Saturday, 7 November 2015

WEEK 5 FAREWELL TO MOLOCHANSK

Our time in Molochansk at the Mennonite Centre is over.  We leave on Sunday for Kyiv where we have a number of meetings.  From Kyiv, we leave on November 11 for Vilnius Lithuania to visit a friend at the Lithuanian Christian College.  Our time has gone by too quickly.  We have many memories to take home with us. 

It is always a challenge to work in a different culture and to communicate primarily through interpreters.  We have learned to cope with this over our four terms, but we keep on experiencing new situations. 

Mary has observed the many seniors arriving for our three weekly lunches that are provided at the Mennonite Centre.  Being a nurse by profession she wondered about the how clean their hands were and the danger of spreading flus and colds in the dining room.  Her simple solution was to suggest that we attach a container of hand sanitizer to the wall near the entrance to the dining room.  This led to some interesting discussions.  Our staff thought this was totally ridiculous.  Water would be splashed all over the floor and there would be a terrible line up at the dining room door.  They obviously did not understand the concept and thought we were suggesting a full hand washing station at the entrance.  Also, no one knew where to get any of this strange solution that we referred to as hand sanitizer.

Our next idea was to discuss this with a doctor and get their take on the concept of providing hand sanitizer to our guests.  Mary started off the discussion by explaining that hand sanitizer is available at all entrances to hospitals in Canada and that visitors are encouraged to use it to help prevent the spread of germs.  We got no further than that when the doctor declared the suggestion totally impractical.  Their office was already full of equipment because they had to share the space with a dentist and all the related dental equipment and they had no room for any additional equipment to dispense hand sanitizer.  Our biggest disappointment was in the lack of any curiosity on the part of the doctor to understand what we were trying to say.  We have no idea where the breakdown in communications occurred.  Was it our inability to articulate the solution, were our words properly translated, or did the doctor really not comprehend.  If you take the discussion literally, the bottom line is that there will be no hand sanitizer dispensers at the Mennonite Centre because the doctor’s office, back at the hospital, is full of dental equipment.  The real bottom line is that the seniors coming for lunch might not understand the concept any better and would refuse to use the product.

Our next example of a difference in culture comes from the care of seniors in personal care homes or hospitals.  Our organization does not operate a senior’s home but we are a major contributor to the privately operated home in Kutuzovka, our neighbouring village.  They used to share a building with the local Mennonite Church but now each has their own facility.  Molochansk Mennonite Church still has a close involvement with this senior’s home and provides funds as well as negotiates on their behalf for support from organizations such as ours.  The senior’s home is blessed to have a missionary from Germany by the name of Lilli Buss as the manager.  She was born in Russia, with Mennonite ancestry on her mother’s side and moved to Germany as a youngster.  She brings “strange foreign” practices to the work.  We were talking to Lilli and she complained of the state of health of people they were receiving from hospitals.  One lady came with many bed sores.  For Mary as a nurse, no hospital should be discharging patients with bed sores.   We learned that the nursing staff in hospitals see their work as dispensing medication – not providing individual care to patients.  If patients need to be turned to avoid bed sores, this is the responsibility of the family.  If family is not available the patient has to pay someone to have this done.  If they have no money, then they have to accept the fact that life is tough.  At the senior’s home in Kutuzovka, Lilli ensures that patient care is given to avoid bed sores.  This is the responsibility of the nursing staff at the facility. This is a new concept in Ukraine.  Thank goodness for some “strange foreign” practices being introduced.  As a supporter of the Kutuzovka Senior’s Home, the Mennonite Centre would like to support the continued improvement in care being given to seniors at this facility.
Seniors Enjoying a Game at the Kutuzovka Home

At our first Sunday service at the Molochansk Mennonite Church, they held a joint conference of all Mennonite churches operating in our area.  There were attendees from Berdjansk, Balkavoya, Kherson, Zaporozhye, and Nikolaipol.  The church was packed.  The pastor of our church decided to mark this important occasion by turning his back on the congregation and taking a selfie (yes that word has been incorporated into the Russian language).  It was a unique way of documenting an important event.  I just happened to have my camera in church that day and recorded the event from my perspective.

