Sunday, April 6, 2014

Peace Corps Mom - Time to come home

This is my fifth post in my series about my experiences having my daughter serve in the U.S. Peace Corps.

This post will focus on her final months as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Ukraine.

In the fall of 2013, Sarah's focus began to shift toward coming home.  Her 2 year assignment was ending in November/December and as school started that September she had a lot to work on.

She was still teaching in the classroom, but in addition to that, she was finishing up her Peace Corps project, planning for her career when she returned home and thinking about her upcoming wedding.

In September she attended a Peace Corps sponsored event to help her prepare for the culture shock and acclimation back into America.    Sarah doesn't handle transitions well, so she started to get very stressed out.  As a child, Sarah cried about going from middle school to high school.  I remember talking to her during that transition and trying to assure her that EVERYONE likes high school better than middle school and it was going to be okay.  In the same way I tried to re-assure her that coming back to America (especially with her fiance) would be a really good thing.  But she still stressed out.

She wrapped up her peace corps project in September so that was a big step toward finishing up.  Her project was to create an English Learning Resource room in her local school.  She raised $1,500.00 and bought a laptop, projector and some english books.  The headmaster had provided a space (not really a room, more like a closet) so that the items could be shared among the teachers.  She got a lot of satisfaction from setting that up.  It was a way for her to be assured that even after she left, the school would be able to continue with needed resources.

Next on her list of things to do to prepare to come home was to work out all the details for her fiance to return with her.  She felt really strongly that she would not leave Ukraine without Ivan.  They had filed their K-1 fiance visa paperwork in July and everyone was so glad to hear that he was approved in October.  Sometimes the K-1 visa can take up to 6 months.  After the initial approval, Ivan needed to have a physical and an in person interview in Kiev.  Kiev is a 6 hour bus ride from his home in Lviv and they scheduled the physical and interview to coincide with a meeting Sarah had with Peace Corps in Kiev in November.

So, then it was time to book the travel arrangements to come home.  Peace Corps provides a standard reimbursement for travel expenses to go home, so Sarah was able to make her own plans.  We found a flight from Kiev to JFK in New York City for December 13th.  We encouraged her to book the flights in mid-November before Ivan's paperwork was final.  We figured if for some reason his paperwork didn't come through we could change the flights, but we did not want to wait until November 28th to book flights - since so many plane tickets get very expensive within the 2 week window.  And yes, I very much wanted Sarah to be home for Christmas.

What else was she focused on?  Well, she had to figure out what to bring with her from Ukraine.  She had a 2 bag allowance and she had accumulated a lot of stuff during 2 years.  I encouraged her to leave any clothes behind that were worn out.  I encouraged her to take pictures of sentimental things that she would not actually use in America.  For instance, Sarah had a collection of rocks.  Yes, I said rocks.  she wanted to bring them with her (think weight allowance on luggage.)  Did she bring rocks home with her, yup.  Thankfully she only brought a few.  Packing and deciding what to bring and what to leave was difficult.  Ivan was a big help to her there.  He was able to help her think through what was most important.  Ivan also helped her out by letting her fill half his suitcase with her stuff.  We picked on her for that.  Ivan had to put everything he owned in 2 suitcases.  She had left all kinds of stuff home at our house and only brought along a few things for her two years of service.  And yet, she had 2 1/2 large suitcases full of stuff and Ivan had 1 1/2 suitcases.  Some of it is the difference between boys and girls, but some of it was Ivan's generosity.

So things were progressing nicely for her return home. The job market was dismal in 2013 but there was glimmers of hope that it was improving.  She was packing and wrapping things up and preparing to leave.  And then the politics in Ukraine went crazy.  In late November, the then president of Ukraine, Yanukovych did not sign a much awaited agreement to align more closely with the EU.  The people of Ukraine felt betrayed.  Yanukovych had been talking as if he would align with both EU and Russia and it came to the point where he had to choose a side and he chose not to sign the agreement toward EU, based on pressure from Russia.

Within a few days, the people of Ukraine started to gather in the capital and protest.  By December 1st, the political upheaval was in full swing.  My husband and I watched the news and tried not to be concerned.  Sarah thought it was very cool!  She was happy that the Ukraine people were standing up for themselves, and while I agreed that they should stand up for what they believed in, I had studied enough history to know that revolutions almost always include violence and I was concerned for my baby girls safety.

I was very happy to hear from Sarah, about how much the Peace Corps was counseling the volunteers about the situation.  Peace Corps commanded the volunteers to stay out of the capital and forbid the volunteers from being any where near the area where the protesters were gathering.  Sarah took that council to heart and avoided the area.

The tensions continued to build for the next few weeks.  All the while I was counting down the days till December 13th.  A lot can happen in 12 days when a revolution is in the making and while I was so glad they had their travel arrangements made I was also very nervous that the protests would increase in intensity and impact their safe return to the U.S.

Every morning I would look on my ipad for news about Ukraine.  Every evening I would pray for Sarah and Ivan's safe arrival.  The news ebbed and flowed over that two week period.  In the meantime, Sarah and Ivan were saying goodbye to friends and family.  I imagined how difficult it was for Ivan's mother to say goodbye to him on Tuesday December 10th.  They had a family dinner and then in the evening Sarah and Ivan (with all their luggage) boarded the train to Kiev.   I remembered how it felt for me to say goodbye to Sarah for 2 years.  I was sure Ivan's mom was feeling a lot of emotion saying goodbye to her middle son.  She loved Sarah and was happy about their relationship. I'm sure she was also aware that Ivan would have great economic opportunity in the U.S. that he didn't have in their small village, but it's still very hard to say goodbye to your child.  In her case she had to say an open ended goodbye.  she did not know when she would see him again.

