September 11th Across the Ocean

The word for terrorist sounds the same in the three languages of my daily life -- English, Russian and Ukrainian.

But I didn't want to write about the attacks on America in any language.

There has been enough in the news, I wrote to one friend. I am in Ukraine, what do I know, I e-mailed another.

The truth? I was scared I couldn't find the right words.

Turns out, I didn't have to. A little girl in the fifth form at School Number 37 in Poltava found them for me.

As we flipped though a copy of Newsweek with pictures of the attack, she pointed to a picture of Saudi militant Osama bin Laden.

Terrorist, she asked, with her ponytail bobbing up and down.

I nodded.

Foo, foo, foo, she said.

Which translates to ugh. Or horror, disgust and repugnance.

There is no television in my one-room apartment in Ukraine where I serve as a Peace Corps volunteer. So when my neighbor came pounding at my door yelling "oozhas" (horror) on Sept. 11, I was confused. She dragged me to her television where I saw the same images you did, except with the newscaster speaking Russian or Ukrainian. Because of the eight-hour time difference, it was early evening, not morning.

But it was the same shock you felt. And that same helpless feeling.

So I dug four tiny American flags out of a box sent by some friends months ago and hung them around my apartment.

I never thought I would feel safer in Ukraine than America. But at that moment, I did. I still do.

Peace Corps instructed us to keep a low profile and continue working. Show the world we won't be intimidated by acts of hate.

The next day at the school where I teach English and economics, students swarmed around me. Some had learned to say, "I'm sorry for what happened to your country," in English.

They asked if anyone I knew was hurt. If this meant I had to go home. Is there really going to be World War III?

The teachers had questions, too. How could this happen in America where there are so many computers?

I taught a class on "future professions." Nobody picked pilot or flight attendant.

We talked about my friend, Reagan, who works as a flight attendant. How scared she must be these days.

Maybe she could come teach us, one student suggested, offering her couch. Still, life continued on. I wrote lesson plans.

Bought food for dinner at the bazaar. Stopped to buy a snack from a woman on the street.

While standing in line, she recognized me and screamed "Amerikanka," telling everyone to move out of the way. So much for keeping a low profile.

Is your family safe? she asked, hugging me so tight I almost fell over. When she handed me my change, she grabbed my other hand. I am so sorry, she said over and over, while filling it with sunflower seeds.

Neighboring Russia is no stranger to terrorism. A string of 1999 apartment-block bombings in Russia, which the Kremlin blamed on Chechen separatists, killed more than 300 people.

But even with all the support, the talk among Peace Corps volunteers is that home has never seemed so far away.

I empty my pockets at Internet Cafes trying to figure out what is happening in the United States.

(Peace Corps volunteers are supposed to live at the same level as the people we work with. While an hour of Internet time costs only about $1.50, it would buy six loaves of bread in Ukraine.) I read about the "new sense of community" in America. About how flags are sold out at Wal-Mart.

Road rage is gone in Chicago and strangers smile at you on the street, a friend wrote me.

And I realize I don't feel that same patriotism you feel in America.

Don't get me wrong. I want to. More than anything.

It just seems like something is happening, well, on the other side of world.

That patriotism is something some Ukrainians have always envied. They marvel at how we sing the National Anthem at baseball games and recite the Pledge of Allegiance every morning in schools.

Now more than ever, Ukrainians are talking about that patriotism that makes America great. But some fear it could go too far.

A Ukrainian friend in America wrote that he worries excessive patriotism can lead to xenophobia. Is the enemy terrorism or an authoritative government? he asks.

First, I got offended. But Ukrainians know what it is like to fight in Afghanistan.

They remember the mujahedeen resistance that drove Soviet forces to withdraw in 1989 after a decades-long occupation. They remember the tough terrain, the harsh weather and, most of all they remember the estimated 13,000 Soviet soldiers who lost their lives.

It was our Vietnam, they tell me.

Of course, none of this reflects the views of all Ukrainians, just a few in my little corner of the country.

Getting accurate information can be tough. A story in the English-language Kyiv Post talked about the "flurry of erroneous reports in the Ukrainian media made the disaster seem even worse."

A Web site, for example, reported planes crashed in Pennsylvania and another near Pittsburgh, apparently unaware Pittsburgh is in Pennsylvania.

So maybe I was partially right when I said, I am in Ukraine, what do I know? But you don't have to live out of the United States to be misinformed.

It was an American who told me the world doesn't need Peace Corps now, it just needs the Marine Corps.

Call me biased, but I think the world still needs both. America will take the lead in defining the world we want to see in terror's place.

Let's hope the security the military provides and the vision for world peace the Peace Corps offers are both a part of that future.

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“Sunset at the Railroad” by PCV Nicholas Baylor Hall. Namibia, 2011.