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.

Monday, March 20, 2017

Glimpses of Ukraine

Blog #6
March 20, 2017 

The buds on the trees are bulging.  Tulips are beginning to poke fresh leaves through rain-drenched soil.  The hope of spring is in the air as many people are raking winter debris off flower beds and garden plots.  Garden soil is being prepared for planting.  Some onions and potatoes are already in.  We are sorry that we will miss the amazing display of spring tulips and irises!

Despite these signs of hope we know that the war continues.  People express uncertainty about the future, because they know about the tragic losses of life and property that their fellow Ukranians have experienced in the eastern war zone.  Will it escalate?

We had the privilege of attending a Sunday service in the Schoensee Church, the church which the Faith and Life choir visited.  It was a chilly morning because the heat was turned off to save money, but it was obvious that the people came to worship and pray in reverence.  Many times we heard the phrase:  "Lord, have mercy."

Another occasion that reminded us of our choir tour in fall was a visit with Tanya and Yarislav of the Zaporozhye Music College.  Their warm welcome and their gratitude for the opportunity to join the choir with violin and cello in October, was evidence that this had been a highlight for them as well.  They told us of the cutbacks that the government is implementing in the music schools and we all lamented that too often it is the Arts programs that are affected first.  Anyone who has attended music concerts in Ukraine can attest to the high quality of instruction and performance that abounds here.

Mennonite Centre functions with a Canadian and a Ukranian board.  We met with our board here last Wednesday.  Unfortunately, some were unable to attend.  The members are pleased to be involved in an organization that seeks to assist their people.  We look to them for advice and feedback.

Prometei, the education program that assists children with autism and cerebral palsy, is expanding their influence.  Other schools are making inquiries.  Some of the students who entered the Prometei program at age 2 or 3 are now being integrated into regular school programs. Observing the interactions of the staff with the students is heartwarming to see, and parents are deeply grateful that their children are able to develop their potential.

A new venture for Mennonite Centre is the gifting of start-up funds for a business project.  A refugee family from Crimea is purchasing a village property for honey production and growing roses.  This was their livelihood in Crimea until the invasion and they were forced to flee.  We are pleased to help them become re-established and provide a living for their family.  His hopeful face expresses their gratitude to Canadian donors.

This blog will be the last one of our time in Ukraine.  As always, we along with many people in Ukraine remain grateful for the generous donations of our North American supporters.  For further information and opportunities to contribute please refer to the Mennonite Centre website:  www.mennonitecentre.ca.

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Near the War Zone

Blog #5

Last week we visited two villages about 60 km. from the war zone.  We travelled 4 hours to get there (about 200 km).  On the return our driver thought a different road would be better, but unfortunately it took 6 hours.  That added up to 10 hours of driving time for one day, but the inspiring visit with the church leaders in this region was worth the trip!

The pastors of the church spend time with the soldiers at the front line, offering counseling and friendship.  They spend the night with them and have gained their trust.  More soldiers die from alcohol poisoning and other causes than from combat.  The pastor spoke of the church being ill-prepared for the horrendous crisis facing the people in and near the war zone.  Young men are facing life and death decisions, families are losing their loved ones and their homes, and many people have lost their jobs.

Now the pastors tell us there is an awakening in the churches.  Denomination used to be important but now they see it as a miracle that churches across denominations are working together.  People are experiencing a vibrant faith because they see God at work.  To love God and their neighbor is the most important.

We saw two fine examples of this.  The church has purchased two properties with the help of the Mennonite Centre.  One home is being developed as a halfway house for released prisoners.  The men are learning building skills as they renovate the house and are being couselled as they adjust to living with others in the home and returning to function in society.  The other house is being developed as a rehabilitation centre for drug addicts.  There is much space for a garden, orchard, raising animals for food, and bee hives. 

In the next village we met Oksana who was involved with renovations of a building that was used for a church meeting place for about 40 people.  A bakery and coffee shop was being planned for the rest of the space.  They hope to open in April.  She had her workers lined up and ready to begin.  Some of the bread would be distributed free of charge in villages affected by the war that were suffering from lack of food and water.  We admired her strong spirit and willingness to provide hope for the people in the area.  We were all invited to her home for a wonderful meal, together with two of the pastors.  When we left her home we noticed a plaque beside the entrance:  "As for me and my house, we will serve the Lord!"  (Joshua 24:15)    

Tuesday, March 7, 2017

Melitopol, Part 2

Blog #4
March 7, 2017

Melitopol, Part 2

Father Peter, whose acquaintance we first made several years ago in connection with the restoration of the former Schoensee Mennonite Church, has his home base in Melitopol.  Here he serves his own parish and oversees several church plant projects in nearby villages.  In addition, he is assisting individuals with addiction issues.  His staff serves  60 to 80 homeless people with a daily soup kitchen lunch.  His infectious smile and warm personality exude the compassion he has for his people, especially those who are dealing with tragic circumstances.  Mennonite Centre will continue to offer financial support.
Following our visit with Father Peter in the morning of Feb. 23, we also met with Tima, a former Mennonite Centre scholarship recipient and graduate of the Melitopol Agricultural University.  Good jobs, even for good workers with a masters degree in agronomy, are difficult to obtain in Ukraine.  He would love to work on a farm in Canada.  
In the meantime, he would like to develop a small piece of property 
on the Sea of Azov that his father purchased a number of years ago.  Tima has already built a small hostel there and has ambitions to expand his services with a small take-out pizzeria with delivery
along with a few patio tables.  He is also providing taxi service with his own vehicle.