In previous visits we always had a special outing for the staff.  We would take them out for some fine dining (their choice was McDonald's) and a classy cultural event (again their choice was bowling and roller blading).  This time we could not find a good time slot to go out so we invited all staff to our apartment for a party.  We served them a non-Ukrainian dish of chicken stir fry on rice with a more traditional cabbage salad.  We showed the staff some pictures of our families back home and tried to give them some idea of what life is like in Canada.  Oksana was very busy interpreting all evening.  There was a lot of laughter. Mary and I feel a real bond with the staff.  It really feels like one big family at the Mennonite Centre.
Mary with some Staff Members

This may be my last blog.  Depending on time constraints, I may send one more, but I in case I don’t, I would like to say that it has been a pleasure to share our time in Ukraine with you.


If you wish to know more about the work of the Mennonite Centre, you can check out our web site at: http://www.mennonitecentre.ca/ or follow our daily activities on Facebook at: https://www.facebook.com/Mennonite-Centre-Ukraine-735361069838076/


Saturday, 31 October 2015

WEEK 4 CONFERENCE ON AUTISM

I completed my last blog by speculating as to what I was going to say at an upcoming conference dealing with special needs children and being attended by pediatricians, psychologists, and specialized children’s workers.  The conference had a special focus on autism.  I was not asked to be a speaker; I was “informed” that I would be speaking.

The desire to hold this conference came from the Promitei Centre, a local institution in Zaporozhye that looks after special needs children, and an NGO group “Unity” that advocates for changes in Ukraine to improve the life of its citizens.  The Mennonite Centre has worked closely with both groups.  The Mennonite Centre agreed to sponsor this conference at a cost of 20,000 greevna.  That is $1150.00 Cdn or $875.00 US at today’s exchange rate.  This money covered the cost of bringing in a speaker from Kyiv, paying the transportation costs of those attending, as well as covering the cost of the venue and the food.  As the sponsoring organization it was quite proper that a representative from the Mennonite Centre get to welcome the guests and give a context as to why this conference was being held.

The objective of the conference was to get doctors to make an earlier diagnosis of autism and then provide an environment where children with this diagnosis could learn social and life skills.  From one of the speakers at the conference I learned that there is still a tendency from Soviet times to hide children with this problem in their homes.  Society does not want to see them or acknowledge that everything is not perfect.  Consequently parents of a child with autism are given a 24/7 life sentence of looking after this person in their home for as long as they live.  Once the parents die, these special needs people are moved into a “Level  4” facility where they are fed and housed but otherwise ignored to live out the rest of their lives. 

I was asked to be very brief in my comments but also very clear in stating the objectives of the conference.  I wanted the attendees to know what the Mennonite Centre was and what our motivation was in sponsoring this event.  I started by commenting that I must have descended from people with restless genes as my ancestors had moved from the Netherlands to Prussia about 400 years ago.  After 200 years in Prussia/ Germany, they moved into this region of Ukraine where they lived for 100 years before moving again to Canada.  I told the audience that there were many people in Canada and the United States who had grown up hearing their parents talk about life in Ukraine and that these people felt a personal desire to help improve the life of the current inhabitants of the area.  That is why they donated to money to the Mennonite Centre to allow our organization to sponsor this conference.  I also told them that we wanted to see people with autism be given a chance to live as full a life as possible.  I did all of this in 2 minutes with Oksana, my interpreter also taking that much time.  At the end of my speech, Oksana and I had agreed to reverse roles and I finished my speech in Russian by saying “spasiba”, which Oksana translated as “thank you”.  I saw it as a test to see if the audience had been paying attention and hoped that I might get a smile or two.  The audience actually laughed.
Oksana and Alvin at the Podium

The choice of main speaker was brilliant.  He is an American pediatrician by the name of Dr. James Peipon and has lived in Ukraine for 14 years. He serves with an organization called Ukraine Medical Outreach.  Their slogan is “Treating the Whole Person, Body and Soul”.  He was an engaging speaker who made a number of important points.  First, we all have a bit of autism in us which manifests itself in certain repetitive behaviour.  We usually learn to control it and can lead a normal life.  His second point was that when parents suspect their child may be autistic, statistics show that the parents are almost always correct.    This was a note of caution to the pediatricians in the audience to listen to the parents.  The tendency in Ukraine is for doctors to see a child with autistic symptoms and to say, “Let’s wait a bit and see if this behaviour will go away”.  Dr. Peipon urged them to refer these children right away to a psychiatrist or other specialist and not wait.  The sooner that these children are placed in a proper environment, the sooner they will have a chance of learning social interaction and have a better chance of coping in society. His third point was to tell people that after a diagnosis, they have to do something.  Sitting back and expecting someone else to initiate the solution was not acceptable.
An Animated Dr Peipon with Olga Rubel Translating

