Thursday, May 31, 2007


The last day of May - we've just come back from the Ukrainian School. Today is "Last Bell". We arrived at 8 a.m. The student body and teachers had gathered around the school ground, dressed in their finery for this exciting event - the"final bell" for the graduating class and the "last bell" of the school year. There was pomp and circum-
stance, music and dance, laughter and tears. A first grade student on the shoulders of a graduate circled the school ground ringing a brass bell.

Graduating girls dressed in similar fashion to what they had worn at FIRST BELL eleven years ago when they entered first grade. This is Ukraine tradition.

The Mennonite Centre awarded prizes to 19 students who had distinguished themselves in various fields of study - some even receiving state recognition.

Tomorrow, June 1 - our LAST BELL! In the morning of our final day in Ukraine we will go to the Palace of Culture, the former Mennonite Zentralschule, and attend the closing concert of the Molochansk Music School. The band will play, children will dance and sing. The day will end with at trip to the former Mennonite villages of Ruecknau and Ohrloff. Farmer Grigory has received his tractor at last and Farmer Ury his baler and sprayer and as a gesture of gratitude we have been invited for "Shashlik" which we will enjoy in the field by the river. We can't think of a more fitting way to say "Good-bye". We predict more laughter and tears; bringing an end to a fascinating, enriching and many times heartbreaking chapter of our lives.

P.S. Al & Peggy Hiebert are continuing the work at the Mennonite Centre. You can follow their experiences in their blog at

Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Bearing Loads

Over the past three months it has been our privilege to enter into the life of small-town eastern Ukraine. In diverse ways we've shared journeys of those around us. We've experienced joys and sorrows and have been amazed at the resilience of many who are carrying heavy burdens. Thanks to the generosity of our donors we've been able to engage in many projects, giving aid to those in need - to individuals as well as institutions.

The Orange Revolutions which had promised hope to many has been a huge disappointment as leaders continue their power struggle. Youth movements are meeting to foster closer ties with the West. The elderly, however look back to communist times as the good old days, when they didn't have much, but it was enough. What will happen at the Sept.30 election is anyone's guess.

One can notice increasing prosperity in the cities and even Molochansk is now boasting billboards as we enter town, one of them advertizing our former Zentralschule. There are more cars on the roads and many scooters. We are told that about 10% of the people in our town live comfortably. For the remainder, life is a hard struggle and it is this group we are trying to help.

The healthcare system is woefully inadequate, so we pay doctors to hold clinics at the Centre where people come for free consultations and medication. We're continuing with medical emergency funds in seven outlying areas. The respite room at the local hospital, which we have renovated and staffed, allows people to recuperate in comfort. We are introducing a pilot project in which an eye doctor will come to the Centre periodically so that our seniors can have their eyes tested. Glasses are inexpensive and would give many a new lease on life. We help to support a small nursing home where seniors are lovingly cared for. Hospitals don't want to admit elderly. Death is considered a blot on their record.
Other than salaries, hospitals and schools receive very little state support. Most capital acquisitions and any repairs come from the pockets of staff and parents. We have funded numerous projects, including restoring the steps to the entrance of the Molochansk Russian School. These were crumbling, in dangerous disrepair, rebar sticking out in many directions. The new steps include a ramp allowing access to disabled children.
We continue to provide scholarships to a number of promising students - two in medical school, a journalism student, several prospective teachers and social workers. Where we can, we support the arts.
For the first time we are offering low interest loans to two farmers in the Molotchna district. They are farming the rich, black loam that brought prosperity to many of our Mennonite ancestors. Farmer Grigory is buying a second-hand tractor, replacing the one he built from scrap metal many years ago. Farmer Ury is buying a baler and sprayer. Both men will engage others in their farming operations and both have a history of helping babushkas with their small plots . Their smiles of gratitude stretched from ear to ear.
By God's grace it has been our joy to bring help and hope through our work at the Mennonite Centre; not only responding to requests for aid, but also finding ways to encourage and enable people to help themselves thus lightening their loads.

