CLCS alum working overseas seeing history unfold
As the world remains honed on the future of Ukraine and the specter of a full-scale Russian invasion, a young Chautauqua County native finds herself strikingly close to the precipice of history.
Twenty-two year old “Mary Johnson” – who was asked to not to disclose her real name – described how she had little to no idea that Ukraine would become front-page news when she moved there in August 2013.
A graduate of Chautauqua Lake Central School and Geneva College in Pennsylvania, she traveled to Kiev – Ukraine’s capital – to simply teach secondary education and acquire overseas experience.
Now, deeply in love with the country, she refuses to leave prematurely, standing firmly by the Ukrainian people as they face down what could be a very precarious situation.
“People worry about me, but I want them to worry about Ukraine,” Johnson said. “As a foreigner, I have food, clothes and a warm bed. I can leave if it gets bad. The people of this country are risking their lives, giving up the comforts of their home, giving up everything to see positive change. If it gets bad, they cannot leave they will be here through it all.”
Johnson, who shares an apartment with another American in Kiev, described her life as still “normal” when the protests began at the end of November. Safety only became an issue when government forces started cracking down.
“As a school, we closed for a total of seven days due to the violence,” Johnson said. “The concern is for our students’ safety as they must take public transportation from all around the city to get to the school.”
Another concern, according to Johnson, was being labeled a “foreign agent” after Viktor Yanukovych – the now-impeached Ukrainian president – claimed that spies were infiltrating Kiev to help the protesters.
Johnson, of course, was able to keep things in perspective as a witness, even calling out the United States media for “distorting” the news with exaggerated scenes of chaos.
“This is not to downplay the severity and importance of the situation,” Johnson said. “However, if you stayed away from the (city) center, you were very safe.”
Like most of the Ukrainian people, Johnson is unsure of how the Russian encroachment into Crimea will play out.
“Crimea is far from Kiev but we are all left wondering what will (the Russians) do? How will they act? Tensions are lessening but the situation is far from over,” Johnson said.
Johnson’s mother, who still lives in Chautauqua County, said she was concerned about her daughter’s safety, but that her fears are typically placated by constant internet communication.
“(Mary) has always been able to assure me and explain what’s really going on as opposed to what we see on the news,” she said. “So any worries I had, (Mary) took care of them by explaining how far she is from the action.”
Johnson’s mother puncuated her remarks by indicating that her daughter is “literally in the middle of history in the making.”
“She’s doing what she’s supposed to be doing,” she said.
Mary Johnson has already committed to stay one more year in Ukraine. She is unsure how long she will stay.
“This country is not perfect and neither are its people,” she said. “But they are beautiful and I have learned that they are just as much my neighbors as the people who used to live across the street.”
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