The capacity audience was engaged and there were many questions.  There was a request for a more such conferences.
Part of the Audience in Attendance

An interesting “medical text” was handed out for doctors to take with them.  It would help them as well as parents recognize the symptoms of autism.  The book was totally in Russian and did not mean anything to me, but Mary pointed out one page at the bottom where it had a picture of a child lining up his toys.  Mary knew from a friend of hers with an autistic child that this was a symptom of autism.  I then studied the page and started recognizing what the pictures were telling me.  The book was a popular item for attendees to take home.  You can click on the picture to enlarge it.
Page from the Medical Text

The news media was present and the whole conference was recorded by a local television station.  I even got interviewed.  I was hoping that they would ask me something about Mennonites but instead the interviewer wanted to know how such children were treated in Canada.  I told her that we try to give them as normal life as possible by having such children attend the usual classrooms with the special needs child receiving care from a dedicated teaching assistant.  I should have mentioned that the cost of the teaching assistant is covered by the government.  In Ukraine, they can have special assistants in a classroom but the costs have to be covered by the parents.  Almost no one can afford this expense.

As a former government employee, I have attended many conferences over the years.  The best that can be said for most of them is that they were of some interest.  Not only was this conference of some interest to the attendees but from the level of interaction, I would expect some of them to actually apply what they learned.  The conference was that good.
Dr Peipon with View of Head Table

The Mennonite Centre received a lot of mention in the conference.  It was an excellent investment for our organization.  Thank you to all donors who have given generously to allow the Mennonite Centre to have sponsored this event.



If you wish to know more about the work of the Mennonite Centre, you can check out our web site at: http://www.mennonitecentre.ca/ or follow our daily activities on Facebook at: https://www.facebook.com/Mennonite-Centre-Ukraine-735361069838076/

Saturday, 24 October 2015

WEEK 3 FIVE DAYS IN ZAP

It is Saturday morning and I am working on my blog.  I started off by reading my diary for the last week and it noted that last Sunday morning the first thing I did was check my emails to see if my previous blog had “blown up” on me in any way.  All was quiet on the western front and I could go enjoy my breakfast.  Not too sure about the eastern front.  There are a surprising number of readers of the blog from Ukraine and Russia. 

Our week was spent in Zaporozhe with our representative Olga Rubel looking at current and future projects.  We were going to spend the week staying at the Intourist Hotel but Olga persuaded us to do the Mennonite thing and stay at her place.  She even turned on the heat for our benefit.  Last time we were in Zaporozhye, the big issue every day was whether I should drive or she would be the driver.  Her husband, who has never driven, always made the decision.  I ended up driving a lot.  This time, her husband was never consulted on the issue and Olga drove every day.  I can confirm that she is a good driver but she still can’t park.  There is never any danger of her rubbing the tires on the curb as we never got closer than 3 feet.  After parking, the question was, could cars going down the road still get passed us?  If yes, then we left the car and went about our business.  In Olga’s defense I can say that she got her driver’s license about the same time as she started collecting her pension.  Many of us would lack the confidence for such a challenge at that age.

Our first visit was with Dr. Uri Reshetilov.  He is an enthusiastic supporter of our move into tele-medicine and wanted to celebrate our visit with a beautiful spread of food.  I sat there eating caviar on bread with cream cheese, wondering how I was going to explain the challenges of our work to the people back home.  I felt better when I noted that he only gave us red caviar and none of the expensive black variety.
Spread of Fruit and Caviar
Dr. Reshetilov Presenting Us With Original Painting of Dam in Zaporozhye

The Mennonite Centre has been a strong promoter of tele-medicine as a way of improving health care in the former Mennonite villages.  Most villages have what we would call a nurse-practitioner (called feldshers in Ukraine).  This is the front line of medical care.  They have limited abilities to diagnose illness and could often benefit from consulting with a doctor.  This would involve lengthy and costly travel for the patients.  With tele-medicine, the feldsher could consult with a doctor in Molochansk while the patient is still in the office.  We actually sat through such a consultation in Zaporozhye with Dr.  Reshetilov.  He was examining a patient who was at that moment in a doctor’s office in Molochansk.   We followed up with a conference call to a number of doctors and feldshers.  You can see all the individuals in the following picture.  We are in the lower right of the screen.  My face is black as I am holding up my camera and taking a shot of the live screen.
Live Picture of Tele-Medicine in Action