Monday, May 21, 2007


What a wonderful afternoon - officially, Senior's Day. Blue, cloudless skies, temperature in the low thirties, glorious chestnut trees in full leaf showing off their blossoms. Benches and chairs set up on our shaded front yard. Seniors coming from all directions, some hobbling painfully, none wanting to miss the event to come. Children from the Molochansk Music School have prepared a concert in their honor to be given outdoors.

In Ukraine school begins at 8 a.m. and runs until 12:30. Children then have the option of attending music or sports schools in the afternoon. These are still a legacy of the communist past and at that time were financed by the state. Now these receive minimal support. Parents pay a little and teachers receive a small salary. In winter children come bundled up, because they can't afford to heat the building. Last year there was a threat to close this school, but so far it has survived. Thus, children can take piano lessons, dance classes or band instruction and have the opportunity for constructive afternoon activities.

The band begins to play. Recently they competed in Zaporozhye and received second place honors. They told us that this award was made possible because they now have four good trumpets, thanks to donations from Mennonite Educational Institute and King's Music in Abbotsford, B.C. Dancers appear in their bright, colorful garb. From time to time FOMCU has donated funds for fabric so that costumes can be sown. It is a delight to help this organization survive and succeed. Children are given skills that enhance their lives and the lives of others. Seniors are given great joy.

Tuesday, May 8, 2007


As we visit children in schools and
kindergartens we see many delightful little ones appearing happy and carefree. However, over the past months, we've also become aware of a dark side; children living in very vulnerable circumstances. Two heartrending examples.

The director of a school, grades one to eight, in the former Mennonite village of Schoenau, told us this story. Recently one of her pupils stole a cell phone belonging to a staff member. Everyone knew he was the culprit, but he would not own up to the theft, even when interviewed by police. Several days later this young boy was found dead; he had hung himself - a horrendous shock to the school and community. The director went on to tell us that cell phones are a bane in her classrooms. Almost every child has one and subtley plays games during class hours. As yet she hasn't been successful in controlling this problem. Obviously there is tremendous peer pressure to owning a cell phone. Since the parents of the deceased child are alcoholics, he had had no hope of acquiring his own. Unlikely as it may appear, cell phones are not considered a luxury, but a seeming necessity. To give some perspective to this issue, it is necessary to understand how much parents are willing to sacrifice to give their children cell phones. This same school director told us that her husband had recently purchased three phones - one for each family member, and had paid almost as much as they had paid to buy their property several years ago. No wonder many men leave their families to earn money in Russia, where they can find better jobs.

The second story. Sasha is a 12 year old who lives with his mother and four siblings. His mother drinks. There are days in which there is no food in the house. Recently Sasha was complaining of hunger and was told to get out and find himself something to eat. Sasha, his younger brother and friend Pavel went in search of metal to sell. It is common to see electrical transformers along the roadsides and they came across one that had been left unlocked. Using both hands, Sasha tried to pull out a metal plate. 6000 volts of electricity shot through his arms and left a 10 cm. wound on his right leg. Pavel ran in fright; the little brother dragged Sasha's unconscious body home. He was taken to the local hospital and not until the next day transferred to the Zaporozhye burn unit. By that time it was too late - both arms were amputated at the shoulder and it is not yet certain whether his leg can be saved. Sasha has already had six surgeries.

Yesterday there was a picnic in the back yard of the Mennonite Centre. Sasha was there wistfully watching the children at play. He has become a very quiet, introspective boy. He attends Larissa and Frieda's children's club and comes to church on Sunday. He wants to live and is asking in-depth questions. We are also deliberating how we can be of help.

It is painfully evident that many children are living at risk and our hearts ache. There are no easy answers. We try to respond at levels possible for us. The bigger picture requires systemic change.

Tuesday, May 1, 2007

Ukrainian Culture

Recently we heard a lament expressed that contemporary Ukraine has no cultural identification. This is not to say that there are no artists, that there is no literature, no music or dance. But it is a sad fact that the Ukrainian state does very little to promote or encourage cultural expression.

