When Joel Wasserman moved to Ukraine about four years ago, he was excited to use his English teaching skills and knowledge of Russian and Ukrainian to help others in the Eastern European country.
Back then, much of the United States probably wasn’t focused on Ukraine. But now that Russia invaded the democratic nation last month, many Americans — and people around the world — are keeping a close eye on the Eastern European country.
Wasserman, 30, has been in Lviv in western Ukraine near the Polish border for about five weeks, acting as an interpreter and helping Ukrainians who have fled other cities and are trying to leave the country. He has done numerous interviews with national news.
Originally from Derwood, he graduated from Richard Montgomery High School’s International Baccalaureate program in 2010. In 2012 he was studying in Moscow and realized he wanted to learn more about this region of the world.
Then, in 2014, Russia invaded Crimea and Donbass in the east and south of the country. And Wasserman said he doesn’t want to live in Russia long-term.
He eventually moved back to the United States and earned a Certificate in Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages (TESOL) from Montgomery College in 2017.
He moved to Ukraine in March 2018.
Wasserman believes that many people – including Westerners – underestimated the will of Ukrainians to fight back after Russia invaded.
“People in this country were not ambivalent about being a country,” Wasserman said. “They knew they were Ukrainians. They often disagreed about which direction their country should go, but they knew they were Ukrainians.”
He said it’s important to remember that Ukrainians made a significant voluntary effort to fight Russia during the 2014 conflict in Donbass.
In Lemberg, which he described as “rebellious, self-confident, resilient”, he described the mood [and] under control” but also probably “pretty nervous under it all”.
The conflict in western Ukraine is not unfolding like in the north, east and south of the country, he said.
“We have air raid sirens every now and then, but I think people mostly ignore them now because … there haven’t been any air raids or missile attacks,” Wasserman said. “People are ready for this fight to continue.”
He reckons things could remain calm for a while. But that will change as poorer people try to flee Lviv and other areas.
“Life in this city is going to change because the people who initially got out were more the type of people who had cars or knew people who had cars that were waiting for a seat or could get a seat that was waiting for them she was waiting,” Wassermann said. “The next rounds, the next waves will be the people who haven’t had those things.”
Looking back on his time in Montgomery County, Wasserman said he saw it as an enrichment to his humanitarian work. He wasn’t fully immersed in immigrant communities in Montgomery County, but he recalls visiting a variety of ethnic restaurants, from Mexican and Salvadoran to Central American and others.
“We’re all human, and we’re all just trying to have pretty similar goals in life,” Wasserman said of that diversity. “And I hope the people of Montgomery County will remember that as they open their doors to Ukrainians who want to come to the United States.”
Steve Bohnel can be reached at [email protected]