[Flashback]: The Returned Volunteers: Byron + Denise Williams [Ukraine]

This article was originally posted in July 2016.

Byron had already completed one term of the Peace Corps and knew he wanted to serve again by the time he met Denise.  Luckily, the woman who would become his wife already had her own service aspirations. Here’s a glimpse into what the Peace Corps experience was like for this Las Vegas couple as they reflect on their time in the Eastern European nation of Ukraine.

Tell us about your background. Was travel part of your childhood?

Byron: Both of us grew up and met in Las Vegas, Nevada.  My mom, Shirley, moved out to Vegas when I was almost two to raise my younger sister and me.  For the most part, my mom’s family only traveled on four occasions: 1) when my grandpa relocated from Springfield, Tennessee to Fitchburg, Massachusetts for work with his family,  2) when older men in my family were in the armed forces, 3) when folks moved for work, and 4) for family reunions.  That means no in my opinion.  Keep in mind that international travel is fairly new for me too, but I quickly realized in high school Spanish class that someday I wanted to spend considerable stretches living and working beyond the United States.

Denise: I am the first in my family to really travel.  I attended a semester abroad at Oxford College in England and have also served on mission trips to Mexico.  Like Byron, though, my family doesn’t travel internationally.  My family’s roots are in Oklahoma but a lot of us live between Southern California and Las Vegas, Nevada.

How did you both come to the conclusion to join the Peace Corps together?

Byron: I had such an amazing time after my first Peace Corps service in Lesotho in 2005, that I knew that I would serve again in my lifetime. My first service in sub­-Saharan Africa really solidified my desire to be more aware of the world. When I met Denise she told me that she had the desire to serve in Peace Corps before we even met. After we had been married for a couple of years, we decided it was time for us to serve as a married couple. We had talked about wanting to serve in sub­-Saharan Africa since we had a strong desire to live and work on the continent together. We had also discussed working and/or retiring in Botswana so we were hoping to be placed there. I presented at a Peace Corps recruitment event in 2010 or 2011. Denise was in the audience supporting me while I shared  my experience of serving in Lesotho. After speaking with the Peace Corps recruiter who moderated the panel, Denise and I left that night with our minds and hearts set to begin our international journey as a married couple. Even though we weren’t assigned to an African country we accepted the option to serve in Ukraine. It was a much better experience than we thought it would be considering we initially had no desire to serve in Europe.

Describe your experience serving in Ukraine as a Black couple.

Byron: Many Ukrainians wanted to be our friends – many out of the novelty of befriending a Black American, others because of their sincere interest in us as people. I wear my hair loced, I’m dark-­skinned, I love playing basketball, and I can dissect music. I knew part of their attraction to me was picturing me as the stereotype of a black, American male. When we would go to the local grocery store as a couple sometimes we would draw a crowd as we spoke to to the deli counter attendees in Ukrainian since they had never seen or heard Black Americans speak their language.

One thing I considered was that I wanted people to see us as one.

I wanted people to know that we were here together and for women to know I had a wife and men to know Denise had a husband, especially with us being Black in a foreign country. It was an odd experience being ordinary people  but being in a place where people sometimes treated us like celebrities simply because we were the walking embodiment of an American cross-­section they hadn’t encountered in Ukraine. From adults sneaking selfies, to kids asking for pics and autographs to being asked to be in random wedding party photo sessions. It got tiresome real quick but we also took it for what it was worth: many eastern Europeans are curious about Black Americans. There were times, though when I intentionally made it difficult or impossible for people to include me in their shots if they didn’t respect me enough to at least ask or start a conversation.

I had little expectation of Ukraine since I admittedly knew very little about the former Soviet Union before our relocation. I knew the Soviet Union was more than Russia but in my head I only saw stereotypical Russia: weathered grimaces and cold, hard stares; unforgiving winters; and ballet and figure skating stars. When we got there it took Ukraine a while to grow on us but our host mother, Halyna, broadened our views to the enduring and compassionate side of the country. We took learning Ukrainian seriously as we knew language would be our best tool for safely integrating and gaining trust over the next two years. We also took the time to learn the language basics of the other countries we traveled to.

