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One Week at the Midway Point

It's hard to believe but I'm over halfway through my time in Ukraine. It's been quite some time since I blogged last. It was not for lack of eventfulness, but rather that I spent the last week on the Ukrainian sea with a children's camp through HOPE International/Nadezhda Ukraine. It would be impossible to recount all that I experienced, learned, and saw through the week, so I'll focus on the highlights!

Across the week, I led a group of eight girls through the camp with two women, both named Olga. The first Olga has been my dear friend across my time here and has served as my interpreter as well. The second Olga I met my first week here at the business camp. She is an interpreter in training and is absolutely incredible - I was glad for the opportunity to serve with them across the week. They were constantly by my side, interpreting the endless questions children asked me about America and my work - not to mention every word spoken or written across the week! I truly wish I had a stronger aptitude for languages. I have picked up enough to get by and to function without an interpreter in most places, but conversations without an interpreter remain at surface civilities. In that way, language continues to be a challenge here. There are so many people that I love so dearly (see the last post), that I wish I could talk with on end and without any language barrier. Since I know that is impossible, I am ever more grateful for Nadia and Olga.

The eight girls I had in my group were absolutely amazing. They were between ten and fourteen - full of energy and lots of spirit! And absolutely the sweetest things... Trav and I are hoping to have a picnic with all of them to see them one last time before we leave the country. It is amazing how close you can grow to people in one week, and how deeply you can cherish them after so little time. They had what seemed to be endless questions about the US, about my work here, about my home and family. Many were questions I hadn't been asked before - these girls taught me much about the deeper differences between Ukraine and the United States and the differences between the lives we lead, the opportunities we have, and the conditions we live under. Some differences were heartbreaking - others were eye opening. I walked away from the camp feeling a deeper sense of gratitude for the blessing of living in the United States - something I neither earned nor deserved - I live there only by the conditions of my birth.

While the schedule of each day of the camp was the same, the lessons and activities were very different. I was given the opportunity to teach three lessons, which I've mentioned a little in previous posts. It was incredible to teach these girls. Of course they were restless at times and distracted, as any girls that age are, but there were moments of such sincere enlightenment that I saw on their faces as they grappled with issues like pride, integrity, and prejudice (the focus points of my three lessons). The final lesson - on prejudices - was revealing for all of us. As in any country, stereotypes and discrimination are alive and well in Ukraine. The groups most discriminated against are Gypsies and Armenians. As we talked through some of the widely held stereotypes and prejudices against these groups, I saw that the nature of divides between people groups is no different here than anywhere else. It is something I knew before, but to see it and hear it in practice has been something that is difficult to put into words. But to see their hearts opening and changing, and to see grace and compassion in bloom was an incredible thing.

For all the amazing parts of the camp, there were challenges as well! I have to admit that I'm not the best camper. In fact, I'm a terrible camper - most of my friends and family had a good laugh when they heard I would be spending the week in the camp. I NEVER camp for pleasure and the few times my family has been able to drag me along have been disasterous. I am all about it though when it means camping with purpose! There remained, however, the normal challenges of camping plus a few more due to the nature of being in a foreign country and one of poverty as well. It made me appreciate so much more how much we take for granted in the US.

It is no secret that access to clean drinking water is a privilege, and that millions across the world do not have access to such water. This camp was a good example of it. The sea is polluted and very dirty, and the water is the same. The first couple of days at the camp, we tried to make due with the water, but it was difficult to drink. Several (including myself) ended up dehydrated, so we brought in purified water. While it was expensive and a luxury, it was also necessary. I have never been so grateful for water as when the first few bottles arrived. We were able to bring in water, but for many who live there, that water is all that they have. As polluted and dirty as it is, that is what they live on. It is the first time I have spent an extended period of time in an area where access to clean and safe drinking water is so difficult (and for many, impossible). I kept thinking - "In the US, I can drink the water from my tap if I want, and I know that it is safe and will consistently be available here. Those that live here don't have that... I can bring it in... they cannot. This is real - this is their life. This is poverty."

Another thing that struck me especially this week was sanitation. The children had so many questions about the US, and one of them was about sanitation and public services. Were our streets clean? Did people sweep and wash our streets? Did really people take our trash away for us? Did we really have green grass in our lawns? These are all luxeries of the US. I've never realized how much I take our public services and utilities for granted. We have consistent and quality sanitation services, clean public restrooms (I didn't think so until I spent time in Turkey and Ukraine), extremely clean streets, green grass in public spaces/medians/parks... so many things that keep our cities clean and sanitary. There are certainly impoverished and neglected areas in the US - I've spent a lot of time studying these areas as well. But those conditions are not abnormal here or restricted to the very poor - they are everywhere here - a normal way of life. This is not to say that there are not beautiful areas or well kept areas of Ukraine. But it is these that are a rarity - these are unique to the few areas of affluence. Bobushkas clean the streets each day, but with their hands and rudimentary brooms made of branches and leaves... it is in no way like the public sanitation system we know in the US.

The final thing that struck me was the one to do so most deeply. Spending a week living among and alongside these children and people, I saw the poverty of the country in even deeper ways. I have seen and written much about the poverty of these people and of this nation in previous posts. And I've seen glimpses of what it means in individual lives. But living alongside these children and other leaders for a week has taught me more about the poverty than the previous five weeks combined. It is hard to convey what experiencing this poverty so deeply has meant and what it has done to me. Years of study in a classroom do not teach you the taste, smells, and pains of poverty. It can teach you the facts and the conditions... but it does not reveal the depths of it. There are so many ways years of poverty have impacted the culture and have shaped the way people live. One way it is most clearly manifested is in the way people eat. Sitting down to eat with these girls, I could tell how deeply the hunger and poverty is entrenched. They eat quickly, and devour whatever they possibly can as quickly as they can - grabbing bread greedily and stooping low over plates and bowls. It is utterly heartwrenching. There was always more than enough food, but they often ate as if they hadn't eaten for days. Manners were thrown by the wayside and all that mattered was to eat. Many children came from homes that had enough to eat to satisfy hunger each day, but some came from more impoverished homes. There were two girls in my group that clearly came from such homes. These signs of poverty in the way that they ate were especially clear in them. Those that came from homes with enough still exhibited some signs - but more as a matter of how it has been entrenched in the culture than by consistent hunger. It reminded me that such widespread hunger and desperate poverty is not far removed - the children of my generation remember the long lines for food and basic necessities like bread, oil, and sugar. And certainly their parents knew such conditions well. Before I left for this internship, there were many I spoke with that didn't understand why I was traveling to Ukraine - was it really that poor after all? When you hear poverty, you think of Africa, places in Asia, and areas of Central and South America. But a country in Europe? Really? I can say after six weeks here I have seen poverty in a new light, and yes, Ukraine is an impoverished country. And the conditions of poverty that children and families face here are very real. It is again a reminder of how much I take for granted, how grateful I am for what I have, and how blessed I am to be here, trying to help alleviate the poverty people of this country face.