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.