There are a number of Mennonite organizations operating in Ukraine and especially in the Zaporozhe area.  One of these is the Mennonite Family Centre.  It operates a personal care home for seniors.  Their manager is a local person by the name of Borys Letkeman.  He is a descendant of Mennonites who were exiled to the east during Soviet times.  He has returned to live in the area where his Mennonite ancestors once lived. 
Borys Letkeman with Seniors

When we arrived in his office, he told us of a phone call he had received that morning.  It was from a Mennonite church pastor in the village Balkavoya (called Fuerstenwerder in Mennonite times).  The pastor had a young mother in his office and she was destitute.  Her husband had recently abandoned her with 3 young children and they had nothing.  Borys referred to her as being “free of all encumbrances”.  This is not an area where Borys has any direct responsibility, but from the tears in his eyes, I could tell that he had done something to provide assistance.  It is beautiful to see the cooperation that exists between the various Mennonite agencies.

The Mennonite Centre has been active with an organization called Promitei.  It deals with handicapped or disadvantaged children.  In particular, it has worked very closely with children suffering from autism.  This disorder is not well understood in Ukraine, even by pediatricians.  Consequently children are often misdiagnosed.  Promitei would like to get children diagnosed very early and work with them to ensure that they are properly “socialized” - to directly quote the interpreter.  This is not some old political indoctrination from communist times but rather it expresses a desire to ensure the children properly develop their social skills.
Children Interacting With Staff

Promitei has recently moved from small downtown apartments to a large house further out in the suburbs.  The space is given to them rent free by a sympathetic orthodox priest.  Both our organization and the Mennonite Family Centre provide crucial financial support to operate the place.
New Building for Promitei Centre

When we first arrived at Promitei, their director Anjelica, was not present.  She arrived soon after and offered profuse apologies.  Her mother, who until now had been the prime care giver for their ailing father, had herself suffered a stroke.  Anjelica was now desperately trying to organize some home care.  Olga suggested that we contact Borys Letkeman as his organization had a program to provide home care.  Our Mennonite Centre cannot do everything and it is good to call on other agencies for important help.
Promitei class with Angelica on the Right

Next week Thursday, the Promitei centre is holding a major conference on autism.  Many pediatricians have been invited and they are also bringing in some experts from Kyiv.  The Mennonite Centre is sponsoring this conference in the hope of improving the ability of doctors to properly diagnose this disorder.  As we are the sponsoring organization, I was informed that I am listed as one of the speakers.  Wonder what I will say to the pediatricians.


If you wish to know more about the work of the Mennonite Centre, you can check out our web site at: http://www.mennonitecentre.ca/ or follow our daily activities on Facebook at: https://www.facebook.com/Mennonite-Centre-Ukraine-735361069838076/

Saturday, 17 October 2015

WEEK 2 - THANKS OR NO THANKS

Yes it has been the Canadian Thanksgiving week and not a turkey in site on any tables in Ukraine.  We did celebrate a national holiday on Wednesday of this week but have no idea what we were celebrating.  We are used to not understanding everything that happens around us.  It is all part of working in a foreign environment.

The week started off on a strange note.  We came back from a meeting just as people were starting to assemble for the senior’s lunch at the Mennonite Centre. We provide 3 such lunches per week, on Tuesday, Friday and Sunday.  One couple immediately approached me and started talking in Russian.  When I indicated that I could not understand, they obliged me by speaking more slowly and loudly.  It still did not help.  I went inside to get Oksana, our manager, to be my interpreter.  They were not pleased to see her join the conversation.  It turned out they were trying to complain to me about one of her decisions.  They were requesting financial assistance in getting a second cataract surgery for the husband.  Our policy is to provide funding for only one surgery.  While we might make exceptions, it was felt with their 2 pensions that they could afford to pay for the operation themselves.  What intrigued me was their attitude - if you do not satisfy their request they will make a formal complaint to some official.  It turns out that I was the official.  This attitude is a carryover from Soviet times when complaints were constantly being made to local officials.   It was a way of life I would not like to encourage.  After making their formal protest to me and having their request denied, the couple went inside for a free lunch.  No complaints there - and also no thanks for any assistance received so far.