Several examples from recent experiences. Earlier this month we met with the friend of a recently deceased Ukrainian painter, who showed us a portfolio of this artist's work and told us a little about his life. This man was born in Molochansk. His mother died in childbirth; his father was recruited into the war where he met his death. He was raised by his grandparents. Later he moved to Melitopol where he received an education and became known as a painter, eventually becoming a member of the European Union of Artists. Twenty years ago he fell ill. Due to poverty and poor medical care a leg was amputated. A subsequent broken marriage led to depression and alcoholism. An artist friend supported him through this low period and helped him regain a measure of health. They married and he continued to paint. He had exhibitions in Poland, Belgium, Netherlands and America. Two months ago he died; had he been able to afford medication this needn't have happened. Friends are now hoping to commemorate this artist by publishing a book of his collected works. The question: "Would we be willing to help?" He had lived in poverty and there is no money from the State. We visited his little home and saw a number of his canvases. There is a wonderful vibrancy about his work. Sadly he is better known outside the country than in Ukraine.

Perhaps it will be Ukrainian children who will eventually lead the way and Ukraine does love its children. Last week 30 little kindergartners visited the Mennonite Centre to perform for seniors coming for lunch. What a delightful energetic concert! They sang and danced without inhibition; the seniors love it.

A day later we accompanied a group of 18 young people from the Tokmak Music School to a state dance competition in Dnepropetrovsk. This meant a 3 hr. drive by marshrutka and an overnight stay in an internat. We watched 100 performances, 30 of which were chosen for the Gala Concert the next day. The weekend was a visual extravaganza.

The older group of 6 girls from Tokmak distinguished themselves by winning two awards. We were struck by the high calibre of dancing and choreography. FOMCU had made it possible for this group to compete and we were thanked over and over for providing assistance. Not only did the group work very hard to make it happen; it was also a great learning opportunity for dancers and their teachers as well. No doubt, Ukraine has a culture and needs to learn how to be proud of it.

Monday, April 23, 2007

A Sad and Difficult Journey

Baba Vera completed her life's journey two days ago. Today she was buried. We were requested to attend the funeral and provide transportation for several others. For the past month Baba Vera had been tenderly cared for in the small nursing home run by the Kutuzovka church and also partially supported by FOMCU. Then last week she had a stroke and as mentioned previously, was admitted to our Respite Room at the hospital.

As we came into her village, about 25 km. to the north, and approached the little house, we saw a few mourners gathered outdoors around a simple coffin. Baba Vera had no immediate family.
Only a month ago her son died; drank himself to death. To support his addiction, he had gradually sold off the furniture, toward the last even the bed of his mother. When she was found, she had been sleeping on two chairs, covering herself with a jacket. There was nothing else but trash in the little sod floor house.

Our pastor, Jacob Thiessen, conducted a short service; church members sang and then, led by someone carrying the Orthodox cross, we followed the procession to the cemetery - the
casket following on the back of a dump truck. At the graveside the wailing started and after the casket had been lowered into position (the hole was actually dug too short- someone had to jump down and do more digging) people one by one threw three handfuls of dirt onto the coffin, another Orthodox custom.

Baba Vera was buried next to her son. Yesterday it had been difficult to find village men sober enough to dig the grave, and even today the graveside attendants were intoxicated.

Alcohol wreaks havoc in this country. It is a particular scourge in the villages. Every little store has shelves of liquor. Unemployment often leads to depression leads to drink. In our town, to make some money, many men and even some women leave their families for months on end to go to Russia where they find work. These are the enterprising people. For many, even this, isn't an option. Village life, which used to be so idyllic in simpler times, may eventually be a thing of the past. Today many young people go the cities and don't come back. There are still over 60 villages in existence in the former Molotschna colony.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Aging and Death

Our town has a population of 7000 - over half of them pensioners. What would I as a babuschka face, growing older in Molochansk? We see the many little white-washed houses, some of them crumbling badly. Looking behind the scenes we find that many don't have running water - they may have a tap in their summer kitchen, but often not in the house. Therefore no means of showering or bathing. Personal hygiene is a problem.

