Monday, May 31, 2010


Tomorrow morning we leave for home. Our three months have flown by, not quite enough time to see everything through, but others will come and carry on. It's been another adventure and activity packed week. As in other years we were invited to attend graduations and final concerts of the Molochansk band, music and dance schools. We have supported each of these institutions and it is a pleasure to see them thriving. Most memorable was the dance concert at which a tribute was given to Nikolai Nikolaiovich, the beloved director of the Molochansk Music School, who passed away in April. While the band played Albinoni's Adagio in G Minor, a powerpoint of his life was shown and dancers, many of them weeping, performed beautifully choreographed movements by candlelight. His legacy will live on.

The "Last Bell" ceremony at the Ukrainian school was a gala outdoor production. On observation we decided that the theme had to be "Launched to Fly." Actors dressed in black and white performed a pantomine which included releasing a black and white bird. There were emotional farewells to teachers, parents were honored, then the torch was passed to younger students. The ceremony concluded as graduates symbolically released balloons into the sky. One hopes the world they will be entering will open doors of opportunity for them, allowing them to fly.

Lack of employment and corruption remain huge problems. Russlan is 31 years old. He is a recovering alcoholic. Four years ago, he told us, he was a very bad man. Then our pastor and his wife, Jacob and Natasha Tiessen, offered him shelter. Today people do not believe he is the same person. Last month he was able to find employment in a greenhouse, working 13 hour days. The first weeks he was given positive feedback, then on the fourth week his employer began finding fault with him. This escalated and finally he was sent away, given only bus fare home. This is the second such incident we've heard about in past weeks. There seems little protection for employees unless a formal contract is entered into. Before we left home a friend handed us some money to be used for a project of our choice. Rudy had the idea of providing a bicycle for a boy from a poor family. We were talking about this with the Tiessens when Jacob asked, "how about a 31 year old boy?" Russlan is living with them again, has no means of transportation and is wanting to look for further work. There was no doubt in our minds that this was the right opportunity. Thursday we had the joy of presenting him with a new bicycle. For a moment he was speechless, then he immediately offered a prayer of thanksgiving. We've been told that he went around town telling people this story. He was told "this can't possibly happen , there has to be something sinister behind it." Experience has made many people suspicious and distrusting.

This week we again had the joy of hosting friends from home. Peter and Hilda Goertzen and their relatives from Germany joined us for several days. We spent Saturday driving through the countryside, visiting former Mennonite villages. Both Hilda and Rudy have roots in Hierschau. Several years ago we had connected with Margarita Krivetz, nee Plett, Rudy's distant relative. In the meantime we heard that she had moved to Zaporozhye, was very ill and unresponsive. People in Hierschau, however, told us that she was back living with her daughter-in-law. We managed to locate her and there was immediate recognition. What a joyful reunion with this delightful ninety year old.

Yesterday, one more fascinating day. We had the opportunity of hosting 60 MEDA representatives from North America as well as the Canadian Ambassador to Ukraine, His Excellencey, Daniel Caron. Mennonite Economic Development Associates has been given a multi-million dollar CIDA grant and is one and one half years into a five year project aimed at helping 5000 small scale farmers in the Zaporozhye region and Crimea get access to credit and gain skills in planting, storing, packaging and marketing their produce. Ukraine used to be the breadbasket of Europe.

the Ambassador & Rudy

Now Ukraine farmers are again tilling Russian Mennonite ancestral soil. We joined Steve Wright, (photo to right) the director of the project, and the MEDA group in visiting two model farmers in our area. One Molochansk farmer has a cell of 75 farmers producing table grapes, seedlings and garlic. He is obviously prospering. The other is operating on a much smaller scale, also producing grape seedlings, strawberries and roses. Our staff provided a delicious noon meal and we were entertained by Natasha, a Ukrainian MEDA staff person who sang Ukrainian folksongs, accompanying herself on the bandura. In the afternoon we escorted a group on visits to former Mennonite historical sites. It was interesting to visit Juschanlee, to think back to the time of Johann Cornies more than 150 years ago and realize what he was able to achieve in land reforms and agricultural practices in the Mennonite colonies. Perhaps history will repeat itself.