Later that day we drove to the former Mennonite village of Juschanlee.  It was the site of the estate owned by Johann Cornies – unofficially referred to as the Mennonite Czar.  He was a man of tremendous influence in the 19th century and was responsible for the orderliness in establishing Mennonite villages as well as for many of the progressive agricultural practices on Mennonite farms. We were not on a historical tour but rather were going to visit Oksana Donets.  We met her in April 2014 after her mother came to the Mennonite Centre with a request for financial assistance.  It was a touching story.  Oksana had her hip injured as a young teenager while participating in some martial arts.  The injury was initially misdiagnosed, resulting in long term problems.  The original injury was aggravated 10 years ago when she was in a car accident while pregnant.  The hip had continued to deteriorate and doctors finally were recommending that she get a replacement.  By the time we saw her, she could no longer walk and was lying trapped in her mother’s second floor walk-up apartment.  The artificial hip would come from Germany and it cost $8,000 plus the cost of the surgery.  The family had applied everywhere for assistance and had always been turned down.  We were their last hope.
Oksana Donets and Her Daughter in Better Times

Oksana 18 Months Ago

The amount requested was well above the usual the usual amount that we provide for individual surgeries but the board agreed to post an appeal on Facebook.  This brought in over $5000 and the board approved the request for us to purchase the artificial hip with the family paying the cost of the surgery.  Mary and I were the lucky people to go back to Juschanlee and tell her the good news.  Mother and daughter both started crying at the news.  The mother hung onto Mary so hard when we left that I was not sure if Mary would be allowed to leave.  My final words to Oksana were that next time I see you I want to see you walking.

On our return to Ukraine this October we were curious as to what had happened.  We had heard some hints of complications but wanted to get a complete understanding of the situation for ourselves.  We returned to Juschanlee this week and were warmly received by the mother at the door.  When I went into their living room, Oksana was standing and started walking toward me.  She was smiling – something that we did not see last time.  Their story was difficult to hear.  After the purchase of the hip, Oksana was admitted to a hospital in Zaporozhye to prepare her for the operation.  The doctors were puzzled by her total inability to walk and performed an MRI.  They found a large tumour on her spine.  This tumour turned out to be benign, but it was the reason she could not walk.  This tumour was removed and she has been recuperating ever since.  She actually had to learn to walk again with the help of physical rehabilitation.  She still needs the hip replaced and is almost at the stage where this could happen.
Oksana Happy to be Standing and Walking

Oksana has had 12 surgeries in her lifetime and expressed some reluctance at enduring yet one more.  The family also had to borrow $2500 for the surgery to remove the tumour and receive the rehabilitation.  They do not know how they will finance the cost of the surgery for the hip replacement.  It will be difficult for them to move forward.  I encouraged them to stay in touch with Oksana Bratchenko, our manager as they plan their next move.

Despite the difficult situation they are in, Oksana Donets and her mother are extremely thankful to the Mennonite Centre for the assistance we provided.  Without the purchase of the hip, they would not have started the procedure that discovered the tumour.  After a short discussion, they had a party for us with food and refreshments.  They decorated the food with napkins printed like American $100 bills.  They asked us about Canada and our family at home.  When Oksana Donets heard that we had a couple of unmarried sons, she smiled quite broadly and expressed an interest in getting to know our family much better.  Her mother gave us many jars of canned produce as well as a large frozen chicken.  They were trying to find ways of saying thank you.  We know that they are thankful.
Food for the Party

Oksana Donets and Oksana Bratchenko (our manager)


If you wish to know more about the work of the Mennonite Centre, you can check out our web site at: http://www.mennonitecentre.ca/ or follow our daily activities on Facebook at: https://www.facebook.com/Mennonite-Centre-Ukraine-735361069838076/


Saturday, 10 October 2015

WEEK 1 GATHERING WINTER'S FUEL

Mary and I arrived in Ukraine on Thursday October 8, after the usual tiring crossing of the Atlantic.  The trip thankfully was uneventful and we were met by our staff members Olga Rubel and Oksana Bratchenko.  Oksana is our manager in Molochansk (Halbstadt) and she drives the van for the Mennonite Centre.  When we left 17 months ago she was just starting to learn to drive and I was curious about her confidence level in driving.  After watching her speed along the highway at 120 km per hour, I quietly acknowledged that she was a fast learner and I slept most of the way to Molochansk. 

It is almost a 3 hour drive from the airport to Molochansk, and yes we were tired.
One time when I did wake up in our drive, I noticed an elderly man far out in the field pushing his bicycle.  He had collected a large bundle of sunflower stalks from a field that had just been harvested and was using his bicycle to get this large bundle home.  He was literally “gathering winter’s fuel”.  It was a good introduction to the current “hot” topic in Ukraine – how are we going to heat our homes this winter?

