Living conditions and volunteer lifestyles in Ukraine
- 1 Communication
- 2 Housing and Site Location
- 3 Living Allowance and Money Management
- 4 Food and Diet
- 5 Transportation
- 6 Geography and Climate
- 7 Social Activities
- 8 Professionalism, Dress, and Behavior
- 9 Personal Safety
- 10 Rewards and Frustrations
Few countries in the world offer the level of mail service considered normal in the United States. If you expect U.S. standards for mail service, you will be in for some frustration. Mail takes a minimum of two weeks to arrive in Ukraine.
During training, mail for trainees received at the Peace Corps office in Kyiv will be forwarded to the training site once or twice each week. Once you become a Volunteer and move to your permanent site, you will receive mail there, either at a post office box or at your office. Peace Corps/Ukraine uses the Ukrainian postal network to mail routine, nonurgent items, including a weekly packet sent to each Volunteer.
Family and friends should not send you valuable items through the mail, as packages sometimes arrive opened, with items missing, or do not arrive at all. We recommend the use of padded envelopes instead of boxes, as they usually arrive unopened. Airmail is more reliable, but more expensive, than surface mail.
A number of international mail services operate in Ukraine, including UPS and DHL. Volunteers report that the most reliable and inexpensive service is MEEST, whose address in the United States is 609 Commerce Road, Linden, NJ 07036 (phone: 908.474.1100; website: www.meest.net).
Your address during training will be:
“Your Name”, PCT
c/o Peace Corps/Ukraine
PO Box 298
Telecommunications in Ukraine lags far behind that in the United States. Phone lines are often busy, and connections can be poor. Many Ukrainians in small towns and villages do not have their own land lines, and it is possible that you will not have one. Not all cities have the capability to process calling card calls, and many Ukrainians, including Volunteers’ host families, may be unaware of how such calls are billed. Although most host families during training will have phones, you may not be able to make long-distance calls. Calls, however, can be made from the town post office for a per-minute charge. It is best to inform family members and friends that you’ll need a few days to become acquainted with the telephone system before getting in touch with them. The Peace Corps will ensure that you have access to a phone once you are at your permanent site, through either your place of employment or a neighbor.
More and more Ukrainians use cellular phones. The Peace Corps staff uses cellphones to supplement land lines and ensure better contact with Volunteers. Peace Corps/Ukraine discourages you from bringing a cellphone because even though a few cellular companies operate in Ukraine, it is highly unlikely that a cellular plan in the United States will cover Ukraine and the surrounding region. It is much cheaper to buy a cellphone here in Ukraine (around $100) and then give the number to your family/friends to call you. All incoming calls are free of charge. About 90 percent of Volunteers in-country have cellphones.
Computer, Internet, and E-mail Access
While Peace Corps/Ukraine makes no recommendation regarding whether to bring a personal computer, it could be useful during your service. Computers (as well as printers, paper, and peripheral devices) may not be generally available at your workplace, and many Volunteers find that having their own is helpful. Although some Volunteers have bought laptops in Ukraine, the selection is limited and generally more expensive than in the U.S. If you decide to bring a computer (and perhaps a small printer), make sure you bring the necessary power converter, surge protection, and plug adapter. (Note that the small, inexpensive converters made for things like alarm clocks are not suitable, and are even dangerous, for computer equipment.) The Peace Corps encourages you to insure your computer against theft.
While almost all Volunteers in Ukraine have e-mail addresses, many of them have only limited access to e-mail via an Internet cafe at their site or in a nearby city. In all cases, Volunteers should be prepared for poor phone lines that result in slow connection speeds and unpredictable interruptions.
Housing and Site Location
Although you will find a Western-looking environment in Ukraine, living conditions are not the same as in the United States, and you will have to make some adjustments in your lifestyle. Volunteers in Ukraine live in a wide range of sites, from large, European-style cities (up to 20 percent of the Volunteer population) to small towns or villages with few modern amenities (up to 80 percent of the Volunteer population). Generally, housing is in short supply; space is at a premium and accommodations will be cramped.
