Saturday, May 30, 2009


A beautiful summer day - our last in Ukraine. Over the past three months, working together with our Ukrainian director, we've initiated 19 major projects and provided aid to many more institutions and individuals. We are just one link in the chain making these projects possible. The following example illustrates this process.

It was a few days after Easter. Our cook at the Centre made us aware of needy families caring for invalid children at home. One case, which I highlighted in an earlier blog, touched our hearts in a particular way. When Drs. Art & Marlyce Friesen (board member) visited us several weeks ago we visited this family again. Marlyce writes the following "....we drove to the village and found our way to a small apartment. We were greeted by a smiling woman in her early fifties who ushered us into the family's small bedroom - four beds lining the walls, with just enough room to walk between. Lying in one of these beds was Igor Vladimirovich. The mother told us this story.

Twenty-one years ago she was pregnant with Igor. She developed difficulty with the delivery and a C-section was performed. Tragically her infant son suffered severe injuries which left him with profound cerebral palsy. He has no use of his arms and legs and is unable to sit. Although his mother feels he understands much of what is going on around him, he is non-verbal except for "Ma-Ma' and 'Pa-Pa'.
Igor lies in bed all day and hasn't been out of this room for three years. His mother is unable to leave him unattended because he has epileptic seizures several times a day. He cannot control his bladder and bowel function and needs frequent diaper and bedding changes. His mother does laundry by hand.

They live in poverty. Windows are kept closed even on warm days to prevent rats from entering. Her husband is also ill, suffering the effect of years of excessive alcohol consumption. The family receives a pension to help care for the son but it does not even cover essentials. Because Igor requires full-time care, his mother is not able to plant and tend a vegetable garden which most villagers have to provide essential food for the family.
As the mother tells this story she lovingly strokes her son's face and cups his chin in the palm of her hand and we realize she is seeing the beauty of God's creation in her disabled son and even though there were tears in our eyes and our hearts were aching we rejoiced in the miracle of a mother's unfailing love."

A few days later we received an email from a friend at home in Canada asking whether there might be a project our Care Group could take on before they disband for the summer. In less than a week they raised enough funds to buy this family a washing machine, laundry soap, sheets, towels, diapers and a window screen.

What a joy to deliver the machine this afternoon. We believe the best support for Igor is to support his loving, care-giving mother. She was speechless; overwhelmed. She told how her hands ached from wringing the wash each day and how this was particularly difficult in winter. Then she couldn't stop smiling.

We are grateful for each link in the chain that makes help possible, our North American board which sets policy and approves projects, our cook who became aware of the need, directors who investigate and facilitate, our truly caring Care Group at home and finally our maintenance man who helps when installations are necessary. What a joy to be a link in this chain and what a wonderful way to complete our assignment.

Saturday, May 23, 2009


One of the pleasures coming into a new country is trying out cultural foods. Recently I've been identified as a "true Ukrainian" just because I've tasted salo. It took some courage biting into the piece of pork fat, this coming from a person who has always meticulously trimmed all the white from any meat. But, not so bad, in fact it was surprisingly tasty. Ukrainians love salo. Slabs of this salty flavored pork fat cover several tables at the Tokmak bazaar and holding pride of place amidst these mounds is a pig head. The story goes that salo became popular when the price of meat was out of reach for most Ukrainians. Now it's become a fad with unique inovations. We are told that small sticks of salo, covered in chocolate have become available at some of the posh restaurants in bigger cities.

Just around the corner from the salo tables is the dairy section. Women sell large batches of homemade tvorog another mainstay in the Ukrainian diet. It is a cross between ricotta and cottage cheese, but doesn't really taste like either. It can be eaten with jam & sour cream for breakfast, as a snack or used in all sorts of sweet and savory recipes. I've made blinchiki - stuffed crepes, syriniki - fried patties, and zapikanka - baked with a bit of cream of wheat, raisins and sour cream, often eaten for breakfast. Fcoosna, delicious! Adjacent to the tvorog section one can find varieties of soured milk - yogurt, kefir and riazhanka (boiled milk with sour cream added), each with its unique flavor and texture and much more tasty than expected.