With much more limited access to the beaches of Crimea since Russia’s annexation in 2014, the Sea of Azov has become a popular vacation spot.  We are exploring ways to offer some start-up assistance for him.   Unfortunately, the early spring thaw softened the yard enough for him to get stuck in the mud.  A friendly neighbor with a sturdy tow-rope came to the rescue with only a set of ruts and a dirty car to show for it in the end!

Saturday, March 4, 2017

Health Care

Blog 3 2017
March 4, 2017

Health Care
Funding health care seems to be a universal concern.  This is especially true in Ukraine where serious injuries due to the on-going war in the Donbas region amplify existing deficiencies.  However, we were encouraged by the efforts of staff in the Zaporizhzhia Regional Hospital, the largest hospital in  the Oblast.  A ward of the hospital was being developed that focused on spinal and head injuries.  Not only does such a ward require specialized
 equipment, it also necessitates major renovations to accommodate wheelchair access into patient rooms and washrooms along with improved treatment and physiotherapy facilities.  As seems to be typical of many public buildings here, floors between rooms are not always at the same level and typical narrow doorways will often have a 2-5 cm threshold.  Some modifications are underway.   In the meantime, of course, they continue treating patients in the best way they are able.

A second facility we visited in Zaporizhzhia together with Dr. Art Friesen was a clinic called Friendly to Youth.  This clinic is affiliated with the local Children’s hospital, which, as its title suggests, focuses on diagnostic and prevention efforts in areas such as sexually transmitted diseases and addictions among young people.  The HIV AIDS epidemic in Ukraine is one of the fastest growing in the world, the highest rate in all of Europe, and is the 3rd top cause of death in Ukraine.  Such statistics make for a daunting task for this clinic and its four satellite clinics in the southern part of the oblast.  The Mennonite Centre continues to provide some assistance, primarily in the form of diagnostic materials. 

In the more rural areas such as Tokmak and Molochansk, the need for current, functional equipment is critical.  According to the WHO 2015 statistics, the life expectancy for males in Ukraine is 66 years and for females it is 76 years compared to 80 and 84 years respectively in Canada.  We met with the chief doctors of the Tokmak, Molochansk hospitals and the Molochansk Psychiatric hospital.    We heard the frustration of these people trying to cope in a country with depleted budgets, still fraught with corruption at many levels and struggling with a costly war in its eastern provinces.   The medical staff face massive, expensive challenges in delivering adequate health care.

Despite this, people are being helped.  Viktor & Valentina invited us for a meal in their home  in order to express their thanks for the help Mennonite Centre provided for his hip replacement surgery.  He was still recovering from the surgery but was thankful that his pain was gone.

Friday, February 24, 2017


Blog 2, February 2017

Melitopol is a cosmopolitan city located just 150 km. north of the Crimean border and about 60 km south of Molochansk.  Its current population is about 140,000 representing close to 100 different nationalities and ethnic groups.  In the last few years the city has absorbed some 7000 internally displaced persons, mainly from the war-torn Donbas region.  And yet, in the last 200 years there have been few serious incidents of ethnic or racial tension. 

On February 16 we spent a day meeting with several individuals.  Mihail Britsin, pastor of the Church of Grace has had previous contacts with the Mennonite Centre, including the recent 15th anniversary celebrations in October.  The congregation has been in existence for more than 100 years, even throughout the difficult Stalin era when it functioned underground.  Today the church has 650 members and is active in collaborating with other church groups and social agencies in providing assistance for the refugees.  He sees Canada and Canadians as being in a unique position to offer constructive assistance to Ukraine by modelling sound democratic principles and practices.  The congregation would welcome more collaborative initiatives with Canadian churches and colleges in projects like teaching English or running summer camping programs.

Over lunch we met with Svetlana, a music instructor at the Melitopol Pedagogical University.  She is currently working on a dissertation on the development of music, especially choral singing among the Mennonites in Russia (Ukraine) during the late 19th and early 20th centuries.  Perhaps someone could recommend some resources she could access in the Russian language, preferably on line. 

Our day ended with a visit with Viktor, a retired German professor from the Melitopol Pedagogical University.  We first met him eleven years ago on our first trip to Ukraine.  Since then he has been eager to meet with us at the Mennonite Centre every time we come.  This time, since we were already in Melitopol, he invited us to his tiny one-bedroom apartment, filled with overflowing bookshelves.  Most books, of course, were in Russian and Ukrainian, but also some in German and English.  Writings by authors like Charles Dickens, Jack London, and Shakespeare are
part of his library.  He particularly enjoys looking for pithy sayings or proverbs from various genres of literature.  Viktor is of Orthodox background and we have enjoyed discussions about various topics concerning religion and the centrality of the Christian faith.  Being late in the afternoon already, he refused to let us leave before sharing a bowl of borscht with us at a nearby restaurant. 

While much of our time in Ukraine is spent on the more practical aspects of various projects of the Mennonite Centre, days like this provide stimulating connections and interactions on a different level.