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Babushkas and Borscht: Ozarks Alum in the Ukraine

May 16, 2011
By cnp
Posted in Alumni

If you Google "Dzerzhynsk, Ukraine," you don't get much: "Dzerzhynsk is a city in Donetsk Oblast (province) of Ukraine. Population is 43,371 as of 2001."

Lydia Brown, however, can tell you a lot more about it.

Lydia, who graduated from Ozarks in 2008 with a degree in Management, has spent the months since last September getting to know Dzerzhynsk and its people as part of her work as a Peace Corps volunteer, teaching its children and learning its customs.

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Lydia Brown, a 2008 Ozarks graduate, is living in Dzerzhynsk, Ukraine working with the Peace Corps.

Students in Cynthia Lanphear’s “International Leadership” class recently shared an hour with Brown live via Skype, holding a question-and-answer session that provided them with much-needed information for their class projects.

“Life is hard here,” Lydia told the students. “The people still have a Soviet mind-set in many ways. In fact, the part of Ukraine I’m now in, the easternmost part, was part of Russia before the fall of the USSR.”

She teaches 5th through 10th grade English four days a week, 20 students per class, and once a week spends time at a local orphanage. “Orphans here are treated like you’d expect prisoners to be,” she said. “They thought I would get physically hurt interacting with them, so I had to go through this whole big deal to get to do it. Ophans are looked down on, and so it means a lot to those little girls to see me coming.”

Lydia has been learning Russian, the language spoken by 81-percent of Ukrainians. She said they are bi-lingual, speaking Russian and Ukrainian. “Kids start learning English in the 1st grade, then French and Dutch in the 5th grade,” she said, “but really they only speak Russian and Ukrainian fluently.”

She has faced numerous challenges getting used to the Ukrainian lifestyle. “Women are looked at very differently here than at home,” she said. “Women don’t talk about politics. Women don’t shake hands with men. It takes some adjusting.”

As a Peace Corps volunteer, Lydia said that she is basically her own boss. She reports to her district manager only for advice, or if she has a problem. Although she is paid the same rate as local teachers – the equivalent of $125 per month – she says $5 will buy a whole week’s worth of groceries. “I do all my shopping, clothes and food and everything, at the outdoor bazaars,” she said. “People eat a lot of vegetables here. A lot of borscht. That’s beet soup.”

She said her apartment, in a Soviet-era concrete cube of a building, is about $60, but nice enough, and as a Peace Corps volunteer she has access to a DSL internet connection, which makes life a lot easier – for entertainment she relies on downloaded movies or television programs. She said she doesn’t have a television because all the broadcasts are in Russian.

Crime, like political corruption or pollution from the seven nearby coal mines, is a part of everyday life there. “I wouldn’t necessarily say I live in the safest neighborhood,” she said, “but I’m not worried. My neighbors are these little old ladies – babushkas – whose husbands died years ago. Women tend to outlive men here by about a decade, 65 years for men vs. 75 for women So you have this whole group of older women, these crazy babushkas who sell stuff at the bazaar. And you don’t mess with them because they get angry and yell and people listen to them! I think partly it’s a respect for the elderly. So if I ever were to have any problems, they’d be like, ‘Stay away from our American!’”

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Lydia Brown speaks with  Cynthia Lanphear’s International Leadership students via the internet during a recent class. The Ozarks graduate is a Peace Corps volunteer teaching English in the Ukraine. She will be there a little over two years.

She has travelled throughout the country and plans to travel to St. Petersburg and Moscow in June. “My folks want me to come home for Christmas,” she said, “but you can travel to Egypt, stay there a week with all meals, for only $500, so I was kind of thinking about spending Christmas at the pyramids.”

One student asked Lydia if there was anything she missed. “Sour Patch Kids,” she replied, laughing. “And tacos. I miss tacos a lot. There aren’t a lot of spices here. Just lots and lots of borscht.”

She said people don’t sit down together at meals, which surprised her at first. “Unless there’s a party,” she said. “The first three months I was here, when I was training, my host mother would make food in the morning, and then everybody would just come and eat and go. But they had dinner twice a day. Or anyway they made me eat dinner twice a day, when I got home at four o’clock and again later about eight. They liked to watch me eat. It was a little strange.”

In the meantime, Lydia continues to teach and to try to make Ukrainian friends. “They’re a little put off because I speak fluent English,” she said. “Even my counterpart at the school doesn’t really have too good a grasp of it.”

Lydia will spend a total of two years and three months in the Ukraine as a Peace Corps volunteer. She hopes to teach English camps this summer and continues to find new ways to communicate with her students and colleagues.

“No air conditioning in the summer here!” Lydia said. “On the other hand, the teachers have cake and champagne on birthdays at the school. Then they go teach class. Try that back home! It’s pretty funny. It’s been a real adjustment, but I’m glad I’m here. It’s been a real eye opener.”