For Daniela Spencer ’12, Returning to Kiev Marks a “Homecoming”

Daniela Spencer was born in Kiev, Ukraine but left when she was five years old. This summer she pitched in to help a struggling Jewish Community Center in her birthplace and, in the process, “came home” for the first time. Read his story here, the sixth in a series of articles profiling CMC students and their summer internships.

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Name: Daniela Spencer

Major: Philosophy, Politics and Economics (PPE) and Spanish

Summer Internship: The Jewish Community Center in Kiev, Ukraine. Part of her duties will be working on The Festival of Hope or Nadezhda, which speaks out against xenophobia, wars and terrorism. Other duties for the JCC include speaking to the press for the “Day of Israel,” searching for grants that would enable the JCC to fund its various projects, working with the Chernobyl museum on translations and at the Holocaust center with people who had witnessed the horrors of World War II firsthand. Daniela’s internship was funded through a grant from the Center for Human Rights Leadership.

Future Plans: “I have always wanted to be an attorney. I grew up with stories about corrupt governments and injustice. Before all else, I believe in the American Legal tradition. Living in Kiev finally gave me a chance to experience the stories that I had been told: of innocent people locked up without trial; of policemen taking advantage of their badge; and of unwritten rules that make all the difference. After graduation, I plan on going to law school to specialize in international law. With my knowledge of Spanish and Russian, as well as my previous experience working with the Human Rights Center, I hope to have a chance to make a long-term impact.”

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CMC: You were born in Kiev and lived there until you were five. Is this a homecoming of sorts for you and how do you feel about returning to your “hometown”?

Daniela: When I arrived in Kiev and stepped into the airport, my first instinct was to panic. I speak Russian at home with my family, because I only arrived to America in 1995. Russian had been the official language in Ukraine for so long that everyone spoke it instead of Ukrainian. I visited Kiev once when I was 12 and I remember almost everyone speaking Russian still. Now, after the last president, a nationalistic sentiment spread through the country, and Ukrainian was everywhere. I was terrified. I was in a country I didn’t remember trying to understand a language I never knew.

CMC: What are your memories of Kiev before you emigrated?

Daniela: I can remember going to preschool, or going down every day to swing at the playground. I remember the zoo and the beach, but my memories don’t bind me to Kiev. They are only a child’s recollection. Nevertheless, coming back to Kiev was exactly like coming home. When I was growing up in the states, I was constantly teased for having a funny accent and bringing food to school that no one had ever heard of. I wanted to be normal like everyone else, but I didn’t know how. I ate Russian food at home, and couldn’t stand American food. My family was loud and nosy and constantly interfering in my life; I understood that everyone else’s family didn’t act this way, but I didn’t know anything different. Then I arrived in Kiev, and I felt like I had come home. Here, everyone speaks like I’m used to, eats the food that I had at home, and interacts with each other in a manner that I remember. Everyone here is loud, nosy and interfering. People ask me where I was born, and I can name a suburb and they nod in recognition. I buy food at the market, and shopkeepers discuss recipes with me. After 15 years of living in a country where I never quite fit in, I finally belong.

CMC: What was the reason for your family’s emigration from Russia?

Daniela: During communism, everyone was supposed to be equal and practicing a religion was forbidden. Nevertheless, my mother’s passport proclaimed her ethnicity as Jewish. She graduated at the top of her class, but wasn’t accepted to any top universities. My grandmother was born in Tajikistan; her ethnicity was Tajik. My mother changed her last name, and received a new passport with her “new and improved” ethnicity. She was accepted to university two weeks later.

My family thought the end of communism would bring an end to anti-Semitism, but it didn’t change anything. The country was still deeply Orthodox and we just didn’t belong. Anti-Semitism grew worse and we moved as soon as our visa went through. I was the first person in my family to get a Bat-mitzvah and the first to get into a university on my own merits. We moved so that I could have a chance.

CMC: What skills do you hope to gain from the internship?

Daniela: I don’t know if I could qualify what I learned into specific skills. It seems almost irrelevant to attempt to quantify my experiences that way. I learned a little bit of Ukrainian and how to speak to the press, but mostly, this internship forced me to develop the skills that I already had. When I worked as assistant director at the Festival of Hope, I often wished that I had my own assistant. I was constantly doing two or three things at once, and having to find creative solutions to different problems. In short, I learned to juggle. It seemed that everything that could go wrong, did. Costumes were missing, people arrived late or checked in at a different stage, some groups ran long and some groups couldn’t fill up their time, lunches were usually missing, and someone was usually complaining. As the assistant director, I listened to them all. I discovered an endless amount of patience, and tenacity that allowed me to persevere until the job is done.

CMC: Did you experience any personal epiphanies living and working in Kiev?

Daniela: Mostly, my jobs taught me about the city of Kiev and myself. I never considered myself an idealist until I came to Kiev. I didn’t realize it, but I wanted to make a quantifiable difference. I wanted to measure what I had achieved, and I realized that I couldn’t do that in 3 months. My internship allowed me to work in a different place every two weeks, but that meant that I could never have a huge impact on anything.

CMC: Any drawbacks?

Daniela: The center was not nearly as successful as they could have been. They publish a cultural newspaper, and have a summer camp where scholars of all ages and ethnicities can visit to learn from each other. At one point, they had Sunday schools which taught dance, gymnastics, chess, languages, etc. However, like every non-profit organization they struggle with finding the funding to finance these programs. The state doesn’t particularly feel like funding Jewish
community centers, despite their stance against anti-Semitism. However, since they are not entirely a Jewish center, they don’t qualify for purely Jewish funding from the orthodox synagogue. Therefore, I have rolled up my sleeves, and volunteered to search for funds. It’s not quite the immediate affect that I had been hoping for, and at times it’s monotonous and time consuming, but I’m the only person who has enough English to wade through all the
foundations from Israel, England, and America and try to figure out a way of saving the organization that I have grown very fond of.

CMC: Have education or skills gained (or mentoring) from CMC been helpful to you in your internship, and if so, how?

Daniela: At CMC, I took Professor Pitney’s Honors Government class and his class gave me a lot of insight of the struggles non-profit organizations face with government power. His class gave me a preemptive look at the troubles that the JCC faces with funding. Additionally, CMC enabled me to rapidly grasp the different aspects of my job in Kiev; balancing a multitude of classes, activities, and work at CMC forced me to develop the time-management skills that were required for my internship.