Traversing the streets we see yellow pipes elevated about ten feet off the ground. Digging is happening below, indicating the long-awaited arrival of natural gas. The yellow pipes become a status symbol because not everyone can afford to connect - it is very expensive and it's mainly the elderly population that will continue to heat with coal. The gap between haves and have-nots widens.

If I were ill, how would I fare with medical care? A recent example: A resident in a small nursing home, partially funded by our organization, had a stroke. The ambulance was called. First question - "How old is this woman?" When told she was 71, they refused to come saying, "She is old, she will die anyway" - apparently the standard response for anyone over 65. Fortunately a Christian doctor advocated on her behalf and she was admitted the next day. FOMCU (Friends of the Mennonite Centre Ukraine) has renovated a Respite Room at the hospital which is warm, bright and comfortable; meals are brought in. Another woman was admitted to the Respite Room about the same time. She was brought in from one of the outlying villages and obviously hadn't bathed for a very long time; the odor was overwhelming. The Molochansk hospital was built 22 years ago and hasn't had hot running water for 21 years. What to do without warm water? We hope to address this issue shortly. The state provides doctor's salaries, but nothing beyond that. Any renovations at the hospital are funded by staff. We are told that people unable to pay for their needed medication, will also not be admitted to hospital, so many people suffer and die at home. FOMCU has medical emergency funds in 8 districts to aid in these and other medical situations. In addition we pay two doctors to hold weekly clinics at the Centre, so that people can come for free consultations.

Even so, death comes prematurely to many. One
week after Easter is another Orthodox celebration, commemorating the dead. We notice volumes of bright plastic flowers appearing at every storefront. Families visit the cemetery bringing these flowers to adorn gravesites of their loved ones. People crowd in with food and drink; vodka flows freely. We are told that many deaths are tragically alcohol related. This problem is huge, related largely to unemployment. With the coming of natural gas, it is hoped that an increase in industrial activity might aid in alleviating this situation.

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Resurrection, Renewal and Hope

ХРИСТОС ВОСКРЕС! ВО ИСТИНОУ ВОСКРЕС! Christus ist auferstanden, Christus ist wahrhaftig auferstanden! Christ is risen, Christ is risen indeed! Just as this message was joyfully spread from disciple to disciple on that first Easter morning, so the good news continues to reverberate around the world. Here, Easter is the highpoint of the church year. Interestingly, this year, for the first time in 500 years, Orthodox Easter coincides with the Western calendar. Orthodox believers spend the Saturday before Easter in thoughtful reverie - no work is done and it is said that on this day even the birds stop building their nests.

Sunday morning just after midnight we attended the Orthodox service. As we stood shoulder to shoulder with local townspeople, we tried to enter into the spirit of worship with its unfamiliar liturgy. Candles, incense, icons, vestments and banners engaged our senses as well as the chanting and singing. At a certain juncture we joined the flow as all processed around the exterior of the cathedral. We were told that this occurs three times during the course of the four-hour service - perhaps paying tribute to the triune God. Since our church had scheduled a 7 a.m. breakfast service, we left to catch a few winks before heading to Kutuzovka. There we were greeted again and again with the above joyful message, culminating in "Alleluya". Despite lack of sleep we felt refreshed in our inner being.

Spring - a season of renewal and regeneration. We look around us and see the earth reawakening. Birds are building their nests. Apricot trees are in bloom everywhere. People are hoping for a good crop - late spring frosts did a lot of damage the last two years. Tree trunks and walkway edges have been newly whitewashed. Everywhere, people are out in their "kitchen gardens", which are kept meticulously weedfree. For many in our town, these are the means of survival. Enough potatoes, carrots, cabbages, onions are produced and stored in their root cellars to see them through the year. The month of August is spent canning - delicious combinations of tomatoes, peppers, zucchini, eggplant and onion mixes. We've been the fortunate recipients of many a jarful. That, and several laying hens, plus the means to buy bread, keep these people alive.