Last week Dema and Oksana invited us for Plov, pronounced plaof. He is the Plov expert and we discovered that there is an exactness to the preparation, in fact there is a ritual. It is cooked in layers of browned meat, onions, carrots and rice with special seasoning. Apparantly the dish originated in Uzbekistan but has been adopted in many Central Asian cultures. It is said that there are as many recipes for Plov as there are cooks. As we watched the chef at work we were given step-by-step explanations. NEVER EVER stir the rice when making plov. Again we found that it is possible to take simple ingredients, combine them in a certain way with sensational results.

Food and water - necessities of life. Over the last few years as we've travelled around the Molotchna area and visited former Mennonite villages, we became aware that the village of Neukirch, now Udarnik, population 340 inhabitants, has no water. For at least ten years they have been trucking in water because the wells are "sour". Last year the Mennonite Centre donated a water tank to the village school so that children would have the opportunity of washing their hands. We visited the school recently and were told that they are now in the process of providing drinking water for their students. Many things we take so for granted are a luxury here. It has been our joy to be able to help this school.

Monday, May 11, 2009


Last weekend Mother's Day was celebrated in various parts of the world. In Ukraine women are honored on March 8 which is "Women's Day". It is a national holiday and traditionally women are presented with flowers. On the theme of women and mothers I would like to tell you a bit more about the Moms that meet at our Centre every Wednesday morning. The leader of this group, Oksana, has been alternating discussion sessions with a cooking class and a craft class and occasionally inviting a guest speaker.

During the midst of a discussion session two weeks ago one of our moms received a phone call. She appeared distressed and wiped some tears from her eyes but didn't comment. Several days later we were told that her husband had walked out on her. A week later another mom told the same story. Now all but one of our group are single mothers.
Lately we've been talking about parenting issues. We discussed the poem -
"Children Live What They Learn"

If children live with criticism, they learn to condemn. If children live with hostility, they learn to fight. If children live with fear, they learn to be apprehensive. If children live with pity, they learn to feel sorry for themselves. If children live with ridicule, they learn to feel shy. If children live with jealousy, they learn to feel envy. If children live with shame, they learn to feel guilty. If children live with acceptance, they learn to love. If children live with approval, they learn to like themselves. If children live with recognition, they learn it is good to have a goal. If children live with sharing, they learn generosity. If children live with honesty, they learn truthfulness. If children live with fairness, they learn justice. If children live with faith, they learn hope. If children live with kindness and consideration, they learn respect. If children live with security, they learn to have faith in themselves and in those about them. If children live with friendliness, they learn the world is a nice place in which to live.

Oksana translated this into Russian and last week we made up wall hangings. It's a challenge to find craft supplies. Fortunately Mennonite Heritage Cruise passengers had brought humanitarian aid supplies along and we found some pretty paper. We managed to find narrow wooden moulding strips which we used for framing and then set the moms to work putting things together.

They had a great time being creative and were so grateful for the message. The mom in the red hat asked for five additional copies to hand out to her friends. Most of these moms don't come from a faith background, so it came as a surprise when they asked whether they could do something similar with the Lord's Prayer. Consequently next month Oksana will review the parts of this prayer and they will have an opportunity to practice their creativity again.
We are in the process of procuring some resource materials for this moms group and are very grateful to friends in our home church who have donated towards this purchase.

Monday, May 4, 2009


By God's mercy the rains have come - just in time. It hadn't rained for more than six weeks and the land was parched. Now you can literally see things growing. This is vital not only for the many kitchen gardens that provide sustenance to our people but also for the vast fields of grain that produce a large part of the Ukraine economy. Barring drought, it has been estimated that Ukraine will export 6 million tons of wheat in the year ending June 2009, compared to 700,000 tons in 2008. And by September the barley export is expected to be 6 million tons up from 1.7 million tons in 2008. If all goes well - a triple increase.

Further deeds of mercy at our doorstep. Several days ago a letter appeared on our desk, delivered from across the street. Back in early spring an elderly neighbor asked for help. Dema, our manager, and Vitaly, our maintenance man responded. This is a direct translation of her letter.

I thank you very much, the Directors of the Centre, for helping me with sawing down the trees in the yard in front of my house and sawing it into firewoods. That was done by Dmitry Ivanovich and Vitaly Tutik free of charge. I thank them very much.

