– Silver Linings: Peace Corps volunteer fears for friends and ‘family’ in Ukraine – Lewiston Sun Journal

Janine Winn, a recent Peace Corps volunteer in Ukraine, wears a traditional necklace and the Ukrainian flag Thursday afternoon at her house in Temple. Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal

TEMPLE — Janine Winn is worried about her friend Olga, who has decided to stay in Kyiv, Ukraine, to support the fighters as Russian forces shell the city.

Winn served as a Peace Corps volunteer in western Ukraine for nearly three years, before being sent home in the spring of 2020 because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Olga’s husband has been fighting as a civilian since “day one” of the Russian invasion, as has Winn’s Peace Corps supervisor, who is based in Kyiv.

Winn joined the Peace Corps in 2017 at age 68, writing on her application she was willing to serve “anywhere.”

She was assigned to Ukraine, where she found the people “welcoming, caring and generous,” she said in a recent telephone interview.

“I saw them as incredibly resourceful people,” Winn said. “They don’t panic. They take care of problems by talking them over and dealing with them.”

Ukrainians are “incredibly patriotic and fierce,” she said. “You don’t hear whining (over the invasion). You hear, ‘Glory to Ukraine.’”

Winn has kept in touch with several friends over Facebook messenger since the Russian military invaded Feb. 24.

Janine Winn, 73, of Temple, wears traditional dress during her Peace Corps stint in Ukraine. Contributed photo

As of Sunday, 1.5 million Ukrainians had fled to foreign countries, according to news reports. Others had escaped to villages, such as Kosmach, where Winn lived with local families for 2½ years.

“What struck me in all this is the tremendous effort in the villages to support the people who are fighting,” she said. “They are taking in displaced people, collecting supplies — food for one thing — and getting them to the people fighting.”

Villagers also are making Molotov cocktails, which have proven effective in slowing the advance of Russian armored vehicles, she said.

She has been in touch with another friend, Lyuba, an English teacher from a neighboring village that was merged recently into Kosmach as part of the country’s efforts to consolidate many of its far-flung villages.

Lyuba expected her husband to join the nonmilitary fighters. She would like to keep her 19-year-old son from volunteering, but Winn feared he would join the battle.

She said local schools were open and serving displaced children whose families have fled the cities being bombarded by Russian forces.

It is difficult to gauge the levels of fear and despair, she said.

“For the most part,” Winn said, “the emotional reaction depends on where you live and who your family members are.”

She said she became so close to the people she lived with longest that she sees them as her “second family.” And Kosmach as her second home.

The western mountain village is much like western Maine, she said, but with “high mountain meadows” where sheep graze and “you can see forever. It’s like 1957 (Temple) with cellphones.”

Janine Winn rides a horse-drawn sled in a western Ukraine village. Contributed photo

Most families have a milk cow, and farming and logging are done with horses, she said.

The villagers and others in Ukraine have been looking to Europe, rather than Russia, for alliances, she said.

“They are looking forward to moving their country into a strong democracy and becoming part of the European Union,” Winn said. “One thing I learned in Ukraine was that Russia starts these conflicts to keep (former Soviet bloc) countries from joining the EU.”

Winn hopes to return to Ukraine someday to complete her stint in the Peace Corps. Typical service is two years, but she opted to take a third year.

She decided at age 65 she would pursue a longtime wish to join the corps, described on its website as “a service opportunity for motivated changemakers to immerse themselves in a community abroad, working side by side with local leaders to tackle the most pressing challenges of our generation.”

Volunteers tend to be “fresh out of college,” she said, adding she was the second oldest in her group of 74 volunteers placed in Ukraine.

Now she is working to inform others about the conflict with Russia and the way it is affecting Ukrainians. And she is displaying the Ukrainian flag — pastel blue and yellow — at her house in Temple.

“The blue is for the skies and the yellow is for wheat fields and sunflowers,” she said.

In honor of that blue sky and gentle landscape, Winn participated Sunday in a vigil in Farmington as part of a nationwide show of support for Ukraine.

She said by telephone she was “deeply, deeply concerned” about the Russian escalation.

“I’m feeling like a broken heart,” Winn said. “I’m also in awe of the Ukrainian resistance, fortitude and loyalty to one another and their country.”


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