We were privileged to deliver Easter food hampers to several families with disabled children. One case was particularly heartrending - a 17 year old boy suffering from cerebral palsy, bedridden, legs horribly twisted, parents alcoholic, living in abject poverty. Mennonite Centre has started a support group for parents of disabled children; other than internat care there is little state support for these families. What hope can we bring? There seems so little we can do. Poverty feeds resignation which is so often drowned with alcohol.

Monday, April 2, 2007

Of Wind and Water

We're experiencing a windstorm, the air is thick with dust and debris. No electricity, no water, no internet! Imagine a grove of trees, branches festooned with plastic bags of every size and color, blown there by the wind. A little bit of magic in this otherwise dreary landscape - made more dreary because people dump their garbage on roadsides.

Rudy and I sit by candlelight playing Scrabble. We're lucky to have a propane stove so we've had a warm meal. We also have water stored away and can manage without for awhile. We are told when Peggy and Al were here, that Molochansk had no running water for six months. For people here life goes on - it just takes an adjustment.

Last week we visited Udarnik, the village of Neukirch in Mennonite times. We think living without water for three days is an ordeal; try eleven years. We visited with the director of the village school who told us of a plan afoot to bring water to this village of 600 people by leading pipes for 8 kms from a neighboring village. They are hoping that sometime this year they, too, will have water.

Not much farther down the road, standing alone like a sentinel on the steppeland, we come upon the last known Mennonite windmill in the former Mennonite colonies. It is an example of a Dutch- model windmill and was built by the mill builder Konrad - ancestor of our friend Abe Konrad. Wind, with such devastating potential, can also be harnessed for good.
We look at situations in our work in Ukraine and hope for a brighter future. Can we recognize and harness potential? Can we forge ahead undeterred by blustery setbacks? Can we catch the wind?

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

The Mennonite Connection

As we tread the streets of Molochansk we often feel that we are caught in a time warp. There are many reminders of our ancestral past. In fact almost everything looks of that vintage. Our town, fomerly Halbstadt, was settled in 1804 by Mennonites migrating from Prussia in pursuit of freedoms of faith and conscience. Over the next century Halbstadt grew and prospered, becoming the industrial, commercial and administrative hub of the Molotschna colony. Today people live in poverty, with little knowledge of their historical past. Interest is piquing, however. Last week we spent an afternoon with two students who were gathering information for a class assignment. Natasha and Tanya were particulary interested in finding what they could on the building next door to our apartment. Looking out of our kitchen window we see what remains of the Heinrich Willms mansion. This grand residence belonged to the owner of the local flour mill. Built in 1908 at the cost of 100,00 rubles, it was referred to then as a "palace". The gardens surrounding it are now the town park; a tall statue of Lenin holds pride of place. The girls were also fascinated to discover that their "Palace of Culture" in the centre of Molochansk was once a Mennonite secondary school for boys.

1895 ....................................................................2007

Recently the town gave this building a facelift by painting the exterior to resemble the brick color of the past. It looks great from a distance but the facade is definitely only skin deep.

Visitors often drop in at the Mennonite Centre looking for information. Recently a group of Holdeman people arrived from Arkansas. Their ancestors had left this area for America in the 1870's. They particularly enjoyed our historical photo display.

Last week it was also our privilege to bring good news to "farmer George". Our organization has agreed to provide a loan so that he can purchase a tractor and begin farming on a bigger scale. It is intriguing to realize that this man's land is adjacent to the former village of Rueckenau, the location of the very first Mennonite Brethren church. This man, not an ethnic Mennonite, is a member of the Bolkovo Mennonite Church. In a small way, history is repeating itself - in the first part of the 20th century, MCC provided tractors for Ukraine, now almost a century later we have the joy of doing so again.

Friday, March 16, 2007

Musings Along the Road

Thinking a lot about roads lately ---roads taken and not taken; about getting on a road that leads in the right direction; about being able to navigate without getting stuck; questioning the advisability of taking shortcuts as the best way to a destination.

