Tuesday, March 19, 2019

BLOG # 1  2019
Back to Ukraine

Even though it is hard to say good-bye to our children and grandchildren, we are always warmly welcomed by our friends and co-workers here in Ukraine.  Not only was the welcome warm, but also the weather.  Having come from a world of deep snow and blizzards, it is a treat to see green grass, swelling buds on trees, and early spring flowers.  We see people walking with rakes and hoes to their “dachas” (gardens).  Apparently some have already planted potatoes, in order to take advantage of the spring moisture.

We flew directly into Zaporoschye with Polish Airlines instead of to Dnepro, saving us one and half hours of additional travel by road.  Unfortunately they left one of our checked bags somewhere along the way and we had to pick it up 3 days later.

In the first 4 days at the office, we have already had many requests for assistance from schools for repairs, and pleas from individuals for medical help.   We are always impressed with the dedication of teachers and parents to look after the upkeep of their schools.  The government does not cover maintenance costs and so those are left up to the community.  Often Mennonite Centre helps pay for supplies while teachers and parents provide the labor.

Again we are seeing the insurmountable expense for individuals who need chemo treatments or surgeries.  Many have already exhausted all other possible resources for funding and then come to the Centre for help.  Just this morning we received the heartfelt thanks from a woman whose husband received funding for his third round of chemo.  We wish you, our donors, could have heard her expressions of gratitude.

Today we were invited to visit a school on the other side of the Molotschna River.  These are villages that originally belonged to the German Lutheran population.  Mennonite Centre had assisted this school with several projects in recent years, such as windows, small chairs for the Kindergarten, lighting, internet installation, and a dividing wall to facilitate two Kindergarten classes.  The principal proudly explained, in German, all the benefits to their school.  Students are taught German and English.  Then we were invited to a lovely lunch as their way of saying “Thank-you”.

Our seven week stay in Ukraine is quickly filling up with visits to check on various projects, those already completed as well as new requests for assistance.  We are also making plans for an annual Ukrainian Mennonite Centre board meeting, a legal requirement for registered charities in Ukraine. 

Tuesday, April 17, 2018

Blog # 6
April 17, 2018
Spring is advancing quickly here.  Many trees and shrubs are  dressed in white and we’re thankful that it is not snow.  The blossoms are filling the air with their perfume.   

We spent several days with Drs. Art & Marlyce Friesen visiting hospitals and other medical projects.  Reforms are being planned, beginning with Level 1 or primary care.  These began on April 1st and will continue for the next 2 years.  These will be followed by reforms in levels 2 and 3.  Sadly, some of the changes that need to happen are not coming soon enough.  One hospital reported losing 7 doctors because the salaries are so low.  Professionals are leaving for other European countries and taking jobs there that are unrelated to their training because they can make a better living.  Unfortunately, young professionals are the people Ukraine needs to improve life here.

Dr. Irina served the people at the Mennonite Centre for many years, but she has now left for Italy.  We are pleased that Dr. Petrovna, a pediatrician, will be filling her position.  She has lived in Molochansk most of her life and is well known among the local people.

When we met with the chief doctor in the Shiroke Territorial Region there was a much more positive attitude towards the reforms.  We sensed a good working relationship between her and her nursing staff.  During our conversation they were all crowded into the doorway and      participating in the discussion.

When we visited the rehab unit in the Zaporizhzhye Oblast Hospital, we met several recently trained physiotherapists, eager to learn the most recent treatment procedures.  They were telling us of a training program being offered online followed by a practicum at a hospital in Lviv.  The instructors were from North America.   They were very interested, but the cost was prohibitive for them.  Mennonite Centre will pay the tuition for one student, who will then be qualified to teach the others.  Anya, a mother of a five-year old daughter, will receive this training.

Last night we had a wind-up barbecue with our staff.  We are always sorry we can’t communicate directly, but we treasure their friendships and are pleased that they support each other.  They appreciate that they are able to work at the Mennonite Centre and we value their services.
Our term in Ukraine is quickly coming to an end.   We are always saddened to bid farewell to our friends here.  Those connections have enriched our lives!  We are repeatedly told how the Mennonite Centre, supported by Canadians, has enriched theirs.   