Sunday, May 23, 2010


After two weeks of rainy weather the landscape is lush and green, meadow grasses more than waist-high in places; acacia trees lining the streets, spreading their graceful branches laden with blossoms exuding intoxicating perfume; fruit trees bursting with ripe cherries and apricots swelling before our eyes. As we look out of our kitchen window we observe people foraging for mushrooms on the soccer field. All of this so different from last year when frosts destroyed blossoms and rains failed to come in time. If all goes well Ukraine should have an abundant harvest this year.

As we travel city and country roads we still see remnants of our Mennonite past, but sadly many buildings are crumbling. This week we had the opportunity of driving to Chortitza and I was able once again to see the girls' school my mother attended in the early 1920's. This magnificent building was erected in 1904 to provide high school education for girls. It is still a school today; it hurts to see the structure deteriorating. There is no money to provide the needed repairs. A few days ago we received a visit by the head doctor of our local hospital telling us that they are being forced to downsize, offering us the former Muntau Hospital, suggesting that we could use the space to operate a nursing home. It is too costly for them to heat and a lot of repair is needed. A century ago this hospital was led to prominence by Dr. Tavonious who loved the people and at the same time kept abreast of scientific medical advances.

Next door to our apartment we see the shell of the former Willms mansion which was built in 1908 and at that time referred to as a "palace". It's former grandeur is still evident. As recently as 15 years ago the building was used as a concert hall and a place to host special events. Destruction set in after Ukraine independence because there was no money or will to maintain it. Sadly it has become a hangout. Tourists from North America and Europe continue to arrive hoping to connect with their past and set foot on ancestral soil. This week we hosted two such groups. It takes a bit of courage and dexterity to enter the Willms mansion. Walking through the enormous salon at one end of the house there were differences of opinion as to what the recessed space in front of the stage was meant to be. Some suggested an orchestra pit, others a baptismal tank. So much for orientation and perception. It's a pleasure to host these groups, to show them through our museum and to relay information. Our cooks provide delectable meals on request.

Wednesday our Mom's group had a cooking class - using ingredients that are readily available in every household - bread and eggs. They decided that next month they would like to branch out from the known and try something a little more exotic. Many are single moms, some living with a parent, unemployed, depending on their kitchen gardens for their livelihood. For most, this two hour block in the week in an oasis, a time of listening and sharing, a time of creativity and fun, a time when they can forget their day-to-day cares and burdens. The group is lead by Oksana, who is also our able bookkeeper.

More than 300 young people attended another "Youth for Life" presentation on Thursday. It was held a the local Russian school. A further event is planned for the Tokmak city schools in September. So far over 20 schools have participated. Each school is choosing a student who exhibits a healthy life-style. An awards ceremony is in the offing later this week.

A visit to the local psychiatric hospital was an eye-opener in terms of facility and patient care. This large facility services the region and again there is little government money for upkeep and repair. The floors in the women's section were in dreadful condition and our organization agreed to put in tiles. Staff expressed deep appre-ciation when we went to see the finished task.

Ben Stobbe, our board chair from Victoria BC, is with us for two weeks. It has been very helpful in terms of review and setting goals for the organization. Our time is rapidly drawing to a close. Our eyes have been opened to a greater understanding of Mennonite history, faith and culture here in Ukraine and also the needs around us. We hope and pray that our perceptions will lead to helpful decision making and enablement.

