Last week I spoke with undergraduate students at Taras Shevchenko University in Kyiv about Rotary. Most, like myself at their age, had never heard of Rotary. I began by asking which of the students had come to Kyiv from another part of the country. Most were from elsewhere in Ukraine, including small towns. We talked about how Rotary founder Paul Harris had grown up in a small town but moved to Chicago in search of better opportunities. Moving to a new city can be disorienting – so many people yet so hard to connect, especially when trying to learn new culture(s), language(s) and way(s) of life.
Harris wanted to know his city and feel like he belonged there. What better way to feel a sense of belonging than through service to others? He and his colleagues met every week, rotating locations (hence the term “Rotary”), discussing how to be useful in the city where they lived. From these small meetings, Rotary spread around the world – including to Ukraine, where it has a long history, although one that was interrupted by World War II and did not resume until after independence. Thes students had moved to Kyiv for an education while I had moved there for work. Being able to plug into the Rotary network here has helped me get to know others living in Kyiv. Without Rotary, I would not have had an opportunity to meet the students.
Later that evening, I attended a meeting of the Kyiv Multi-National Rotary Club. The Interact Club (Rotary for high school students) and Rotaract Club (Rotary for people ages 18-30) that their members sponsored joined as did a student from the talk earlier in the day. The Kyiv Interact Club has been partnering with a Canadian Interact Club. Lately they have been sending videos back and forth, teaching each other how to cook their national dishes. We discussed a range of projects – finding better accommodations for elderly persons displaced by the conflict in the east as well as financing cataract removal for elderly people in rural areas who would not normally have access to the procedure (which is fairly quick and simple if you have trained surgeons available).
Later that week, I was speaking to a colleague who works for an organisation that protects and assists conflict-affected persons in Ukraine. The conflict line runs through Donetsk and Luhansk, two oblasts (regions) in the east. The communities near the contact line have always been inter-connected but are now separated by the conflict. Despite everything, people want to maintain the friendships and connections they had prior to the conflict. A Rotary Club in Donetsk with members on both sides of the conflict line are again meeting on a regular basis through Skype. I hope to have the opportunity to meet this club, and many others, during my time in Ukraine.