As an outsider, one is never sure of all the facts surrounding an issue in Ukraine. My understanding of the crisis is as follows.  The Ukrainian economy has been in free fall since the war with Russia started over a year ago.  During the last year, the Ukrainian government was forced to get some emergency loans from western European countries.  There were some conditions attached to these loans that forced major cost reductions on the Ukrainian government.  The government had been subsidizing the cost of natural gas for homes while requiring business establishments to pay the full cost.  This subsidy is now gone and home owners have to pay the full cost of the gas.  This has caused a seven fold increase in the cost of this product for home owners starting this fall.  It is understandably a shock to society and manifests itself in many ways.

According to an elderly friend of ours in Molochansk, she will have to pay 40% of her monthly pension to heat her house in the winter.  The weather has turned quite cool in Molochansk already with morning temperatures around the freezing mark.  Our friend refuses to turn on her gas furnace just yet and apologized to us for all the clothes she was wearing while trying to stay warm.  She goes to bed with a hot water bottle and spends the first couple hours in bed just trying to warm it up.  She had spent the last few days, tying up small bundles of branches she collected.  She can burn these in her kitchen (a separate building) and get some heat to boil water.  She also did not can any fruits or vegetables this fall as this would have consumed too much gas.

The Mennonite Centre has had an increasing number of projects in the Zaporozhye area and Mary and I are planning on spending more time in that city to get a better understanding of these initiatives.  Our representative in Zaporozhye is Olga Rubel and she invited us to stay at her house when we are in that city but warned us that the house will be cold.  She and her husband have agreed not to turn on the furnace until the frost starts to bite.  We have stayed with her very comfortably in the past but shall have to decide how adventurous we wish to be this fall.

When we arrived at our apartment in Molochansk on Thursday, it was nice and warm.  The staff had turned on the furnace for us as a test to make sure it was working.  With the help of some melatonin, we had a good night’s sleep and awoke in the morning in our cozy apartment to what looked like a beautiful sunny day.  Shortly after 9:00 AM, we walked over to the Mennonite Centre to meet the staff.  That was when we realized that the air was quite crisp and cool.  The staff greeted us warmly and then Ira, our cook, pointed at Mary’s feet and started shivering on her behalf. The weather had looked so pleasant in the morning that Mary had decided to wear sandals with no socks.  If we had woken up shivering in a cold apartment, there is no doubt that Mary would have been wearing more “sensible” shoes, as my mother would have said.

The basic result of all these concerns is that people are scrounging for alternate fuels.  If they have the capability of heating their homes with wood or coal, then these are being collected.  Many trees are being cut down illegally.  The Mennonite Centre recently cleared an unsightly hedge row in the back.  One of our staff requested to take home all the branches worth burning.  These were collected in the yard and will be transported to our employee’s house.  The Mennonite Centre has traditionally had a program to help people buy coal for home heating.  I suspect we may be getting some requests to assist in home heating with gas.
Mary with Branches Collected for Winter Heating

We are aware that this is the Thanksgiving Weekend in Canada.  We will miss the traditional family gathering for the turkey dinner.  Today (Saturday) we dropped by the local Mennonite Church in Molochansk where we will be worshipping tomorrow.  The place was decorated as if they are celebrating Thanksgiving.  We know a special event is planned.  I got a picture of the group that will be singing tomorrow in church.  We are looking forward to the service.
Thanksgiving Service in Molochansk



Tuesday, 27 May 2014

WEEK 9 FAREWELL

Our time in Ukraine is over.  We cannot comprehend how fast our term here has past.  Each time we come, we learn or experience something new.  The following will highlight some of our new knowledge or experiences.

·         Police in Ukraine can spot a drunk driver by the simple fact that they are driving straight.  Everyone else is weaving their way around all the potholes in the road.

·         I have finally learned proper Ukrainian table manners.  We were invited to join a local group from the church for an evening meal.  I caused great consternation by the simple fact of passing on the food after I had helped myself.  People around me did not know what to do with the dishes I was passing them.  I was informed that Ukrainians have long arms and can reach for themselves – thank you very much.

·         The food that evening had been cooked over a wood fire.  The logs had come from the Alt-Berdjansk forest.  This was a Mennonite forestry station where my grandfather had worked in 1904.  I counted the rings in the log to determine its age in order to find out if my grandfather could possibly have planted that tree. I was disappointed to find out the tree was only 70 years old.
My Uncle Victor Suderman Standing in Front of Old Barracks in Alt-Berdjansk

·         One Saturday morning we had 2 teenage girls over for breakfast.  They could speak English and were curious about Canada.  We showed them a picture of our house in Winnipeg from the street.  They saw the design flaws immediately.  Where was our front fence and gate to provide privacy and security? 
 