Monday, May 17, 2010


Over the past week we've had the pleasure and the privilege of delving into various aspects of our Mennonite past. We joined our friends, Peter and Helene in their quest to find Helene's ancestral villages. She knew that her maternal grandmother had married into the Nikolai Schmidt family, wealthy landowners of the Steinbach estate in the southeastern corner of the Molotschna colony. It wasn't difficult to find the place. Many buildings still remain and are maintained as part of an orphanage surrounded by lush green fields and golden meadows. Aside from a few young boys, the place seemed deserted. We took our time wandering through the area, sharing memories that had been passed along through the generations. Finding the village of Franzthal however, was another story. This was the village where Helene's father grew up. She knew the general location, even farther east than Steinbach, but had been told that nothing remains. Her father, for whom it was very important that Helene at least set foot on familial soil, had given precise instructions. "Get to the village of 'Nelhovtje,' go through and you will find a bridge over the Juschanlee river. On the other side is Franzthal." As a young man living in this region in the 1940's, it had been his job to deliver the post on horseback, riding from village to village. We managed to find "Nelhovtje", drove through the village in the direction of the river until the road became a narrow track. Should we carry on? As we sat and deliberated, a car drove up. Using what meagre Russia we had plus sign language we indicated that we were looking for Franzthal. The people in turn indicated that they would be right back and sure enough, in minutes found someone who could speak English. Yes, we could drive down the track and would soon come to the river. Before long a beautiful pastoral vista unfolded, but sadly the bridge spanned only half the river. As we strolled along the meandering stream, seeing a loon and a heron, we tried to imagine ourselves 150 years ago, glancing across the water and seeing a thriving Mennonite village with 3 flourmills, a brickyard and other businesses, farms and orchards.

A major highlight at the end of the week again took us back 150 years, but this time in a different direction. We had the opportunity of participating in a celebration commemorating the 150th anniversary of the formation of the Mennonite Brethren church on the site of the first MB church building in the village of Rueckenau. Together with many Ukrainians from surrounding communities we joined an international delegation from Japan, Germany, Brazil and Canada. Unfortunately representatives from Paraguay were held up in Vienna due to a visa problem. As we waited for proceedings to get underway, it was a delight to see a familiar face, Margarita, who had spent a year in Abbotsford with the MCC Volunteer Exchange Program. She is now back home in Zaporozhye.
Interestingly, it was Ukrainian dignitaries who welcomed us to the commemoration. Elizaveta Vladyslavovna recounted the history of Mennonites coming to Ukraine at the invitiation of Catherine the Great to colonize the Russian steppes, on to the disintegration and tragic end of the Mennonite commonwealth. She asked us to honour our past and not be ashamed of our motherland. Representatives from the Zaporozhye Oblast and the Tokmak Region gave greetings. We were entertained by a Ukrainian folk ensemble and Marina Romanova sang an moving song in German and Ukrainian. In answer to my query about the text, she wrote out these words: Das Lied ist ueber Russland, die verlassen ist von Mennoniten. Sie muessen zurueck reisen. Es tut leid, das Elternhaus und Graeber zu verlassen. Translated: the song is about Russia, left by the Mennonites. They must return. It hurts to leave fatherland and gravesites behind. Greetings were relayed by Johann Matthies, MBMSI representative for Europe and Asia. David Wiebe, Executive Director of the Canadian MB Conference addressed the audience as well as giving greetings from ICOMB, The International Community of Mennonite Brethren. Rev. Moriki Hatakenaka from Tokyo spoke about the chain of events causing Mennonites to leave Ukraine, to move to North America, then to come to Japan as missionaries sharing the gospel. He closed with a prayer of gratitude. Then finally, the unveiling of the plaque engraved in Ukrainian, German and English. Mounted next to a pole which once held a communist flag on the wall of what is now a sunflower oil factory this memorial drew Ukrainians and Mennonites from around the world together in unity and will remain a symbol in the community.