I am almost 80 years old. All my life I worked hard, brought up my children, I'm a participant of the war, I am weak and sick. I need an operation on my eyes, but I can't because of circumstances of my life. My son worries me every day. He is an alcoholic. He was in prison not only once. He doesn't work. Sometimes he beats me and promises to kill me when is drunken.

So I thank the Centre very much for helping me. May our Lord bless you all good successes in your activities and good health.

April 28, 2009 With respect (Signature)

Another recent experience with a neighbour, living a short distance from us. I was introduced to Raisa in the fall of 2005. She is a widow, of German descent, who married a Ukrainian. She has lived alone for many years and become reclusive. She has, however, allowed a few people into her life. Being able to communicate in German helps. When we returned this year were told that she had lost her mobilibty and become bedridden. A merciful family in the neighborhood bring in meals three times daily and provide personal care.

Last Friday Raisa turned 88. I was invited to join several others for a birthday tea. Raisa was not told in advance because she probably would not have allowed it. Contrary to her incapacitated physical condition she is mentally alert and hasn't lost her feistiness. She has no children. Her deceased husband's relatives have been pressuring to place her in the psychiatric hospital, the only, but very poor option for institutional care. She has flatly refused. Seeing her frailty and her ulcerated legs and hearing about her struggle was heart-wrenching. Medical aids and equipment we take so for granted at home are unknown in local towns and villages. We hope to be able to implement some ideas to help make her more comfortable. At the suggestion of her neighbour, I brought her a light-weight head scarf. She had only very warm ones. Her immediate response was, "I will save this for my burial".

Similar stories are repeated over and over again. We hope shortly to revive the Mercy Group who will visit the housebound in order that these needy people are cared about and not forgotten.

Saturday, April 25, 2009


When we first came to Molochansk in the fall of 2005 we met a group of women who gathered at the Centre every week and then went into the community to visit and encourage shut-ins. We were pleased to support this Mercy Group. Even though the need is as great as ever the group has had to disband for several reasons. Sadly very little organized care is available to those who are no longer able to care for themselves. If family and neighbors don't step in these people are marginalized and almost forgotten.

Last fall the church where we worship started a nursing home on a very small scale. What had been an apartment at one end of the church was renovated and now accomodates three elderly women. Some former members of the Mercy Group have taken over the care of these residents. Admission is open to anyone, the only requisite being that they have no one to look after them. Families are often reluctant to allow their needy elders to go into residential care. It means forfeiting the elderly person's pension which, in many cases, has now become the family's livelihood. It all gets very complicated.

When renovations were completed last fall, the opening had to be delayed because the village had no water. Kutuzovka is often without water and this was the dilemma when the Mennonite Heritage Cruise visited in October. Passengers became aware of the issue and before the day was over collected enough money to pay for a well. A miracle, an act of mercy! Since then this has become known as "Jacob's Well" - Jacob Thiessen is the pastor.

Last week food hampers were distributed to shut-ins who are no longer able to attend our Senior's lunches. We also brought hampers to four homes where families are caring for disabled children. If children are mentally alert they qualify for home tutoring and teachers will visit in the afternoon. There is, however, almost no integration into "normal" society. Appropriate equipment such as wheelchairs or walkers are difficult to obtain and transporation is a problem. There is still a stigma and often these children remain hidden. One mother wiped tears from her eyes, she was so touched that we had bothered to come. She said nobody comes. Another case was particularly sad. A twenty-one year old non-verbal, severely disabled son is being cared for by his mother. This year the father also became bedridden. They live in extreme poverty and all three occupy a small bedroom. The son lies on a narrow fold-down couch. His legs are permanently crossed and he hasn't been out of the room for three years. The mother says he has pressure sores. She raised him up and spoke to him so lovingly. Not a complaining word was spoken. We would love to do something to ease the burden for this family.
By law medical care is free in Ukraine, but in practice this isn't the case. We receive frequent requests for medical aid and have been able to provide assistance to fund critical surgeries and to help people in desperate need of medications. Our deeds of mercy are made possible by our generous donors.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009


Spring is here and there are signs of new life everywhere. The first evidence appeared at the market where we noticed huge sacks of radishes - such a welcome addition to the rather sad and forlorn-looking cabbages, carrots and potatoes that have been hibernating in someone's root cellar all winter. It's amazing how the sight and taste of these little red globes can bring so much pleasure. We realize again how spoiled we've become back home with all the choices and abundance. Here we're rediscovering the joy of doing "more with less." This is exactly what our people do - serving delicious meals using whatever is availalbe, decorating with a minimum of materials, creating interesting and imaginative programs with few resources.

