Saturday, July 13, 2013

Семья (Family)

Written around June 16, 2013:
The family I am living with while I’m in Dnepropetrovsk is definitely not a typical Ukrainian family. Let me explain. When everybody is home, there are actually two families occupying the house. The two families run a non-profit organization together, working with orphans in the Dnepropetrovska Oblast (the province). Right now, it is just me and Vitaliy who are here. For the first few weeks I was in Dnepropetrovsk, Vitaliy’s two kids, Daniel and Vlada, were also living here. Yesterday, they left to spend the remainder of the summer with their grandparents. The other family living in the house, as well as Vitaliy’s wife, are all in Switzerland, networking with other organizations and fundraising for their work in Ukraine.
So, how is this not a typical Ukrainian family? First of all, all the kids have been raised speaking English. Vlada speaks some Russian with her parents, but Danny refuses to speak any Russian at all. When we all sit around the table for dinner, the conversation is always in English. This certainly makes things easier for me, but it isn’t the most ideal situation for me to learn Russian. A few other differences between my family and typical Ukrainians: Nobody in the family smokes (which is almost unheard of in Ukraine), and the house is pretty big and nice, even for American standards. My bedroom is a rather large rec-room on the third floor, next to Danny’s room.
Many evenings, me and Vitaliy sit and talk about things. He doesn’t have any interest in traveling to the United States, but he’s really interested in knowing more about it. He asks about where places are in the US and about politics and current events. We’ve had some really good discussions on topics ranging from Putin to universities in the US.
The work Vitaliy and the others do here in Ukraine is really interesting. They run a small non-profit organization that works with orphans and foster kids. There are two main projects they’re working on for the summer. The first is installing new windows in one orphanage. Temperatures in Ukraine can get down below -30 C (-22F), so having thick windows to keep out the cold can be a safety issue for the kids living there. Currently, some parts of the orphanage get unbearably cold in the winter, due to cracks and a lack of quality of the windows.
The second project they are working on is building a football (soccer) stadium at another orphanage. This particular orphanage isn’t the typical orphanage you’d imagine. It houses kids and young adults with severe mental handicaps. These kids will probably never know a life outside of the institution where they live.
I went with Vitaliy and some of his colleagues to here to play football with the kids during my first few weeks here. It was a really interesting experience. We played in a large empty lot next to an orchard. The language barrier was a bit more difficult, as these kids had probably never spoken to an English speaker before, and couldn’t comprehend the idea of somebody that doesn’t speak Russian. I tried to introduce myself and make small talk, and the kids were really eager to talk to me at first, but quickly grew uninterested when they discovered I got lost in the conversation after we went over names and ages. Playing football with those kids was one of my more memorable experiences here. It was also incredibly humbling, given my struggles with the language and my lack of knowledge of football. Vitaliy had to explain everything to me in English on the side, otherwise I would have been completely clueless.

So, tl;dr: I’m really enjoying living here. The people I live with are really great and do a lot of really cool and interesting work. They’re always passionate about helping other people. I haven’t had a big opportunity to practice my Russian (they just prefer to speak English with me), but I have lots of other places where I can do that.

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