Pittsburgh native returns from Peace Corps and helps refugees

Pittsburgh native returns from Peace Corps and helps refugees

High school graduates often venture far from home. But not many travel to Uganda. Julian Hricik, a Pittsburgh native and Pittsburgh Allderdice High School graduate, did just that, but only after a short detour to California.

Following graduation from Allderdice, Hricik attended the University of Southern California, where he majored in biology. He wanted to become a doctor but shortly before graduating changed plans.

“I had decided I didn’t want to go to medical school and didn’t know what to do in the meantime,” said Hricik.

He began exploring various options.

“I wanted to learn about another culture,” he said.

Hricik also loved to travel.

Coupling these interests, he joined the Peace Corps, a volunteer program run by the United States government, and headed to Uganda. Stationed in Sembabule, a town located in the Sembabule District in the Central Region of Uganda, Hricik spent most of his 26-month stint teaching science to high school students. Covering both labs and lectures, Hricik instructed his 70 to 80 students on the principles of biology and chemistry.

“The resources were pretty minimum. There was no electricity,” said Hricik.

Additionally, most of the materials were dated.

Every five years, the Ugandan government would send a shipment of lab supplies to each school, said Hricik. But by the time that Hricik had arrived, “many of the supplies were expired,” and the equipment was “starting to become old and run down.”

Refusing to accept such disappointment, Hricik improvised. “We had to jerry-rig some things, but we made it work.”

When Hricik’s school lacked money for gas to operate Bunsen burners, Hricik decided to use kerosene stoves for conducting heat. His ingenuity and dedication were met with appreciation from the school and its students.

“Nobody at the school had been teaching them practical science so they were really excited to be in the lab and do hands-on things,” he said.

Hricik quickly learned the value of his efforts: “Teachers are very highly respected there because it’s hard for the average person to get a good education.”

The difficulty in achieving a quality education in Uganda stems from an archaic system with minimal funding and a lack of supplies, such as public electricity, said Hricik, who added, “Ugandan teachers don’t get paid on time or paid enough. People were really surprised that someone would come from a place like the U.S. and spend two years doing something like that.”

Hricik often told his Ugandan students that “a part of American culture is giving back and helping people with less. I also tried to tell them that even though I was there teaching, there was a lot [for me] to learn from them.”

Following his service, Hricik returned to Pittsburgh six months ago. Since that time he has kept busy by working with refugees, the Red Cross and providing in-home health care.

These activities are “not really related” to his work in Uganda but “an extension,” said Hricik. “I wanted to continue working with an international population. Having been abroad, it’s interesting to see what it’s like for international people to make a life here.”

He said that it is almost the reverse of what he felt in Uganda.

“When you’re in the Peace Corps, you have to adjust to a new culture, new language and new lifestyle,” he said.

For refugees to the United States, acclimating to life here is a definite struggle and something that Hricik has noticed during his brief employment with Jewish Family & Children’s Service of Pittsburgh.

Since August, Hricik has worked with the JF&CS employment team to help refugees find work.

Often, refugees have to take jobs which do not require much education or English speaking abilities. Accordingly, many work in hotels doing housekeeping or industrial laundry, said Hricik.

He said that his involvement with the refugees is “pretty basic.” He helps with phone calls and ensures that everything at work is all right.

“For the most part, there are no complaints [from the refugees] because people need jobs for child care or rent.”

Though he might consider his efforts simple, Hricik finds purpose in the work.

“I think the No. 1 thing I learned is how important it is to listen to people when they are talking about their needs,” he said. “Especially when it comes to development work; communities know what they need and have a pretty good idea of how it should be done.”

Adam Reinherz can be reached at adamr@thejewishchronicle.net.

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