Along the Way: Kent native offers insight on Ukraine

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"Encourage Ukrainians to stand up for themselves, but do not directly intervene. "

That advice is offered by Simon Messerly, a young man I came to know when he and my son, Chris, were Boy Scouts in Troop 253.

Simon, like Chris, is a grown man now. He came home last summer from serving nearly three years in the Peace Corps in Ukraine. There, he taught English and, perhaps more importantly, met and married the former Anna Grinkevych, a very pretty woman who was able to join him in the USA in September after obtaining her visa.

Russia, Simon said, retains the imperial impulses it historically has had, first under the Czars, and then the Communists.

"It wants to bring the smaller neighboring countries that were once part of the Soviet Union back into the fold," he said.

Ukraine, called the breadbasket of Europe because of its agricultural productivity, historically has been a key factor in the Russian Empire, but, Simon said, "Most Ukrainians do not think that has provided a very good standard of living and want something better."

Admission to the European Union, the western European trading block, could provide that, the people hope, according to Simon, who added that Russia is dead-set against that happening.

America's role, he said, should be, "to voice our encouragement."

Direct intervention, he warned, would "make our relations with Russia even worse than they currently are."

Simon Messerly's becoming involved in Ukraine was related to his desire to teach English in another country. A Spanish major at Kent State University who studied for a semester in Argentina, he had hopes of serving in Latin America when he volunteered to serve in the Peace Corps.

"There was nothing available in teaching English in Latin America, but the opportunity to do that in Ukraine existed so I opted for that," he said.

The decision was life-changing and he and Anna will continue to visit Ukraine to spend time with her parents in Khmelnytskyi, a city that has the status of being a state capital, not unlike Columbus, Ohio. There Anna's father, a retired military officer, has a second career with a furniture company for which he oversees shipping. Her mother is a school nurse.

Ukraine, Simon said, looks very much like the region we in Ohio call the Midwest. At 233,062 square miles, it is slightly smaller than Texas, but much larger than Ohio. The western portion consists of rolling hills and rich agricultural soil. Its climate is similar to ours. The eastern portion of the country is flatter and the climate is more severe.

The cuisine Simon described sounds similar to that of many Eastern European nationalities in this country: sausage, stuffed cabbage, pierogies, and delicious soups.

After spending some months learning Ukrainian in intensive immersion in the village of Mryn, north of Kiev, he took up his teaching work with youngsters ranging from fourth to 11th grade in a school specializing in English in the city of Starokostianyniv. His teaching methods were creative, popular, and effective. Appealing to the love of music most young people share, he would ask them to explain the lyrics of songs sung in English and to give reports on movies they would see.

The community where he taught lies in the state of Khmelnytski, which is where Anna is from. The two met in March 2011 in a seminar for teaching English. She asked his assistance in some follow-up seminars and a friendship began that culminated nearly two years later in their November 2012 marriage.

The two traveled a lot in Ukraine. Simon said one of his favorite spots is the Crimea, a peninsula that juts out into the Black Sea with a climate similar to that of South Carolina. It's where President Roosevelt, Churchill and Stalin met in 1944 to decide the fate of Europe as the defeat of Nazi Germany neared. Before the break-up of the Soviet Union, the Crimea belong to the Soviet Union. It's now in Ukraine. Simon said Russia would like it back.

Russian and Ukrainian share so many words and most Ukrainians speak both languages so in addition to his teaching duties Simon studied Russian "because it is spoken more widely."

Anna's English is so good that the two of them mostly speak English, "except when I want to make a joke in Russian," Simon said.

His expertise in Spanish helped him land a job with Mobile Defense, a start-up software company in Middleburg Heights that creates software to protect the computers and software used by other companies. He translates its materials and software into Spanish and helps the company market its products to Spanish speaking companies around the world.

The young couple make their home in Parma Heights, a Cleveland suburb close enough to Kent, the residence of Simon's parents, Mark, a chemist in Akron, and Sallie, a nurse. Parma Heights has a significant American-Ukrainian population, eager to keep up its traditions and native language familiarity. Ann helps at the suburb's Ukrainian school. She also works in a Berea Learning Center, a latchkey operation.

Most Ukrainians may not have cars, but they do have a public transportation system that is better than what Americans have. Simon said, "you can get anywhere in the country using it."

Because Ukrainians, like many people of the world, form their ideas of Americans from Hollywood movies, it is a revelation to them, Simon said, "when they find out we're just regular people like they are."

That, he said, is one of the most important messages the Peace Corps brings to countries like Ukraine,.

"The people," he said, "learn we're just regular people like they are and next they realize they can have a better life too."

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