Image: Byron Williams
Image: Byron Williams

Denise: As a Black couple in Ukraine we stood out. We had people wanting to be our friends for all sorts of reasons. However, being together had its pluses and minuses. Whenever Byron got an invite I was invited, too, and vice versa. The minus about that was it seemed like we were a novelty. Unfortunately, we wouldn’t get invited to events like weddings and huge religious gatherings because we couldn’t blend in, because we were a novelty.

I think we adjusted well because we were mid-­career volunteers. Volunteering for little or no pay in your 30s may seem like career suicide, especially if you come from a family that didn’t have many financial opportunities.

But we just had the confidence that everything would work out once our service ended in Ukraine. As for me, I wasn’t looking to add Peace Corps to my resume. I was more into the cultural exchange aspect of being a volunteer.

Prior to being placed in our sector, we received great training so we had enough language to function in our city. Since it’s harder to place married couples in the Peace Corps, we were placed in the city because there were more organizations and schools than in a village setting. I was an English teacher at a comprehensive school and I primarily taught 3rd through 11th grade. My students were very welcoming and greeted me regularly throughout the day. My colleagues were helpful and we built wonderful friendships. In fact, without our colleagues much of the city would not have been accessible to us because of culture differences and communication getting lost in translation.

My school expected that Byron would help out with English classes and English language events and he did, giving presentations in some of my classes. I also helped with camps and classes at the university where he worked.  The teachers I worked with got to see how I reach students differently based on their learning style and how variation in class lessons helped students to retain and express skills they learned.  However, the biggest takeaway was being able to form bonds despite the cultural differences.

What did you learn in the process of living abroad as a couple?

Byron: I think we learned how much more communicating we needed to do to make sure we were on the same page – especially me communicating more. From learning the language, to planning summer camps for our institutions, to spending time with new friends, to talking about our work day. I realized I was working a lot and coming home either happy or frustrated but not sharing my days with Denise. I didn’t want my first Peace Corps service in Lesotho to paint Denise’s service in Ukraine, so I just didn’t talk much. That is not healthy for a marriage, especially one lived within a very small space, something akin to a studio apartment. When I realized I was doing both of us a disservice I turned myself around.

One other challenge was knowing how to handle blatantly racist incidents involving authority, especially  when Denise was at my side. There were times  I would think to myself, “You two need to get home safely and back to America safely. Is this situation worth attracting a lot of attention that might not end the way you want? Protect your wife, Byron.” There was only one incident on a cross­ country train where I lost my temper. We got home safely but it really stuck with me. We’re very level­headed together and Denise is great at keeping us focused as a couple.

Denise: Being black in a homogeneous, white, eastern European country that is the size of Texas has its challenges. I had never lived in a homogenous society before and it was strange that when I asked questions about how things were done – how Easter is celebrated, for instance,  I’d get the same answer from everyone young and old. This consistency was strange coming from the U.S. where everyone had their own twist on tradition. This wasn’t so in Ukraine. Of course I met individuals who were completely counter-­cultural, but that was mainly because they had traveled outside of Ukraine on several occasions. Their cross­-cultural experiences opened them up to doing things a different way. They were also very excited about spending time with Byron and me  because we reminded them that the world is a big place.

Another challenge was not hanging out exclusively with other expats. Although the expat community was important to learning about where you can get a taste of home away from home, we didn’t want to cheapen our experience abroad.

Being around other Americans was comforting from time to time, but Byron and I really enjoyed developing bonds and friendships with Ukrainians and made it a point to socialize with our Ukrainian friends.

I also learned that any place can become home. Although we love traveling and being tourists, living and working in a community is very different from just visiting a place and ticking everything on your to-do list. I think about Ukraine nearly everyday. I think about the people who worked in our building. I miss walking through the forest to get to school. I miss my colleagues and I want to celebrate when I hear about the new additions to their lives. It sometimes feels like I’m having the reverse experience since we’ve returned to the U.S.: instead of missing American friends, I miss my Ukrainian friends and students.

Image: Byron Williams
Image: Byron Williams

What’s one must have experience to have while in Ukraine?

Denise: If one is visiting Ukraine I’d recommend going to a local bazaar. It’s basically a farmer’s market, with in-season produce and other products from that region which are surprisingly fresh and cheap. But if I could add one more thing, which was a guilty pleasure, I’d recommend going to the Lviv Chocolate Company and buying a cup of melted chocolate.  Not hot chocolate, but melted chocolate. The shop is located in downtown Lviv, Ukraine in the western part of the country.  You’ll thank me later.

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