Diversity and cross-cultural issues in Ukraine
In fulfilling its mandate to share the face of America with host countries, the Peace Corps is making special efforts to see that all of America’s richness is reflected in the Volunteer corps. More Americans of color are serving in today’s Peace Corps than at any time in recent years. Differences in race, ethnic background, age, religion, and sexual orientation are expected and welcomed among our Volunteers. Part of the Peace Corps’ mission is to help dispel any notion that Americans are all of one origin or race and to establish that each of us is as American as the other despite our many differences.
Our diversity helps us accomplish that goal. In other ways, however, it poses challenges. In Ukraine, as in other Peace Corps host countries, Volunteers’ behavior, lifestyle, background, and beliefs are judged in a cultural context very different from their own. Certain personal perspectives or characteristics commonly accepted in the United States may be quite uncommon, unacceptable, or even repressed in Ukraine.
Outside of Ukraine’s capital, residents of rural communities have had relatively little direct exposure to other cultures, races, religions, and lifestyles. What people view as typical American behavior or norms may also be a misconception, such as the belief that all Americans are rich and have blond hair and blue eyes. The people of Ukraine are justly known for their generous hospitality to foreigners; however, members of the community in which you will live may display a range of reactions to cultural differences that you present.
To ease the transition and adapt to life in Ukraine, you may need to make some temporary, yet fundamental, compromises in how you present yourself as an American and as an individual. For example, female trainees and Volunteers may not be able to exercise the independence available to them in the United States; political discussions need to be handled with great care; and some of your personal beliefs may best remain undisclosed. You will need to develop techniques and personal strategies for coping with these types of challenges. The Peace Corps staff will lead diversity and sensitivity discussions during pre-service training and will be on call to provide support, but the challenge ultimately will be your own.
During pre-service training, several sessions will be held to discuss diversity and coping mechanisms. We look forward to having male and female Volunteers from a variety of races, ethnic groups, ages, religions, and sexual orientations and hope that you will become part of a diverse group of Americans who take pride in supporting one another and demonstrating the richness of American culture.
The comments in this section, which come from a cross-section of Volunteers who have served in Ukraine, are intended to stimulate thought and discussion. They reflect the fact that each person’s experience of Peace Corps service is unique.
Possible Issues for Female Volunteers
At first, gender roles in Ukraine can be difficult to understand and accept. Ukrainian culture may appear to be discriminatory. Ukrainian women constitute more than 50 percent of the total population, and working women outnumber nonworking women. Although men and women may receive equal pay for equal work, women are underrepresented in positions of power and often are not promoted as readily as men to managerial positions. These gender differences, sometimes overt and sometimes subtle, can present problems for Volunteers in job situations.
Possible Issues for Volunteers of Color
Racial and ethnic minorities in Ukraine—primarily Poles, Hungarians, Crimean Tatars, and Greeks—make up about 5 percent of the total population. They are not always well-organized and are not usually recognized as separate communities. Crimean Tatars are the exception, as they are becoming a more significant facet of the population in Crimea.
In spite of the racial diversity of the former Soviet Union and Ukraine’s close contacts with former socialist countries in Asia and Africa, most Ukrainians have not had personal interactions with people of other races. They often assume that African-American or Asian-American Volunteers are university students from Africa or Asia rather than Americans. Thus minority Volunteers may be stopped to show their identification papers more frequently than other Volunteers, particularly in larger cities where they are not known. In addition, “skinhead” groups in some larger cities have reportedly targeted individuals of African or Asian heritage in the past.
Possible Issues for Senior Volunteers
Older people in Ukraine are generally respected and seen as sources of wisdom. So older Volunteers often have a greater degree of credibility upon arrival at their sites. The slow pace of change in a developing country, however, may prove challenging for some individuals. In addition, certain conditions in Ukraine—uneven pavement, multistory buildings without elevators, tobacco smoke and other air pollutants, and lack of amenities—combine to make life more demanding than in the United States.
Possible Issues for Gay, Lesbian, or Bisexual Volunteers
Homosexuality was decriminalized in Ukraine in 1991. However, this often is not acknowledged, and civil rights related to sexual orientation are limited. The gay communities in Kyiv and other large cities are becoming more open, and in 1999 Nash Mir, the first gay nongovernmental organization, received official state registration. Some gay and lesbian Volunteers in Ukraine have found that being open about their sexual orientation at their sites has had a negative impact on their effectiveness.
Possible Religious Issues for Volunteers
Many Ukrainians have little knowledge or understanding of non-Christian faiths. Religious observances are prevalent in schools and communities, particularly in western Ukraine. There are Polish and Greek Catholic churches and Ukrainian Orthodox churches in most communities. Most big cities have large numbers of Christian missionaries, particularly from evangelical denominations. Volunteers are sometimes mistaken for missionaries, and the Peace Corps is careful to maintain a separation from such groups. If you do not attend church, Ukrainians may demand that you explain why, but it is possible to politely decline when invited to attend someone’s church if you choose not to.
Possible Issues for Volunteers With Disabilities
As a disabled Volunteer in Ukraine, you may face a special set of challenges. In Ukraine, as in other parts of the world, some people hold prejudicial attitudes about individuals with disabilities and may discriminate against them. And there is very little of the infrastructure to accommodate individuals with disabilities that has been developed in the United States.
That being said, as part of the medical clearance process, the Peace Corps Office of Medical Services determined that you were physically and emotionally capable, with or without reasonable accommodation, to perform a full tour of Volunteer service in Ukraine without unreasonable risk of harm to yourself or interruption of your service. The Peace Corps/Ukraine staff will work with disabled Volunteers to make reasonable accommodations for them in their training, housing, job sites, or in other areas, to enable them to serve safely and effectively.