For your first three months as a trainee, you will live with a host family. This homestay is a part of pre-service training and will help you to learn about the Ukrainian culture, improve your language skills, and enhance your safety.
After swearing-in, you will move to your permanent site. You may stay with a host family, roommate, or you may immediately move into an independent living arrangement in a house, apartment, or dormitory. Your situation will depend on what your hosting organization (school or non-profit) has found for you. Formerly, volunteers in Ukraine stayed up to 3 months with a second host family after moving to site. This is no longer the case, however.
If you choose to move to an apartment or dormitory at that time, you will be provided with most of the furnishings you need, along with a settling-in allowance for additional necessary items. If what you need is not immediately available, your regional manager will work with you and your Ukrainian coordinator to ensure that you can obtain any necessities.
Note that many towns have to ration water and electricity, and hot water may not be available where you live. Ukrainians usually keep buckets of water and candles at the ready. Heat in towns and cities is centrally controlled and is turned on and off according to finances and the calendar, not the weather. Volunteers are issued space heaters when they move to their sites. There are some communities where Volunteers are expected to heat their houses using a wood or coal-burning stove.
Living Allowance and Money Management
As a Volunteer in Ukraine, you will receive three types of allowances. The first, a monthly living allowance, is intended to cover your basic living expenses; that is, food, household supplies, clothing, official travel, recreation and entertainment, transportation, reading material, and other incidentals. This allowance is reviewed at least once a year through a market survey to ensure that it is adequate. At the time of this writing, the living allowance is roughly equivalent to $200, which is transferred directly into each Volunteer’s local bank account at the beginning of each month. You will probably find that you receive more remuneration than your Ukrainian coordinator or supervisor.
The second allowance, a vacation allowance of $24 per month, is added to your living allowance and paid in U.S. dollars. Finally, when you move into your apartment or house following your three-month homestay at site, you will receive a one-time settling-in allowance, paid in local currency, to buy basic household items.
Although most Volunteers find they can live comfortably in Ukraine with these allowances, some bring money from home for out-of-country travel. The Peace Corps strongly discourages you from supplementing your income with money brought from home while you are in Ukraine. The living allowance is adequate and Volunteers are expected to live at the same economic level as their neighbors and colleagues.
Traveler’s checks are virtually unknown in Ukraine, although ATM machines are becoming widespread and are generally safe as long as common sense is used (e.g., avoid using it in crowded areas). Credit cards are becoming more common in cities and large towns. If you bring cash, be advised that bills that have writing on them may not be accepted and older bills will be hard to exchange for local currency outside of Kyiv.
Food and Diet
Your host families will provide you with most meals, so you will have plenty of opportunities to become familiar with eating (and cooking) Ukrainian food. As in many countries, the availability of certain foods is dependent on the season, with a wider range of vegetables and fruits available in the spring and summer. Many Volunteers enjoy learning how to preserve and can food for the winter, as many Ukrainians do. The Ukrainian diet relies heavily on meat, potatoes, beets, onions, and cabbages in the winter.
The traditional diet can be high in fat and cholesterol. Vegetarians may find it challenging to maintain their usual diet because of the lack of fruits and vegetables at certain times of the year. Although your host families may be able to cook vegetarian foods for you, a soup described as “vegetarian” may be made with a meat-based stock. Still, there are many types of Ukrainian salads, consisting of cabbage, beets, carrots, and other seasonal and year-round vegetables. In addition, an increasing number of soy products are being imported from Poland.
Most cities in Ukraine have a comprehensive public transportation system of buses and trolleys. Some cities have trams, and Kyiv and Kharkov have subways. In addition to official and unofficial taxi services, most cities have direct-route taxis that look like vans (known as Marshrutkas). In cities and towns without public transportation, people get around on foot.
An extensive train network connects cities throughout Ukraine, with buses operating between shorter distances.
Many of the trains are overnight trains, so Volunteers can leave their site at night and arrive at their destination in the morning. An alternative that is gaining popularity is a luxury bus network, which also provides overnight service to many cities.