Typical Front Yard in Molochansk
·         On our trip home from Kyiv, we were picked up at the train station in Melitopol early in the morning.  As we drove through one of the villages near Molochansk before 7:00 AM, we saw the cows being collected by the shepherd and going down the road to the pasture.  This is identical to what occurred during Mennonite times.  If a Mennonite family was late in the morning milking and their cow was not ready when the herd passed, the whole village would know about it.  Oh the shame of having to walk your own cow out to pasture and be seen by everyone.
The Cows Coming Home

·         The railway station manager in Molochansk called to ask when their station had officially opened.  They suspected they were nearing the 100th anniversary of the event and wanted to honour it in some way.  I turned to the books in our library written by my neighbour Helmut Huebert to find the answer.  His book on Mennonites in the Cities of Imperial Russia Volume II described the construction of the railway headed by two brothers, Gerhard and Johann Wall.  While there was no date for the official opening of our local station, I gave them the date of December 20, 1913 as that was the date for the first scheduled train service.  The station was already past its 100th anniversary but I was pleased that local people were interested in their own history and that they would approach us for information on the subject.

·         At one of our usual stops at the Lichtenau train station, we were invited inside the office of the station manager.  He had 4 beautifully preserved and framed pictures of the Mennonite migration of the 1920’s mounted on the wall.  Most of the pictures I had seen before but I took a picture of one that was new to me.
Mennonite Emigrants Boarding a Train in Lichtenau 1920's

·         There is a large hydro-electric dam on the Dnieper River at Zaporozhye.  At the time it was built in the 1930’s, it was considered one of the marvels of the modern world.  I had driven over it many times, but had a desire to walk across it.  It is almost 2 km in length.  I managed to walk it this year and then for my return, I walked it again.  It gave me a sore throat from the diesel fumes of passing vehicles as well as a real respect for its immense size.
 
Dam in Background being guarded by Cossacks
·         This dam was blown by the retreating Soviet army on the night of July 18, 1941.  They misjudged the amount of explosives required and used too much.  In the morning, pieces of human bodies could be seen hanging from nearby trees and poles.  The release of water was also more rapid than anticipated.  According to a television program in Ukraine, a Soviet army of 200,000 men stationed at a downstream village of Belinkoje perished in the rapidly rising water. 
Blown Dam in 1941 (Private Collection of Vic Ens)

·         This trip marks the first time Mary and I have heard a nightingale sing.  We have also heard the cuckoo.  They are both amazing sounds and are important as any novel about the area always references these birds.  The most common bird we hear is the mourning dove.

·         We were also privileged to see the blooming acacia trees and to appreciate their sweet fragrance.  The highway to Zaporozhye was lined with blooming acacia trees.  A photo just does not do it justice but we keep trying.


·         
       On Sunday May 25, we became unofficial Canadian observers for an important election in Ukraine.  If successfully concluded, this election would give Ukraine its first legitimate government since the overthrow of the Yanukovich government last February.  There were 21 candidates for President on the ballot.  The winner has to achieve a clear majority of over 50% of the votes.  This could take a number of run-off ballots.  However it appears that the “Candy Man” has achieved a true majority in the first ballot.  We hope that this will bring peace and stability to our friends in Ukraine. 
Oksana Registering to Vote
The Ballot with 21 Candidates

Mary and I feel it has been a tremendous privilege to be the North American directors at the Mennonite Centre in Molochansk this year.  The support and prayers from friends back home has been felt and appreciated.  The near wartime circumstances have made this a unique experience.  We never knew if we would be able to complete our term.  We are thankful that we were able to do that.  At a staff farewell party for us on Saturday evening, the outspoken spouse of one of our employees said, “Thank you for having the courage to come. Thank you for not running away”.

For more information on the work of the Mennonite Centre, please go to:  http://www.mennonitecentre.ca/


Tuesday, 20 May 2014

WEEK 8 REACH FOR THE TOP

Mary and I have returned from our trip to Kyiv and are glad to be back in Molochansk.  The trip to Kyiv was great.  We had to make contact and provide funding for several Mennonite Centre projects in Kyiv.  We had also booked a meeting with the Canadian Ambassador, Troy Lulashnyk.  He is a former Manitoban from the town of Selkirk with his own Ukrainian roots.  It is reassuring to know that there is someone who is looking after our interests in a foreign country.  We also had delightful visits with Anne Mattson and Clint Martin – staff members at the Canadian embassy with personal connections to family and friends.

