken and even get to speak it a little myself, to make new Ukrainian friends and reconnect with old ones, and to hear all of the incredibly inspiring stories of the small but significant changes that Razom is helping to create in Ukraine. The spirit of the Ukrainian people is incredibly tenacious, and it is wonderful to see those qualities being transformed into projects for social change.
We had the great honor of having several guests to this gathering, the first being a social entrepreneur named Yuriy Lopatynskyy who had run a bakery in Lviv that worked with pensioners called “Nut House” (Горіховий дім – I love how this translates in English, although I believe he actually called it Walnut House when he was talking). Since one of Razom’s focuses as an organization is strengthening Ukrainian civil society by encouraging social entrepreneurship and small local businesses, Yuriy was a perfect example of the kind of people that Razom is trying to support. In addition to Yuriy, our meeting was also attended by three members of Ukrainian parliament who discussed some of their own efforts in encouraging civic engagement in local government and were very complimentary about Razom’s efforts to assist Ukraine. Both Yuriy and the parliamentarians just happened to be in town and were able to join the Razom conversation.
We also got an update on the ongoing Reformers Without Borders (RWB) project, which was how I initially got involved with Razom back in February. Their current Fellow, Hugo, is just finishing up his three months in Odessa, and it sounds like the project was a great success. It is interesting that the philosophy behind RWB and the philosophy behind Peace Corps, which is how I first was introduced to Ukraine, are so similar: the idea is that Americans have a different cultural attitude towards change and reform than Ukrainians do, so by bringing people with that mindset over to Ukraine to work on small projects and in local government, this cross-cultural cooperation can create an environment for transformation in Ukraine. I tend to be wary of the concept of the American savior in international development, mostly because I went to “help” Ukraine as a bright-eyed, bushy-tailed naive 23-year old and ended up learning more from Ukrainians than I ever could have hoped to have taught anyone. However, RWB was dreamed up by Ukrainians and is totally Ukrainian-driven, other than the fellows they send over, and I think that makes all the difference – it’s actually encouraging Ukrainians to take ownership in their own country and using the cross-cultural aspect of exchange to create a richer experience for all.
After the presentations and some discussion, most of the group went next door to a nearby quiet hotel bar, with upholstered furniture and decorations that could have been in a hole-in-the-wall bar in Kyiv, to drink wine and talk informally. This gave me the wonderful opportunity to talk about my favorite subject (Ukraine) at length with a variety of other people who feel as passionately about it as I do. Again I had the opportunity to practice a little Ukrainian, and at the end of the evening, I found it difficult to pry myself away from everyone. It had been so long since I’d been around a group of Ukrainians – since December, other than individual meetings and my weekly tutoring sessions – and there are days when I miss Ukraine and its people fiercely, even though I just had the opportunity to go back for a month in September 2015.
Razom has given me the chance to experience a slice of Ukraine and Ukrainian community here in my own country, and I am immensely grateful.
Written by: Kate Tremont
Photo Credit: Dmitry V. Savchuk