Wednesday, April 11, 2018

Blog  # 5

April 9, 2018

Spring in Molochansk is a welcome sight!  The early spring blossoms are appearing, even the bees are buzzing!  The tree buds are swelling and we are eagerly anticipating the sight of new green leaves.

Many seniors in this area are also anticipating that sight.  Mennonite Centre has purchased 1605 pairs of glasses since that project began for seniors.  Dr. Tatyana Krasovskya, an optometrist, comes to the Centre twice per month and examines 10 – 12 persons each time.  Another frequent request is for assistance for cataract surgery, a total of 19 last year.  The cost of this surgery has increased 75% in the last year! 

  Many of us have experienced the benefit of eye glasses or cataract surgery, but in Ukraine many seniors do not have funds for these services.  Your generosity enables Mennonite Centre to give the gift of sight to many people here.  We wish you could have heard the gratitude and excitement in the voice of the gentleman in the photo, with repeated expressions to the staff: “I can SEE you!  I can SEE you!”

There is a large Psychiatric Hospital in Molochansk with 170 patients at this time.  Many of them are dealing with alcoholism, a problem that has increased here since the war began.  Some are dealing with TB which is also on the increase.  During our visit we checked out some kitchen equipment, which they were asking us to replace.  We also distributed packages of Easter treats, prepared by our staff, to give out to the patients.  Many were very appreciative.

Sergei Lokotkov is the director of the Tokmak Music School and of the Rhapsody Choir.  When we spoke to him last year regarding the territorial changes that are underway in Ukraine, he was quite discouraged, fearing that the local music schools would be closed.  Since then he has become involved in the Ministry of Culture in Kiev.  This enables him to have a better understanding of what is happening at the government level, as well as influence some of the decision making. He is now much more optimistic that the Music Schools will continue.  No doubt there will be changes in the way the curriculum is set up, but as he said, when we get too comfortable in the way we do things, it is time to make changes. They expect to admit adults as well, and are planning classes for choirs, an orchestra, as well as English language studies.  We have always been impressed with the quality of instruction we have observed here in the music schools.  Promotion of the Arts is an important component in building a nation.   

This past week we also received a visit from Dr. Troyan.  Mennonite Centre has aided his hospital in Vladovka for many years.  He did not seem optimistic, however, about the territorial changes and how they would affect the medical field.  There is no mistaking who has entered the building when Dr. Troyan is around, because when he speaks his huge booming voice fills the room.   His voice may sound intimidating but he has a soft heart for the needy persons in his community.  He came to the Mennonite Centre requesting medical help for a 50-year old man who had fled from Crimea.  He was extremely poor, lacked official documents, and needed hip surgery.
  A second request was for a young couple whose 2-year old child was suffering from a broken hip.  The family had very little income and desperately needed help.

This weekend we celebrated Easter in Ukraine.  At midnight on Saturday evening Orthodox believers gather for the Easter service, bringing their paska and eggs to be blessed by the priest.  The embroidery in the photo features the Russian words for the joyous greeting of Easter:  “Christ has risen.  He has risen indeed!”  This was a gift of gratitude from a teacher who was assisted by the Mennonite Centre.

The Easter service in the local Mennonite Church featured a drama and songs of praise from the youth group and their leaders.  Many times during the morning the traditional Russian Easter greeting was exchanged.  We were inspired when during our long afternoon walk in the village, we were able to exchange this greeting with some of the people we met.

Tuesday, April 3, 2018

Blog # 4
April 3, 2018

We spent several days in the Zaporizhzhye area visiting various people for whom Mennonite Centre has provided assistance.

Our meeting with a Seniors’ art and dance group was quite delightful!  They meet biweekly for art and dance instruction, and, of course, fellowship.  Our Centre assisted with art supplies and some costuming.  We were warmly welcomed by the group, who wanted to hear our personal stories and about our connection to the Mennonites.  They responded with questions and stories of their own.  We appreciated the emotional support they were providing for each other, such as for a gentleman who had just lost his wife and towards one of the women dealing with a cancer diagnosis.  Tatyana, their leader, a believer, cared genuinely for these people and had established a very positive environment.