Friday, May 7, 2010


This has been a week brimming with experiences, some pure delight and others thought- provoking. On Monday evening we boarded the train for the nine hour journey to Kiev. We'd heard various comments and warnings were we ever to attempt this mode of travel. For example, "Don't drink too much before you depart because you don't want to have to use the washroom." Or "If you value your well-being politely decline the offer of tea, because the same lady making the tea also cleans the bathrooms." Needless to say, we had some apprehensions, none of which materialized. Dema, who grew up in Kiev, accompanied us and we were graciously hosted by his in-laws. His knowledge of the city was invaluable to us as we visited many historical sights. It was pure joy to share these experiences with Peter and Helene, friends from home. We met them at the airport and allowed them barely enough time to catch their breath before the sight-seeing began.

Most heart-rending was our visit to the Babi Yar Memorial commemorating the loss of more than 33,000 Jews during the genocide that occurred at the site on Sept. 29-30, 1941. The bed of forget-me-nots was a poignant reminder. Our day ended with a stroll through the centre of the city at dusk, seeing the sunset on the Dnieper River and the lights illuminating monuments and historical places.

Next morning we met up with friends, Kim and Wes Janzen and their three teen-aged children who are currently in Ukraine with Music Mission Kiev. Part of Wes' assignment is serving as guest conductor of the Kiev Symphony and Chorus. He also teaches up to 100 students at the seminary at St. Michaels Ukrainian Orthodox Church and has developed a warm relationship with the Metropolitan. We were invited to join them on a one-hour tour of the cathedral museum/gallery. It was inspiring to see these two men, the #2 official of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church and an evangelical musician/missionary relating as kinsmen in the faith, both concerned with building God's kingdom. We had the opportunity to tell them about our work at the Mennonite Centre. Similar to what we do, Music Mission Kiev also helps widows, orphans and conducts children's camps. The Horbans had brought a suitcase plus several big bags of wool sent by John and Rita Thiessen for their widows group. There was great rejoicing at the unpacking!
We were invited to return in the afternoon and listen to Wes rehearse the Symphony Chorus in Haydn's Creation and Monteverdi's Beatus Vir. What a wonderful choir - all music academy graduates. Had we been fluent in Ukrainian we would have been tempted to join in. We gratefully accepted the Janzen's invitation to dinner and joined them at the opera in the evening. The performance of Donizetti's Elixir of Love at the grand National Opera House was the crowning event of the day.

During the mid-day interval we visited the Chernobyl Museum, another worthwhile experience. It was sobering to learn that this disaster was a horrific consequence of poor decision-making.

On our final day, a guided tour of the Golden Gate of Kiev gave us a broad understanding of the history of this city. It was interesting to see parts of the fortification wall still in existence, dating back more than 1000 years. We concluded our sightseeing by visiting St. Sophia's Cathedral. This complex with its 13 golden domes blending into the skyline dates back 900 years. We climbed to the top of the bell tower and enjoyed the panoramic views.

The picture was taken from the bell tower and shows St. Michaels in the distance.

Another 9 hour night of shaking and rattling as the train brought us back to Zaporozhye. We are left with a rich array of cultural, spiritual and historical experiences and memories to ponder.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010


It continues to be a joy to be able to help young people struggling with disabilities and seeing the difference even a little aid can make to their lives. The same holds true as we become aware of the needs of institutions and organizations. Sadly, in this country so many of these are underfunded. Several examples.

Meet Oleg Bondaryenko,the bandmaster of Molochansk Music School. Each weekday afternoon he instructs young people in the intricacies of playing brass, woodwind and percussion instruments as well as working with the band. Not so long ago this group was struggling along, playing on a few battered instruments dating back to communist times. Currently the only funding provided by government is small teacher salaries. In 2006 the government put this school on the closure list. Due in large part to lobbying by Canadian musicians the school was allowed to remain open. In addition to the band, well qualified teachers continue to offer instruction in piano, strings, voice and dance.