Geography and Climate
Ukraine has a continental climate, with the exception of the southern coast of Crimea, which is in a subtropical zone. Although many people imagine Ukraine as a country of snow and ice, it has four distinct seasons, with summer temperatures averaging in the 70s and 80s.
Winters in Ukraine are long and cold, and as a result of its northern latitude, daylight in the winter is limited. Some Volunteers with a history of seasonal affective disorder or depression have found the limited exposure to sunlight an added challenge of service in Ukraine.
The life of a Volunteer is filled with learning and networking 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Having a cup of tea with a Ukrainian neighbor is as much a part of the Volunteer experience as is teaching a class or seminar. Social activities will vary depending on where you live and might include taking part in local festivals, parties, and dances. In addition, although the Peace Corps encourages Volunteers to remain at their sites as an essential strategy for integrating into their communities, some Volunteers occasionally visit nearby Volunteers on weekends. Most towns and cities have cafes and restaurants for evenings out, and many Volunteers have televisions and VCRs in their apartments.
Professionalism, Dress, and Behavior
Ukrainians pay a lot of attention to their appearance, and they will judge your professionalism based on what you wear. Ukrainians in general, but women especially, dress more formally than do Americans on most occasions. The Peace Corps expects you to behave in a way that will foster respect toward you in your community and reflect well on the Peace Corps and on the United States. You will receive an orientation to appropriate behavior and cultural sensitivity during pre-service training. As a Volunteer, you have the status of an invited guest and thus must be sensitive to the habits, tastes, and taboos of your Ukrainian hosts. You need to be aware that behavior that jeopardizes the Peace Corps’ mission in Ukraine or your personal safety cannot be tolerated and could lead to administrative separation, a decision by the Peace Corps to terminate your service.
More information about the Peace Corps’ approach to safety is contained in the Health Care and Safety chapter, but it is an important issue and cannot be overemphasized. As stated in the Volunteer Handbook, becoming a Peace Corps Volunteer entails certain safety risks. Living and traveling in an unfamiliar environment (oftentimes alone), having a limited understanding of local language and culture, and being perceived as well-off are some of the factors that can put a Volunteer at risk. Many Volunteers experience varying degrees of unwanted attention and harassment. Petty thefts and burglaries are not uncommon, and incidents of physical and sexual assault do occur, although most Ukraine Volunteers complete their two years of service without personal security incidents. The Peace Corps has established procedures and policies designed to help you reduce your risks and enhance your safety and security. You will learn about these procedures and policies during safety training in Ukraine. At the same time, you are expected to take responsibility for your safety and well-being.
Rewards and Frustrations
It may take time for your Ukrainian counterparts to understand your role as a Volunteer and for you to determine your appropriate responsibilities. You may not be stepping into a well-defined situation. You will need to remember that you are part of a long-term development project. A challenge throughout your assignment will be helping your counterparts develop their capacity to continue to perform similar work after your departure.
You will be frustrated at times by not being able to communicate easily in the local language, even after the preparation provided during pre-service training. While your coordinator may have a fairly strong command of English, most of your colleagues will not. Learning Ukrainian or Russian, will make a major difference in your work, in your ability to adapt to living in Ukraine, and in your appreciation of Ukrainian society and culture.
Attitudes about racial differences and public expression of racism are generally different in Ukraine from those typically found in the United States. Incidents involving disrespect for and harassment against minority Volunteers occur and it is important for people to consider this fact and how this might affect them.
To have a successful experience as a Volunteer, you must be motivated, flexible, and willing to work hard. You will need to take the initiative to identify local resources and institutions with which you can cooperate. To be effective in your work, you might need to “unlearn” practices and principles that you have developed on the basis of prior experiences. Despite these challenges—or perhaps because of them—Volunteers in Ukraine find satisfaction in demonstrating to their colleagues that every individual can make a difference in the creation of a civil society. As it has in the past, Ukraine is poised to play a pivotal role in the future of Europe and the world. Volunteers have a unique opportunity to impact the nature of that role.