Literally this is our experience as we travel the highways and byways in this land of our forefathers and mothers. Here and there we come across stretches of cobblestone, laid down by our ancestors those many years ago, still standing the test of time. No need to circumvent huge potholes whose depth one can only guess at especially after a rain. But such are the exception. More often we just have to go for it, or through it, or around it, hoping to come out safely at the other side.

Looking at the bigger picture, our experiences this week lead us believe that Ukraine is on a slow road to recovery. Is this road leading to better health care? A small example. As the pensioners were having lunch at the Mennonite Centre a van stopped by. Women were given the opportunity to come along to a clinic for a free mammogram. Only three responded on the spur of the moment. Others were told that there would be another opportunity next week.
Is this road leading to better employment opportunities? The Mennonite Centre has been providing scholarships, giving some capable young people the opportunity of higher education. Three aspiring social workers are about to graduate, preparing to assist people in dealing with the many social problems existing here. Two are already working with our Mom's Group and with seniors.
Does this road have room for entrepreneurs? A farmer in one of the former Mennonite villages tells of his struggle over the years to efficiently work his land. Ingenuoulsy, he has built a tractor and other implements by welding scraps together, but now dreams of something better. In order get ahead he is asking for assistance - not a handout, but a loan. He has visions and goals all mapped out.
Does this road lead to greater ethical responsibility? Twice this week we were given quotes for prospective purchases, both times given the "official price" and the other, much lower, the "under-the-table price". The shadow economy is alive and doing well. We realize that there aren't always easy answers. If a household income is $300 a month, and often even less, and illness strikes or other expenses loom, what road will be taken? Last week the Kutuzovka Mennonite church had a series of seminars on biblical ethical living. We attended three of these. A guest speaker from Stuttgart Germany had been invited and spoke dynamically on issues of money, marriage, relationships etc. People are coming and listening.
Modelling a straight and narrow way; exploring and granting opportunities for betterment - those are some of our challenges here.

Saturday, March 10, 2007

Return to Molochansk

We're back - day three!
Winter appears to be over but spring has not yet arrived. It's this in-between season of bleakness accentuating the drab surroundings; no blanket of snow or carpet of grass to camouflage the greys and the litter on the roadsides. Nothing appears to have changed much - perhaps only the bigger potholes. We had to take the long way around to Molochansk because the usual route was virtually impassible. But this is the cursory glance. Coming to the entry of the Mennonite Centre we look down to see some exquisite yellow flowers poking their heads through last year's dry and crumpled leaves. I had to think of our dear friend Dianne's appreciation for "small wonders".

The big wonder though was the warm welcome we received when we entered the doors. Many hugs and exclamations - not all understood! An invitation to supper and also breakfast. Then hugs from the "cookie lady" when we went shopping. What more can we ask for?

Our hearts are touched by many needs. At breakfast this morning we watched across the street as a Babushka went through a small roadside dumpster and walked away with numerous packages. Yesterday a father and mother with their nine year-old son came to the Centre asking for assistance. Sasha had been badly burned in an explosion several years ago. The little fellow has had numerous surgeries. What was obvious was his neck - a patchwork of criss-crossing skin pulling in different directions. He is growing and the skin isn't able to stretch. Apparently there is medical/surgical help available in Dnepropetrovsk, but is costly. Friends and neighbors are contributing as well as the parents taking out a loan. Would we be willing to help? Yesterday 80 pensioners came for a hot meal. Our capable cook, Ira, had made chicken and kasha. She told us that the pensioners had all wrapped up their chicken bones to "take home and give to their dogs". Not only is Ira a wonderful cook, she has also started a group for Moms with kids with disabilities. They had a meeting at the Centre today where they celebrated the "Moms", in keeping with International Women's Day this week. Much is made of this celebration including school closure for two days and women everywhere being presented with flowers. I was photographer for the event.

These few words are an attempt at answering the question "what are you going to be doing there?" We don't know for sure what each day brings as we continue our presence here.