Easter Sunday was an example. 130 people crowded our worship space, not a chair to spare. The children and youth were all involved in recreating the resurrection story, moving from a contemporary scene of questioning to the historical narrative itself. The joyful Easter greeting Христос воскрес! воистено воскрес! - repeated three times, rang out again and again, Christ is risen, Christ is risen ideed.

Earlier in the week Ira, our cook, Oksana and I baked paska for our Mom's group. When they came to the Centre on Wednesday we made the cottage cheese spread together and then had tea. We kept hearing murmurs of "вкусно", phonetically pronounced fcoosna, the "oo-o" long drawn out. This is Russian for "delicious".

Of all religious holidays in Ukraine Easter is the most important. We shared family traditions. Our Moms all come from Russian Orthodox backgrounds and over time they have let go of some of the strict traditional observances. The season of Lent was 40 days of deprivation, giving up eating meat, eggs, butter and leavened bread. It was meant to be a time of soul cleansing and penitence. Paska had great symbolic significance. The one who baked the bread must keep her thoughts pure and remain quiet while the bread is being baked. It is not eaten until Easter Sunday after it has been taken to the cathedral at midnight and blessed by the priest. They talked of how their mothers had cleaned their house, washed the curtains and white-washed the tree trunks all in preparation for this great event.

The yard at the Centre was also given a spring make-over. Our tree trunks were given a fresh coat of white-wash. We joined the staff in clearing the lawn of rocks and debris in preparation for the first mowing. Then the highlight of the day - we introduced the staff to a wiener roast. The debri was lit in our fire-pit, sausages were bought, Rudy created wiener sticks and we had a feast.

Sunday, April 12, 2009


Common to every household in the towns and villages of southeastern
Ukraine are fences and gates. These gates are necessary and functional. First of all they provide a degree of security. Then they also protect the pedestrian from the fierce-sounding, ever-present yappers on the other side of the gate.

Gates also make a statement. Some appear welcoming, others seem to say "keep out". As each little house has it's unique character, so rarely are two gates alike. Many are colorful and creatively designed, some are whimsical - Ukrainian folk art. And there are those that appear to be status symbols and can only be described as "grand entrances".

We are reminded of elaborate gates leading to manor homes of some
of our ancestors. We identify a few as we travel along the country-side. Some are white-washed and kept in good repair. Others, such as the example above, situated close to where we live, are falling into ruin.

And we can't forget the gate-keepers. These intrepid babushkas can be seen sitting on their benches outside their gates. A Ukrainian describes them this way:

Proper Ukrainian traditions are carefully watched by our “Vice Squad”. Our babushkas spend the better part of their day sitting out on their benches. They are active, pushy, know everybody and everything. Don’t argue with them if they say you aren’t behaving properly – it would be best just to disappear.

I can't take credit for this picture. So far I haven't had the courage to stop and take a photo for fear of being slighted, because sadly I don't have the language to ask for permission.

At the Mennonite Centre our gate is open seven days a week. All are welcome to come in. Some come just to sit on our benches and soak up the sun. Some come as tourists, having heard about the Centre and wanting to see for themselves. Some come with medical needs and visit our doctors, others come with more critical medical issues and we try to help if we can. Some days the Centre rings with song as groups rehearse for Sunday services. Some days we hear the laughter of children as the Mom's group gathers. Again we express our gratitude to all those who are helping to make this happen.

Today we heard of another gate. It is Palm Sunday in Ukraine. In our church service this morning we were encouraged to open the gate of our heart to Him who welcomes all without discrimination. We want to do the same.