On Saturday we drove out to a nearby village to visit the Prodnikov family.  They escaped from Crimea during the Russian takeover, leaving behind their property and many possessions.  He is a bee farmer and generous Canadian donors have provided the family with bee hives, assistance to purchase land and renovate a small house.  They produced 200 kilos of
honey last year from 16 newly established hives and hope to expand their operation.  They are still struggling with finding a better market for their honey as well as for the roses they are growing on their land.  Mennonite Centre assisted with medications for their 3-year old
son who was suffering from a severe rash and allergic reactions.
He is doing much better now.  Unfortunately, the financial assistance provided by the Ukrainian government for Internally Displaced Persons is now being clawed back, adding another challenge to a family trying to establish a new life for themselves.

The next day we observed a swimming class at the Zaporizhzhye Classical University.  One of the instructors was a former Olympic athlete who had participated in Athens and Beijing.  She, together with another teacher, is dedicated to working with physically challenged children.  Mennonite Centre had provided some equipment for use in the pool.  We were interested to observe Nikolai, a young boy who had lost both legs from the knee down and part of one arm due to a grenade explosion.  That accident had hit the news and so Olga Rubel, Mennonite Centre’s manager in Zaporizhzhye, had gone to the hospital to inquire how we could help.   Mennonite Centre paid for some of the initial treatment in Ukraine.  Following that, with funding from other sources, he has received prosthesis for both legs in Canada. He loves to swim and is progressing very well, participating in local and state competitions.  Perhaps someday he will compete in the Para Olympics!

We met Yuri and Natasha on Sunday morning.  Both former drug addicts, they now share the love of God with the homeless, drug addicts, and the
terminally ill.  They feed about 200 people three times per week of which Mennonite Centre covers about half the cost.  Their charity:  “Love without Boundaries” is appropriately named.  We have met few people who follow Jesus’ teaching and example of love as closely as this couple!

Through our work at the Mennonite Centre we meet many people facing various challenges.  We also get to see people responding in helpful ways, often with the financial assistance of agencies such as ours.  Thanks for your part in meeting needs in Ukraine. 

Tuesday, March 27, 2018

Blog #3
March 27, 2018

Each time we visit Ukraine, new experiences await us.  This time we have been overwhelmed with requests from mayors, museum curators, students and teachers, to tell the Mennonite story.  Sometimes the question has simply been:  “Who are the Mennonites?”  Other times they have asked for our personal stories, how our families are connected to Ukraine.  This has been an exciting development for us to experience.

Mennonite Centre
On Sunday afternoon the Tokmak and Molochansk mayors, Tokmak Museum staff and a group of about 20 students visited the Mennonite Centre.  Dave gave an overview of Mennonite history from the 1500’s until the time when our families emigrated from Ukraine.  They seemed very interested and were adding this event to a video they were entering into a history competition.  The purpose of the competition was to research the history of their particular region, and learn about the past in the area in which they live.

Shirokoye (Neuendorf)
We were warmly welcomed at the “Palace of Culture” in Shirokoye  on March 22 with the traditional bread and salt.  Various officials, school principal, and students from villages of that region were present.  Here we also gave the history presentation and shared our stories.  We were extremely pleased to hear the personal stories of two of the local women whose grandmothers had had contact with Mennonites.

Olena told of her grandmother and her two children, ages 3 and 6,  who were extremely poor.  She had lost her husband and four children.  They were without food, trying to stay warm in a pile of straw, feet bound with cloth because they had no shoes.  Out of desperation they came to the home of a Mennonite family, who  shared what little they had with them, saving them from starvation.

A deputy, Irina, shared the story of her grandmother whose parents were killed, leaving five children.  The parents had Mennonite friends who took in her grandmother when she became orphaned and was very ill.  They loved her and treated her as one of their own.  She grew up in that family, learned how to prepare their traditional foods, and was given a Singer sewing machine as a wedding gift.  Because she had become fluent in the German language, she was asked to interpret for the German soldiers, which helped to save her life.  Her ‘adopted’ brothers, who had eventually moved to Germany, returned to visit Irina’s grandmother.  As a little girl, Irina remembers receiving a doll as a gift, which she still treasures today.

