Thursday, January 21, 2010

Crimean Tatar life

Today I saw a different kind of Crimean Tatar life. This week I have been involved in helping escort a retired architect from Switzerland around Crimean Tatar settlements. He is a volunteer with an organization called Swiss Contact which sends out retired professionals to places in the developing world to lend their expertise to different projects. Most of the assignments are for two weeks, some four weeks. He is here for two weeks.
Somehow one of my artists hooked up with Swiss Contact. Besides the arts NGO I work with, he is also involved in another NGO that is concerned with housing for returned Crimean Tatars. In his usual big dreaming way, he has a wonderful idea of building planned settlements of small houses for Crimean Tatars who want to return but cannot afford the housing here. The organization, or maybe it is the communities, have been given land to build on by the government in various locations. We have spent a couple of days visiting these plots of land and helping Christian (the Swiss Contact guy) get an idea of what they are planning. They needed a full time translator for him, so first Cary, a PCV who speaks Russian well but lives in a village two hours from here did it. Then I hooked them up with Elizabeth, the Fulbright scholar here, and she has been doing a good job of translating. I mainly serve as sort of a go between as I know the artists and Nadjie, who is also part of this organization. Also, I think Christian feels he can relate to me better because I am more his age. Which I don’t think is true, but he is very European in that elderly gentleman sort of way.
One of the settlements we visited today was Ak Mechet where I live, as does Seitabla. While he wanted to show us a fairly typical Crimean Tatar home that was built after their return (his home), he also showed us the half built homes of some families. At one place, several generations were crowded into what was basically a semi basement , as they had run out of money to build the rest of the house. He pointed out other small half built houses that I have noticed in my walks, explaining the size of the families that live in them. And though he didn’t talk about it much, we also walked by the burned out shell of what looked like an abandoned boxcar where two men had been living. A few weeks ago, the men were drunk and passed out and it caught on fire and they burned to death. I had heard about it and knew one of the men was the brother of someone on my street, but I didn’t know exactly where it was. I have begun to hear more tragic stories like this, of people who came back from Uzbekistan in hopes of a finding a better life by returning to their homeland, only to live in poverty with no work and no future. Many turn to alcohol, some have committed suicide. In the early years of the return, there were men who self immolated themselves as a protest of the conditions they found here.
Ak Mechet is such a mix of people, I guess. They are definitely some wealthy looking, large houses here. And then there are the houses I visited today. And in between that, there are the homes of my neighbors where I have spent so much time and who live in relative comfort. Most of the homes I have visited have been in that category, so I think I didn’t realize how much poverty there really is out here, and how desperate some of the living conditions are. For this reason, Seitabla and his organization want to build communities which would provide housing for returning Crimean Tatars while they get on their feet. I hope they are able to pull this off, though it seems that it will take a much more developed organization than what I can discern. But I do think if anyone ever trusted them enough to fund the kind of the project they are talking about, that they would succeed.
The last place we visited today was the small village (50 homes) where Nadjie’s son and his wife and two young children live. Their village is about 45 minutes from Simferopol, close to the mountains and only 15 kilometers from the sea. Despite the foggy, gray weather, I could see what a lovely setting it was with the houses nestled on a hillside above a small river. The houses are old, from pre-deportation times. If I understood correctly, Nadjie’s grandfather lived there at some point. In the usual Crimean Tatar fashion, they fed us a wonderful meal of manti (steamed dumplings stuffed with meat and potatoes), shredded carrot salad, home preserved tomatoes and other vegetables. It was a treat for me to go there, as they had invited me this summer, but then Nadjie’s daughter became ill and she could never get away. And now that my Russian is getting a little better, I am hoping I will be able to get to know them better.
And so my life goes on here. I feel myself sinking deeper into this community as I learn more of the history, more of people’s lives, as I become more comfortable around the people I work with, as I feel closer to my neighbors and Nadjie. And of course I continue to struggle with the language. Sometimes I feel encouraged, other times it feels hopeless. It is especially hard with Neshet sometimes. I think it is because he truly wants to have meaningful conversations with me and wants me to understand, and I try so hard and sometimes end up feeling that I have failed him and myself. But at the end we smile at each other, and I know that he hopes for that understanding as much as I do. So I will keep working, keep trying.
And next week I will be trying in a big way as I head north to my training city of Chernigov for a three-day intensive language course. And to see all my buddies! Yet another PC adventure. Will give a full report on my return. It is actually starting to feel like real winter here, and it will really feel like that up north. There will be snow—yikes!! Love to all and stay warm (those of you in those cold places).


  1. Barb,
    How interesting it is to hear your observations concerning more of the socio-economic differences revealing themselves through the various housing conditions! I'd been wondering where your particular neighborhood/suburban area fell when looking at pictures you've posted. Knowing from others how much people struggle, financially, in Ukraine, I've been a bit surprised at how well those around you seem to be fairing. How hard that must be for you to know of the grief and despair of those so near. It's great that you were chosen to escort the "elderly gentleman" and have the opportunity to learn even more about your area and the world, really!
    And, as you pointed out in the earlier part of this blog, your Russian is getting better!! You ARE able to communicate more all the time! Good for you!!! I applaud your speaking abilities regardless of how inept you believe yourself to be!!
    Thanks for the great blogging!! Deb

  2. It sounds like you have finally arrived at a sense of belonging and true affection and understanding for the people and the culture. A wonderful thing, for you and your friends there.

  3. Thanks so much for your wonderful way with words, Barb; I feel like I am right there with you. What an amazing experience you are having, an amazing life you are living.

  4. You are planting many seeds of hope and justice and your Russian is growing week by week. What a blessing you are....JUD

  5. Oh Barb,
    Every time I read your blog I cry with all the beauty and sadness you describe. Thanks for being in the Peace Corps. Thanks for keeping a blog. Thanks for sharing your life.


  6. Barb - I was just having a thought - and it is not like conversation but since I am learning French (or trying) and I know I will be able to read and write before I can speak - have you ever thought about writing back and forth for some of the conversations that are so hard but you want to have with folks there. And as you are showing others back here - writing is expressive in a different way and there is more time to understand and respond with more care (and a dictionary ;)....anyway, just a thought from someone who's also anticipating the difficulty of learning a new language.