In Kyiv, we did become tourists for an afternoon and toured the devastation that took place on the Maidan square.  Most of the barricades are still in place.  The site has become a tourist destination as well as a shrine for Ukrainians.  The protestors in their tents are used to sight seers and having their pictures taken. It was touching to climb the area where most of the fatalities occurred.  Dema bought flowers and laid them at selected memorials as we made our way up the hill toward the location where the snipers had hidden behind trees.  From pictures and descriptions on the memorials, we could see that the fatalities were of many ages – not just young people.
Downtown Hotel Used as Hospital During Demonstration
Dema Placing Flowers at Memorial
Memorial for 18 Year Old

 There was another Kyiv destination that was on my personal bucket list.  I wanted to climb the “Motherland” monument.  This was built in 1981 to celebrate the end of the Great Patriotic War or WW II as the rest of us call it.  I first saw this monument in 2006 when our cruise ship neared Kyiv.  It towers above the city.  It was in 2011 that Dema, our Mennonite Centre manager told me that it was possible to climb it.  I was informed that it was an arduous climb and very expensive.  For the equivalent of $5.00 you could take an elevator up to the base.  The fee for manually climbing to the top was $20.00.  The Motherland Monument is 203 feet (69 metres) in height and towers above the Statue of Liberty at 151 feet (46 metres).  It had become my Mount Everest.
Motherland Monument with Cage Behind Shield

The pursuit of my goal did not start off well.  The lady at the box office took one look at me and shook her head.  I did not even need an interpreter to know that the news was bad.  She summoned a guide, who also looked at me cautiously, asked for my age, and then announced that there was no way that he could accept responsibility for my safety.  I tried arguing that if I bought the ticket and did not make it to the top, it would be my responsibility and no refund would be requested.  That was not good enough.  Eventually I had to concede defeat and bought a ticket taking me up to the base.  Dema was allowed to purchase the prize ticket taking him to the top.  As we left the office with our guide, Dema started a conversation with our guide.  He discovered that that there was an additional “insurance policy” that only the guide could issue that not only reduced my age but also made me an acceptable risk.  For a mere payment of only $30.00, I was also going to reach for the top.

As soon as I had made my payment, we were given the rules.  We had to strap on a climbing harness which was attached to a rope extending up to the top.  The ascent went straight up an iron rung ladder.  After 20 feet of climbing I had to transition to another ladder about 90 degrees to the left.  The climb became a 45 degree climb as we worked our way up the arm of the monument.  After another steep climb I had to crawl around some sharp corners as we entered the palm of the hand.  Another 6 feet straight up and I had to boost myself up through a trap door to the platform directly behind the shield.  The climb was not challenging in terms of physical endurance but rather required an agility to cope with tight maneuvers.   Dema and I were soon standing in the cage behind the shield, very proud of ourselves and grinning like Cheshire cats.

Our guide looked at me in amazement and said, “I never brought such an old man up here before”.  I was proud to be called an old man.  I just could not stop smiling.  After viewing the scene for a few minutes, the guide had one last surprise for us.  He unlocked another compartment and one at a time we were allowed to climb up another 10 feet above the cage where we got an unobstructed view of the city.  We could look right over the top of the shield.  The best part was I got a bird’s eye view of Pechersk Lavra – the most beautiful Orthodox Church in Kyiv with its famous underground caves.
Pechersk Lavra from Motherland Monument

For those considering making the climb, do not do it if you are claustrophobic, your agility is less than mine, or you do not like heights.  In strong winds, the statue can sway as much as half a metre.  It does have its challenges.

Last week I wrote about Oksana Donets and her desperate need for hip surgery.  Today, Mary and I had the pleasure of driving back out to her place and informing her that the board had authorized funds for the surgery.  The board authorized this because of the generosity of the supporters of the Mennonite Centre and people on Facebook.  What the board found really moving was the generous support of donors in Ukraine who became aware of the appeal on Facebook.  They truly sacrificed in order to help Oksana.
A Big Smile From Oksana
Oksana'a Mother Thanking Mary (she did not want to let go)

Both Oksana and her mother broke down with tears of joy when we gave them the news.  This has given them hope where previously they saw only despair.  I told Oksana that I want to see her walking next time we come to Ukraine.

Mary and I have one week left in our assignment.  In these unsettled times, we never knew if we would be able to complete our term.  Right now we are hopeful that we can. 

For more information on the work of the Mennonite Centre, please go to:  http://www.mennonitecentre.ca/