Friday, April 3, 2009


There's a stark beauty to the landscape in early spring. Last Sunday afternoon was warm and sunny. We took a long walk west of town following the river. Fish are plentiful due to the spring runoff and fishermen were pulling in their catches. Right now fresh fish can also be bought very reasonably - we're told, 3-5 grievna per kilo. Not bad - and a great way to supplement the usual diet. Dema, our manager is salting and drying them on his closed-in balcony much to the dismay of his wife who now has to hang her laundry everywhere throughout the house -and never mind the smell.

Nights are still frosty but that doesn't deter people from tilling the soil and planting their gardens. As we walk along we think again of our forefathers and mothers coming to this land, working the soil and reaping the harvests, and over time developing a thriving culture. The land is still very productive and we ponder - what has changed, why so much poverty? We know there are many reasons, mostly beyong the control of people we meet day to day.

We had visitors this week - Florence Driedger from Regina, former Social Work professor with a specialty in Restorative Justice, and Lucy Alexievna, Social Work professor in Zaporozhye plus one of her students. Over a number of years Florence has been a Social Development Consultant in Zaporozhye. She and her husband Otto have gained highly-respected reputations in Ukraine, in fact an organization has been named after her. The Florence Centre is involved in many projects - with elderly, families and students as well as working with the poor and disabled. It also provides practicum opportunities for students at the University which had been an unknown concept here. Our organization has provided scholarships for several social work students who have had part of their training at the Florence Centre. They mentioned that Lida and Oksana were among their best students. These are now employed in our region. We updated each other on various projects. It was an interesting morning.

Delegation from Zaporozhye

There are many social issues that make life more complicated here. Domestic abuse is a big problem, primarily verbal abuse, wives against husbands, possibly a consequence of huge unemployment numbers. Another form of abuse is that of taking advantage of vulnerable people. An example - told to us by the pastor of our church. Last year when credit became available people owning a passport needed only to show this document and they were able to take a loan from the bank. Most of them had no idea what a trap this could be, and they weren’t given any information or warnings. Several months ago a woman from Molochansk came to the this pastor and said, “either you help me or I will commit suicide." This is what had happened. In fall this woman had bought a fridge on credit valued at 1000 grievna with the agreement that she would make monthly payments of 100 grievna. This carried on until she became ill and missed two payments. When she was able, she resumed paying again and then was notified that she now owed 3000 grievna and was threatened that her house could be seized. In her utter desperation she approached the pastor who began to advocate for her but got nowhere. As further time elapsed the sum became 4000 grievna. The pastor and another missionary were able to put up the money and the woman is now repaying them the 4000 grievna, 100 grievna per month, interest free. She is one of the lucky ones.
So our days continue, we hear many sad stories. However, looking out of kitchen window we see the earth renewing itself. We look out on a soccer field. Each day we see many young people exercising and having a thorougly good time. We hope and pray that life is going to be easier for them. And in the meantime we try to alleviate some of the sorrow.

Thursday, March 26, 2009


Walking the local streets and traveling through the villages in this land of our ancestors we have our impressions and draw our conclusions. Then something happens and we’re reminded that things are different and more complex than they appear at first glance. Our perceptions are so tinged with Western thinking and we draw our conclusions so quickly.
A recent example. We are walking down the main street past the former Mennonite Zentral-schule. Trees are budding and the promise of spring is in the air. Suddenly we see a row of trees cut down to just above the trunk. We look down another street and hear saws at work, more tree-tops are coming down. We think “OH NO” – what is springtime going to be like without blossoming trees lining the streets and we get quite upset. Maybe we have to set up a blockade. We ask some questions and hear, “… not to worry, this is good for the trees, they’ll grow new branches and it hasn’t been done for 15 years – its time.” We think “they haven’t come down our street yet and maybe they’ll be selective”, but they do come down our street. Sunday morning we are attending a church service and it’s time for sharing joys and concerns. A lady gets up and praises the Lord. Zhena had lost her job and was so worried she wouldn’t be able to make ends meet. Then the town hired her to cut trees – what a joy and what a relief. Reality hits us in the face. The trees aren’t dead, they’ll grow back. Some people will now have enough to eat.