They arrived in Kiev on Wednesday morning the 11th and the protests were still in full force.  At alternate times there would be conflict between the protesters and the govt and it was very unstable in Independence Square - an area near the govt buildings in the center of Kiev.  The peace corps offices were about 1 mile away from the protests and Sarah and Ivan had gotten a room near the peace corps offices.  Again Peace Corps was very good about keeping everyone informed.  They knew Sarah (and several other volunteers) were leaving and they advised about where to stay and arranged for special transportation to the airport.  As part of the end of service with peace corps, Sarah had a physical check and a meeting with the peace corps staff in Kiev.  When she signed her papers and handed back her peace corps passport, she got to 'ring the bell' commemorating her service.  Her teacher friends had given her a traditional tunic which typically has beautiful embroidery on it.  She wore that shirt for her 'bell ringing' event.

So, they boarded the plane in Kiev on Friday morning December 13th at 6am.  I headed out the night before to stay with my cousin Thursday night so I could get them from JFK at noon.  I left my cell phone right by my bedside in case there were any issues with the flights.  They left Kiev and connected through Moscow.  Then they had a direct flight to NYC.  They had discarded their cell phones since they were local phones so I had no way to get in touch with them, but I knew if there was an emergency they could contact me.

I headed to JFK Friday morning and arrived in plenty of time to meet their flight when it arrived around noon-time.  I parked and stood at the opening where the international flights discharged.  I stood and waited, and I stood and waited for FOREVER.   I knew the flight had landed but I had no idea how long it would take them to get through customs.  They didn't walk out until 2 1/2 hours later.  I wasn't panicked, but I was growing more and more nervous.  I asked at the info booth and the worker assured me that the customs areas can back up and that a 3 hour wait wasn't uncommon.

 Then they both walked through the area and as you can imagine I hugged them both for a long time!  They were exhausted so we headed to the car and began our 4 hour car ride.  I wondered what Ivan thought of the New England landscape.   We stopped at Starbucks for a quick snack.  I had made chili in the crockpot and when we arrived to our home in  MA, they enjoyed a simple meal and some conversation.  My son Eric had returned home for Christmas from college the same night so it was a busy homecoming day for everyone.

We had a wonderful Christmas season.  Everyone wanted to meet Ivan and see Sarah.  Ivan did great with the massive overload of friends and relatives.  We bought him a New England Patriots shirt and proudly watched him wear it often around town.   Since they weren't married yet, my husband asked Ivan to share a room with Eric until the wedding happened.  Ivan very respectfully agreed so the boys took over the 3rd floor room and Sarah slept in the spare bedroom during the holiday season.

The K-1 visa requires that a marriage take place within 90 days of the fiance arriving in the U.S. so we had a small wedding ceremony on Monday January 6th.  It was precious.  The lead pastor of our church agreed to a small service in the chapel.  After the ceremony we headed to dinner and then sent

Sarah and Ivan off to the Hyatt in Boston for their first night together as a married couple.  Eric headed back to campus the next day and Sarah and Ivan headed upstairs to the 3rd floor room and set it up as a nice little honeymoon suite.  They had received some money and gift certificates for Christmas and bought some decorations, a folding table and a lamp.  The room was perfect.

Ivan then filled out his paperwork to get his work permit and to apply for his greencard.  Sarah found a job at a vegan cafe attached to a yoga studio in Cambridge.  She started taking the bus to work and was happy to bring in a income.  Shortly after she started with the cafe, a temporary job in Boston opened up at Pearson Publishing as a proofreader.  She quite the cafe job and has been working 35 hours a week near Copley Place Boston.  Ivan's work permit should arrive any day now.  He is helping us around the house doing small jobs - painting the bathroom, doing yard work, but he's anxious to get working.  He plans to work construction through the summer and then go back to school for an engineering degree.

They are happy living in the third floor room of our condo, but they are hoping to get an apartment of their own this summer.  Once Ivan starts working and once Sarah finds a more permanent assignment it should be fine.

The celebration of the marriage (with the white dress and party) will happen in early June.  We are all busy planning for that celebration, which is only 2 months away.  It will technically be a wedding vow renewal or re-enactment but friends and family won't care.  Everyone will be glad to celebrate their love.

And on the political front, the protests in Ukraine did escalate into a full fledged revolution. President Yanukovych was ousted, a new leader brought in and Russia's leader, Putin, took over Crimea. Ukraine and Russia both are building up troops and the U.S. is busy trying to negotiate a peaceful end to this conflict.  As of today, things seem to be quieting down.  Ivan's family is not in danger.  His family lives on the western side of the country, far from Crimea and the area of potential conflict.  The big concern we have now is for the safety and well being of Ukraine and it's people and for a potential draft. If Ukraine calls a draft and Ivan is drafted, it could prohibit him from traveling back to Ukraine to visit his family.  We are praying and hopeful that this won't happen, but only time will tell.

As for other news of Ukraine, Ivan's brother had a baby girl in January and his mother is busy being a grandmother to her younger son's child.  Ivan skypes with his brothers and mother frequently.  Sadly it doesn't look like any of them will come for the wedding in June, but hopefully a visit will happen sometime.  Another peace corps volunteer that Sarah was friends with is engaged and her fiance is Ukrainian.  Vitaly arrived in the U.S. in March and will be one of Ivan's groomsmen for the wedding.   Vitaly likes in California but it's nice that Ivan has a friend with so much in common.

Well, that wraps up the post about 'preparing to come home.'  Thanks so much for visiting my blog today.  Have a great day!

1 comment:

Dana said...

This was a fascinating and emotional read Linda. Thank you SO much for sharing. I'm sending the new bride and groom lots of happy wishes:)