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Traveling to Ukraine via Zoom

Ukrainian and U.S. flags fly in Kyiv, Ukraine.
Valentyn Ogirenko
Ukrainian and U.S. flags fly in Kyiv, Ukraine.

As a young adult, Inna Golovaha studied English in Ukraine with an American teacher who would become her husband. They now live in Northern Virginia, but she travels back often and has noticed that English teachers in small cities and towns have few opportunities to practice.

“As a result, they don’t feel comfortable sometimes talking to native speakers," she says.

So she set-up a non-profit called SELO – Ukrainian for Village – and invited teachers to join.

“And then to the rescue came many American volunteers," she recalls. "Some of them are my friends. Some are friends of friends.”

Ukraine Zoom
Inna Golovaha-Hicks (L) founded SELO to provide conversational opportunities for teachers in Ukraine.

As many as 60 people would meet online to talk. Today, for example, they’re exploring American and Ukrainian cities. Jennifer Baxley shows pictures of New York – the Statue of Liberty, Broadway and the subway where you never know what you’ll find.

“They have a no pants day in January where you do not wear pants on the subway!" she tells her Ukrainian audience. "It’s just one of those quirky New York things. Nobody knows why, but they just do it anyway.”

Baxley shows photos of movie stars and assures participants that celebrity sightings are common in the city, but – she warns – you must never bother them.

“It’s considered really rude in New York if you see somebody famous to approach them, to speak to them, because they have a normal life here.”

Then it’s on to Halina Dashko who narrates a video of her region in central Ukraine – Vinnytsia.

“To me it’s an amazing city. It’s like a small Europe with very polite people,” she explains.

It’s home to the largest fountain on the continent – the site of regular light and water shows choreographed to music, and it’s the birthplace of Mykola Leontovych who composed the Carol of the Bells.

The historic village of Radowel, founded more than 500 years ago, has grown into a model of modern life in a rural area – rich in culture, educational and medical services and recreational options. Tourists flock to huge stone quarries nearby -- filled with clear, turquoise water, surrounded by white sand. It’s known as the Ukrainian Maldives. The pictures are alluring and today’s gathering is peaceful, but earlier this year Golovaha-Hicks says there were upsetting distractions.

“There was a lot of shelling in all the territories," she says. "Svitlana didn’t have water, gas, electricity for three weeks, and her house was under constant shelling. Natalia, two weeks ago the train station in her village was shelled.”

The Americans sent money to buy supplies for thousands of refugees, and Golovaha-Hicks invited mental health professionals to join the group -- to offer techniques for coping with stress. Natalia Shamanina says that was immensely helpful.

“We have in our town 15,000 and today we have 25,000 people – it’s 10,000 refugees,” she says.

So how has her life changed?

“Thank God it didn’t change physically,” she says, “but mentally everything changed. I have two sons. They are twenty one, and I have stress about my sons, because I don’t want them to go to war.”

As students, she says, her boys are exempt from the draft, but she worries that could change. Natalia tells her American friends that she posts her fondest wishes on the fridge – to speak English more fluently, to lose 20 pounds and to celebrate peace as soon as possible.