In our efforts to model civil society we have been trying to purchase legitimate software for our computers at the Centre – not as simple as one may think. In the large city of Zaporozhye we search in vain. We come back to our neighboring city of Tokmak which has two computer shops. Same story at the first shop. Then surprise – the last place we look has what we want and we discover that recently new computers have been coming with legitimate software, but purchasers have asked to have it removed and replaced with pirated copies because it’s cheaper that way. When we pay for the legal software we realize the irony that it’s ours only due to corruption in the system. It did however allow us to answer the question….”and why would you want to do this?” by saying we need to follow the dictates of our conscience and be an example by doing what's honest.

We’ve had a lot of rain in this in-between season linking winter and spring. Roads gape with potholes. On various major roads in Molochansk we now encounter enormous twin speed bumps requiring traffic to come to a virtual halt -causing us to ponder priorities in road maintenance. But, there is maintenance on a lesser scale. Saturday morning we were on our way to the market to buy our vegetables. It had rained heavily and the street/path leading to our apartment was one long string of brimming potholes. There was Dema, our manager with shovel and metal pipe in hand, digging a deep hole beside the road, pushing the pipe through to the potholes and draining them.
A minor engineering feat and our path was navigable again.
Left to dry this would’ve taken many days. And he was having a great time – said it took him back to his childhood. Here is a man of many talents and skills, not minding getting his hands dirty. We’re having a good time working together. Dema’s father was visiting from Kiev. He spent a good part of the week breaking up bricks, filling the potholes and then covering all with sand. What a transformation!

We continue to perceive many needs. We are hoping to initiate a new project which will restore vision to many in our community. For instance among the many seniors coming to our Centre for tea we have seen only one wearing glasses. Here an average pair of glasses costs the equivalent of five US dollars. With gratitude to our donors we are able to respond and bring hope to people who have so little.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009


After two years - we've come back again. On cursory glance not much has changed. The programs at the Centre continue as before - senior's teas, medical clinics, mom's group, church music group rehearsals and Bible studies, children's gatherings. However, as we hear people talk, and listen to their stories we're catching glimpses beneath the surface. When we first came to Molochansk 3 1/2 years ago there was industry here. Natural gas came to town and there was promise of business and investment. It hasn't happened. Making matters worse, last year the Willm's mill (condensed milk factory) shut down for good, throwing 200 people out of work. This year the furniture factory is working at 1/3 capacity, only 2-3 days a week. A half year ago the Prischib Internat dismissed 21 workers among them Ludmilla whom we had gotten to know. A year ago when things were looking better and credit became more readily available, many people took out loans to renovate their homes and buy appliances. Now jobs are gone, banks are calling loans and people are becoming desperate. So far pensioners have a guaranteed income and from their small pensions are helping children and grandchildren. We are told that in many places youth is out of control, crime is increasing. Recently a grandmother was murdered for 20 grievna (between two and three dollars). A local doctor has had to take a 600 grievna reduction in her 1500 grievna/monthly salary because the Molochansk hospital closed a department to enable the Tokmak hospital to remain viable. Last week 1 US dollar bought us 8.4 grievna. How do people survive and how do we respond? We listen as people come to us in personal crises and give discretionary aid as we are able. These difficult times bring a reevaluation of needs and wants. Many people return to subsistance living, depending on their kitchen gardens, root cellars, raising rabbits, chickens and geese. Some go to Russia to work, but even there jobs aren't readily available.

A strong focus of our work at the Centre has been enabling children and youth to engage in constructive activities. Thus, we continue to support Music and Sports Schools which provide opportunities during the afternoons - the school day runs from 8:30-12:30. This new pair of cymbals for the Molochansk band was provided by a couple in the Fraser Valley. We've been assisting Kindergartens in various ways because the government pays only salaries. Kindergarten children visit the Centre regularly delighting Seniors with their performances.

We continue to provide scholar-ships to promising young students so that they can further their education. Education was also at the heart of the Mennonite experience here a century ago. The Mennonite Centre building was the former Maedchenschule in the Molotchna colony. There is more and more interest locally in the history of this area. Julia Romanovna, a enterprising senior high school student recently wrote a research paper on "Education in Halbstadt 100 Years Ago". She entered a state competition and won 3rd prize.

We've sensed an absence of hope in some of the adults we've spoken to, but not the young people. Eighteen bouyant teens crowded our apartment the evening that Larissa left, bidding farewell to a person who had left a strong, positive impression on their lives. We're convinced that investing in young people will bear strong dividends for the future of Ukraine.