Boris Letkeman, the director of the Mennonite Family Centre in Zaporizhzhia, also shared his heart-wrenching story.  Boris is a Mennonite who never left Ukraine and loves his country dearly.  Before he was born his father was taken from the family.  His mother and brothers retreated with the German soldiers to Germany, but were sent back,   not to their former home but to a concentration camp in Siberia.  Unbelievably, there they were re-united with their father after many years.   This was where Boris was born.  Life was difficult beyond imagining!  Many people froze to death.  His father was a good mechanic and so his life was spared.  Without their faith they could not have survived.  Boris encouraged the young people to trust God and love each other, saying that this is the only way.

School # 90, Zaporizhzhia
A third event took place at School # 90.  Students and teachers from 17 schools were invited to participate.  Again we and Boris L. shared our stories.  Many students brought questions they had prepared but others approached us after the meeting.  They asked questions about Mennonite faith, traditional foods, what are the requirements for church membership, where is there a Mennonite Church, etc.

Why this interest?  From what we understand the Soviet system systematically restricted information about the minority groups that lived here prior to World War Two.  The history of the Mennonite villages was not available to the people for decades.   A keen interest is developing which is being fostered at many levels.


Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Blog #2
March 20, 2018

One of the areas of Mennonite Centre assistance has been in education.  Over the years the Centre has purchased computers, classroom and sports equipment, and helped pay for various building repairs.  We have now had opportunity to visit several schools and are becoming aware of significant progressive educational reforms. 

Grade one has already been shifted to the regular schools out of the kindergarten facilities, creating space for younger children in the daycare facilities.   Beginning with next year’s cohort of grade one students, school curricula will shift from an 11 year program to a 12 year program.    Along with that teachers are mandated to shift from a didactic approach to a participatory/investigative and integrated  
approach in classroom instruction to tweak students’ interest in learning.  Many of these changes are welcomed, particularly by younger teachers, but, not surprisingly, there is also resistance to change.  Frequently, government mandated changes require upgrading equipment and learning resources, but the necessary funds are not available.

Some of the reforms also require consolidation, closing small village schools and busing students to larger centers.  Of course, this requires reducing staff and busing is a formidable challenge on rural Ukrainian roads!  While reforms are essential, they tend to come with price tags, financial as well as emotional.

Our days are often filled with hearing requests for assistance and visiting proposed or completed projects.  Frequently we are also privileged to hear expressions of gratitude.  This individual walked several kilometers to pick up medications that the Centre had purchased for him and his mother and to personally express his thanks.  We remind recipients that their gratitude belongs to many Canadians who have contributed funds.  So, “spasiba bolshoi”!  (a big thank you from him, and many more,  to you!)  

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

2018  Blog # 1
Back in Ukraine

We are thankful for our safe arrival.  After uneventful flights our trip to Molochansk had some challenges.  The potholes have grown in size and multiplied while we were away, so travel by road is increasingly challenging.  Unfortunately one of those holes resulted in 2 left-side flat tires.  Our driver replaced one with the spare.  After straightening the rim and pumping up the second tire, we made it home.  Ira’s tasty borscht made us feel truly welcomed.

March 8th was International Women’s Day which seems to have much greater importance here than back home.  Schools and government businesses are closed.  Shops take advantage of the extra shopping that people do for holiday events.   
Oksana was honored at a Tokmak celebration as a female director of a charity organization.  About 20 women were honored from various professions.  Along with flowers and certificates, there was also music from various performers.

On Saturday the local Mennonite Church had organized a special program for women and girls.  Tables were beautifully decorated in pastel colors, with candles and treats.  The program included games, music, and presentations by two very capable young female leaders.  The youth served tea, ran the sound system, and helped with the preparations and clean-up.

March 12 we traveled to Melitopol to meet  with Father Peter.   We observed the soup  
kitchen in action, serving about 80 people per day. Mennonite Centre helps fund this.   He described how his staff becomes involved with projects that utilize their particular gifts and abilities.  The cook, for example, has a real heart for single mothers, and responds to their needs.  One of the male staff is a skilled carpenter and assists with various building projects. 

Father Peter was eager to share      about his dream for a neighboring
village.  Six years ago they built a 
church there which is the only church in the village.  

Cheap housing is available and so they have provided an apartment for a needy single mother with 4 young children. We enjoyed seeing the children’s joyful response to Father Peter and Father Sasha when we came for a visit.  They hope to provide other homeless families with  housing in the future.

The friendship between Mennonite Centre and Father Peter continues to grow as we seek to extend God's love to others.