By Cody Worsham
The world is Tyler Henry’s oyster.
A Peace Corps volunteer like Henry returns stateside with a litany of options. He could get a job with the federal government, or maybe return to LSU – he’s a 2012 Honors College graduate with a BA in International Studies – for graduate school. He could even transfer to another Peace Corps post abroad.
Instead, at his home in San Antonio, Henry waits. His person is in Texas, but his heart is in Ukraine.
Henry is among more than 200 Peace Corps volunteers who have been evacuated from the country since February. In November, the Ukrainian government under former president Viktor Yanukovych balked at an Association Agreement and Free Trade Agreement with the European Union in order to strength economic ties with Russia, and the former Soviet state has since been the site of revolution, protest, and political upheaval.
The story has dominated world news headlines, which depict a country divided by pro-European westerners and Eastern Russian-speaking Ukrainians.
Henry has a different perspective.
“One thing a lot of American mainstream media has gotten a bit wrong is this deep divide in the population,” he said. “Russia and Ukraine share a lot of history and language. It’s very hard for Americans to distinguish how the divide works and how much mixing there is.
“The whole divide is important to note, but it’s not quite so set in stone.”
Henry arrived in the country for what was supposed to be a 27-month tenure last March. After a year of seeking nomination to the Corps, Henry – who also studied French at LSU – expected to volunteer in Africa, but gladly took his Ukrainian assignment, which he assumed, ironically, was a steadier alternative.
“They kept telling us in terms of political stability, Ukraine is one of the most stable posts,” he said. “There are lots of posts in sub-Saharan African countries where unstable economies and ethnic divisions could lead to sudden political crises.
“Ukraine is a fairly stable country, where corruption just happens to be a part of society. They got fed up with it this year, but none of that seemed remotely close to breaking out in March when I arrived.”
After three months of intensive training – including a crash-course in Ukrainian – Henry began his work as a youth development volunteer, running youth camps and working with children at a village school teaching English, sports and healthy lifestyles.
“Ukrainian kids don’t get a good bit of education about how to live healthy,” he said, citing the country’s 1.3% HIV+ rate, the highest in Europe.
In his free time, Henry traveled the country. An avid football fan, he even made a trip to the capital for Ukraine’s World Cup playoff match with France on November 15, just days before the protests began.
“The situation you see in Kyiv and bigger cities is completely alien to what most volunteers see on a daily basis, which is Ukrainians going about their daily lives,” he said. “Occasionally you get murmurs about what’s going on, but that’s it.”
That was particularly true in Zasullia, Henry’s village, a typical central Ukrainian town where Russian and Ukrainian language and culture continue to freely intermingle.
“You barely see anything really. My village is really quiet. I barely heard a murmur until cops started killing protestors (in Kyiv).”
That’s when the Corps began the process of evacuating its volunteers. First came a period of Standfast, during which volunteers were required to remain in their villages. Before long, volunteers were given order to consolidate, meeting in groups of 10 to 12 in larger towns.
“That’s when they told us we would be evacuating,” Henry said.
The process was quick and varied, with volunteers leaving in different groups and arriving at different times. From Dnepropetrovsk to Istanbul and London, Henry and his fellow volunteers arrived in Washington D.C. in late February for a three-day transition conference, where volunteers were told their futures.
Now, Henry waits. He’s on a 45-day administrative hold, after which he’ll find out if he can return. He’s still a volunteer and can transfer to another location if Ukraine’s political climate doesn’t deescalate, but Henry would have to begin another 27-month term from the start.
He’s optimistic that won’t happen. Whereas normally evacuations entail automatic volunteer termination, Henry sees his continued status as hope for a return to the village he left without as much as a goodbye.
“It’s an extraordinary circumstance that we’re still volunteers,” he said. “I’m hopeful to return at some point.”
For now, Henry’s work in Ukraine is on pause. His teaching, however, continues. He just has a new audience.
“What you’re seeing on TV, while it’s in the minds of every Ukrainian, in the villages, they’re still getting up and going to work every day,” he said. “Even if you’re three hours away from Kyiv, it can feel like a light-year’s distance because of the way life is going. The babushka grandmothers are still sitting on their benches. Daily life goes on.”