Together we are many
International Volunteer Project, Ukraine 2012
It was another sweltering evening at Boiko children’s summer camp, the site of my seventeenth international volunteer project. The volunteers had gathered together with some teenagers from the camp. We were all asked to say something in Ukrainian. When it was my turn, “Together we are many” was the first phrase which came to mind. A line from a song which Ukraine’s revolutionaries would sing on Kiev’s Independence Square in late 2004, it had stuck in my mind. These four words summed up for me the spirit of solidarity and cooperation so important in international volunteer projects.
There were four other volunteers: Karoliina from Finland, Laura from Spain, Nina from Slovenia and Sonya from the Czech Republic. Our group was ably managed by Ukrainian leader Katya. Our work consisted of assisting the teachers in their English lessons in the morning and jointly organising an English club in the late afternoon. Depending on the teacher and group, the lessons tended to be more academic and the club focused more on games. We gave PowerPoint presentations about our country in the lessons and also, one evening, to the other volunteers. As native speakers of five different languages, we made the most of the linguistic opportunities which presented themselves and did our best to brush up our knowledge of each other’s languages.
|The volunteers on Kharkov’s Freedom Square|
|The volunteers take to the stage at Boiko summer camp|
Our free time was also memorable. The camp was situated on spacious grounds next to a small lake and so there were ample opportunities to keep fit, including by swimming and running. Most days, usually after the English club, we went to the shop and to the restaurant just outside the gates of the camp where we would set up our “office”, as we called it. There we benefitted from the wi-fi connection both for doing lesson and club preparation and keeping in touch with friends and family. The staff certainly relished our regular custom; we used to joke that the more we ordered the better the service and faster the internet connection! We also had two memorable trips to Kharkov, where Katya and her father showed us around Ukraine’s second largest city. We enjoyed lunch at a traditional Ukrainian restaurant evocatively named Hut of the Pot Belly on the first trip and, by contrast, picnicked in a city park on the second.
During the project I often had a sense of déjà-vu, when I thought back to the projects in which I had participated in Russian summer camps years earlier. The language spoken at Boiko was that of Ukraine’s larger neighbour, so the terminology used, much of it relating to the army, was familiar: children’s groups were called “detachments” and lights out in the evening was known as “retreat”. Yet there were also differences: some of the children I met in Siberia in the late 1990s had never met a foreigner and used to marvel at my (very modest!) digital watch and film camera, while at Boiko some of the children had already travelled extensively abroad and were completely at ease with modern technology.
After the project, the volunteers took the opportunity to see more of Ukraine. For my part, I spent a week travelling west across the country before entering Poland. The linguistic divide between the east and west of Ukraine and, below the surface, the political divide, were stark. As I approached the Polish border I found Russian less and less widely spoken. In the west of the country I also saw many posters denouncing the imprisonment of former Prime Minister and heroine of the Orange Revolution, Yulia Timoshenko. Until these linguistic and political issues are resolved, Ukraine will surely continue to be seen by many as a somewhat troubled country, yet one with great potential, hospitable people and astonishing natural beauty.
As I begin my eighth year teaching in Kuwait, an oasis of calm in a region itself rocked by revolution, I often think back to my international volunteer project near Ukraine’s eastern border. I think of the people with whom I volunteered and worked. I think of how together we were many.
|Group leader Katya with Ukrainian children at English club|