Commentary: My Peace Corps evacuation from Ukraine: I had 5 hours to pack and say goodbye

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After a few days of coronavirus-centered speculation, the email subject line — with its caps lock-induced sense of urgency — made it official. Peace Corps would be leaving Ukraine. I had five hours to pack, and then I would be leaving Ukraine.

It took a while for the feelings to hit — the denial, anger, despair, fear and a strange and unwelcome heart-wrenching sensation.

I first landed in Ukraine in August. After a yearlong application process — which included everything from background checks to a thorough medical clearance — I was approved to spend 27 months volunteering in the former Soviet republic. I nervously quit my full-time job as a digital editor at the Chicago Tribune, moved out of my North Side apartment, packed plenty of peanut butter into my two 50-pound checked suitcases, held tight to my government-issued passport and hopped onto the first of a series of flights to my new home.

I spent the beginning of my Peace Corps service in the city of Zhytomyr, undergoing what Peace Corps refers to as pre-service training. During PST, I spent an intense two months studying the Ukrainian language and learning about cultural traditions and customs. I lived with my first of two host families and completed a teaching practicum aimed at giving me insight into Ukraine’s public education system.

Following my training, I was sworn in as an official Peace Corps volunteer and whisked away to Khmelnytskyi, the oblast capital in which I was meant to live and work for my two full years of service.

I was assigned to a position at Gymnasium No. 2, a secondary school full of eager and friendly fifth through 11th grade students who giggled every time they heard my American accent, and asked me if I personally knew Billie Eilish and Ariana Grande. I was also given a second host family. Mama Natasha, Igor, Ira and Vanya welcomed me with open arms — and a lot of borscht — and spent three months entertaining my broken Ukrainian, eating my grilled cheese sandwiches, reminding me to call my actual American family and asking me why my parka wasn’t zipped.

After those three months, I moved into my own apartment, and my normal adult life in Ukraine — working as an English teacher, hosting clubs and events for community members, socializing with both American and Ukrainian friends — was set to begin.

Until it wasn’t.

I’d been visiting a fellow volunteer in a nearby city when the alerts started coming in. Peace Corps takes volunteer safety very seriously. Peace Corps Ukraine’s safety and security team had an emergency action plan in place, should any situation arise that would threaten the safety of any volunteer.

On March 14, that plan went into overdrive. On that Saturday morning, I was ordered to return to my city and pack a bag to prepare for a potential evacuation. That night, I was ordered to leave my city — and prepare to potentially never return.

The evacuation process itself was brutal. Because the government of Ukraine planned to close the country’s borders just after midnight March 17, Peace Corps Ukraine had to work fast to get us out. I had five hours to move out of my apartment, pack my suitcases and catch a train to the capital for our departing fight. My host family and a few of my beloved Ukrainian co-workers met me at the train station before sunrise to say their tear-soaked goodbyes in myriad languages. I never had the chance to say goodbye to anyone else.

The next week was a sleep-deprived blur. Our original charter flight was delayed, and then canceled. Volunteers were moved to one hotel, and then another as business after business closed down as part of Ukraine’s protective measures against the growing coronavirus threat. A second charter flight was delayed five times, and then canceled again — also due to ever-changing coronavirus-related regulations.

Finally, thanks to the nonstop work of the Peace Corps staff in Ukraine, a new charter company was contracted for a third flight, which departed March 20 — despite a printer-induced delay at check-in that led to hand-scribbled boarding passes — and carried all 250-plus of us back to Washington, D.C.

My Peace Corps service was over.

Shortly after Peace Corps Ukraine made the evacuation call, Peace Corps headquarters made the unprecedented decision to conduct a global evacuation, recalling more than 7,000 of us serving in 60 different countries back to the United States. Rather than suspend our service, Peace Corps made the decision to grant “close-of-service” status to all of us, effectively ending our service. We’re now considered returned Peace Corps volunteers, or RPCVs in the acronym-heavy community, and our end-of-service paperwork was processed.

Watching this pandemic unfold has been surreal and terrifying. Like me, many volunteers are eager to head back to our host countries. We have unfinished work. I hope to apply for reinstatement as soon as my post safely opens again.

The timing of that, of course, depends on how fast we can flatten the coronavirus curve. All of my fellow PCVs are in self-quarantine now, adding onto the months, if not years, we’ve gone without seeing our friends and family members. The waiting isn’t easy, but it’s necessary.

In the meantime, I’ll continue to study the Ukrainian language, video chat with my host family, mourn with fellow evacuated volunteers and wait it out, optimistic that — if we’re all diligent with our hand-washing and social distancing — I’ll be able to resume my 27-month commitment to Ukraine.



Randi Shaffer is a former Chicago Tribune digital editor.


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