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As the Peace Corps evacuates, the returned Volunteers of Ukraine step up

A group of people smile for a selfie on the streets of Ukraine.

Upon completing service, many returned Volunteers find community, comfort, and connections in Peace Corps-affiliate groups based in the United States. Alliance for Ukraine is one such group.

When news broke of Peace Corps Volunteers evacuating world-wide due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Alliance for Ukraine quickly assembled and launched an Evacuation Assistance Mentorship Program to provide support for the Volunteers who would be returning home to a jarring new reality.

Even before evacuating Volunteers departed from Kyiv, the Alliance began the process of encouraging returned Volunteers and evacuees to sign up for the program and matching them into mentor-mentee partnerships. In total, the Alliance for Ukraine paired 43 mentors and mentees. These pairs got the chance to share their Peace Corps Ukraine experiences with each other, discuss future career options, and support one another during unprecedented times.

Originally from Wauwatosa, Wisconsin, Mark Salamone joined Peace Corps following his graduation from college in May 2019. After two months of language and technical training in Ukraine, he moved to a small town to begin his service.

A man and a woman smile next to each other in front of a large orange Peace Corps banner.
Mark Salamone, who taught at a local school in Ukraine before his evacuation in 2020, stands next to his community counterpart.

As an English teacher at a local school, Mark grew to love his community’s friendly atmosphere and he marveled at its historic 19th-century buildings. When the order to evacuate due to COVID-19 came, Mark felt a little lost. He’d worked so hard to integrate into this community and develop his language skills. He wanted to talk to someone who could help him process the jarring transition from evacuation to “real life” in the United States.

Mark signed up for Alliance for Ukraine’s mentorship program and was paired with Jake McGrew, who had gone through an evacuation after Ukraine’s Revolution of Dignity in 2014. A Hillsboro, Oregon native, Jake recalls wishing he’d had more support after the evacuation. He wanted to provide these COVID-evacuees that sense of support and connection he hadn’t had. He knew from experience that having empathetic people who knew what evacuees were going though would help them work through their experiences. In addition to providing support for an evacuated Volunteer, Jake says he just wanted to re-engage with other Peace Corps Ukraine Volunteers: “I have been an RPCV for about four years and wanted to hear more about how Peace Corps Ukraine is doing.”

The two first got in touch via email and began exchanging messages. They hit it off immediately after discussing their evacuation ordeals. Jake eventually returned to Ukraine after evacuation to continue his service, something Mark hopes to do as well. For Mark, the opportunity to hear from someone who had been in a similar position after evacuation was heartening:

“[Jake’s] story was an illustration of the fact that an evacuation doesn’t necessarily mean the end of service, which was a worry of mine. He was very honest about how his experience disappointed him at first and threw his life into disarray, although he eventually overcame a lot of that...Hearing [about his experiences] made me feel a little better about taking my time to get myself together again.”

The two were soon able to turn their common bonds into a Third Goal activity for some of Jake’s middle school students in California. They set up a Zoom call and Mark shared a bit about Ukraine and his Peace Corps service with the students. Mark enjoyed the chance to practice being an informal ambassador and educator about Ukraine, “I’ll have that role for the rest of my life,” he said.

A Young white man leans over a desk to point something out to a younger student in Ukraine.
Jake McGrew was evacuated from Ukraine in 2014 but was able to eventually return. He currently provides mentorship to more recently evacuated Volunteer, Mark Salamone.

Looking to the future, Mark and Jake both have plans to return to Ukraine. Even without the title of “Peace Corps Volunteer,” Mark has been keeping in touch with his students and counterparts in Ukraine by conducting weekly English clubs online. He knows how hard Peace Corps staff are working in Kyiv, and he hopes to get back to his site as soon as the COVID-19 situation permits.

In the meantime, he’ll be studying for the LSAT and leaning on some key advice from his mentor: “Jake mentioned that it’s possible that some people in America may not immediately understand my desire to return [to Ukraine]...Getting Jake’s perspective makes me realize how important it is for me to communicate the meaning that Peace Corps and Ukraine hold for me.”

Jake intends to teach for one more year before moving abroad to teach at an international school. While teaching, he plans to work toward becoming a school administrator. He has a dream of opening his own English-language school in Ukraine someday. Who knows, maybe Jake and Mark’s next classroom collaboration will be in Ukraine!

The original version of story was published on Alliance for Ukraine's blog.