Over the years, thanks to donations by individual supporters, we have brought 12 instruments from Canada. These have enabled the band to enter national competitions. Last year they placed second in Zaporozhye and one of the trumpeters won first place in the solo class. It has now become possible to purchase fairly acceptable band instruments in Ukraine. Several days ago it was our joy to meet with Oleg and give him the good news that our board of directors approved purchase of ten more instruments. It is difficult to describe the look on his face when he received this information - almost disbelief. More instruments will enable more young people to participate and will complete the instruments required for a full band. He told us that band alumni are now playing in six major orchestras in Ukraine.

Alexander Petrovich, a member of Kutuzovka Mennonite church, has devoted his life to working with young people. For the past 30 years, he together with an assistant, have run a sports school for street children and at-risk youth in Tokmak. Through the generosity of a German donor he has access to the use of a large building which over time has been converted to a gym with a basketball court, a weight-training space and tumbling areas. There is also a large trampoline and an outdoor recreation area. Currently 173 children are registered and enjoy the facility at no cost. Alexander knows each child personally. When recently hospitalized dozens of young people came to see him, bringing food and blankets. Hospital staff were astounded. What would draw all these children to come and visit this elderly man? Alexander Petrovich has no family and has devoted his life to this ministry. Before retirement he received a small salary from the state which he used to support the work and continues to do so now with his pension. FOMCU has contributed to this project by providing sports equipment, tumbling mats and balls.

In Ukraine the school day runs from 8:30 - 12:30. This leaves a half day for many children to fend for themselves. In communist times the afternoon options were music schools, sports schools and craft schools. These still exist, but because government funding is minimal, students are required to pay a small amount, eliminating this possibility for families living in poverty.

The care of orphans is a monumental problem in Ukraine. Statistics tell us that there are more than 100,000 orphans most of them living in state-run orphanages. When they are 17 they are forced to leave and have no one to care for them; no one to turn to for help. 10% of these are true orphans without parents who receive a small government stipend. The rest, 90%, are social orphans who are homeless due to abandonment, alcoholism or imprisonment of parents. These are left to fend on their own and are often ill-prepared to do so. Statistically within a year 10% of males commit suicide, 70% turn to crime, 60% of girls turn to prostitution. In Zaporozhye alone there are 9 orphanages and 43 in the region. There is a great need for transitioning, teaching these orphans life skills and providing vocational training. FOMCU is in conversation with others exploring potenial ways of dealing with this issue.

Friday, April 23, 2010


Bright red tulips everywhere we look, blossoming trees, buzzing bees, singing birds, serenading dogs - spring has arrived! In the space of a few days the face of earth has been transformed. Spring, the season of new life and new growth sends our thoughts winging toward youth again.

In the last week we visited several young people living with disabilities. We had the joy of celebrating Katya Samofalova's eighth birthday. She suffers from cerebral palsy, but there is nothing the matter with her mind. When we arrived she greeted us in three languages, - zdrastvuitje, guten tag, hello. Katya is a second grade student living in the village of Dolina. Due to her lack of mobility teachers visit her home each afternoon. Not only is she a good student, she also writes poetry. We presented her with a little booklet including her own poetry and pictures of her classmates. The following poem is a translation from Russian to German by her principal and then to English.

I Love

I love nature
and beautiful weather,
children's laughter
and being together -
all that makes the world
a wonderful place!

I love all the animals
and all the birds
which God our Father
made in love.
He always thinks of me!

Katya has a way of winning the hearts of people. Her principal, Marina Romanova, dreamed of providing a computer for Katya. Little by little, money was raised. Marina lobbied for funds as far away as the government in Kiev and Katya is now the proud possessor of a notebook. Three years ago FOMCU provided a wheelchair. Katya is a very special young girl with a zest for life.

Alyona Obernikina is 10 years old and lives on the outskirts of Molochansk. She was born hearing disabled - on the scale of one to four she is classified a three. Her father is one of our night watchmen. Monday through Friday she stays in a facility close to Zaporozhye. Here, among other studies, she receives one-on-one instruction in language, lip reading and learning to speak audibly. This is possible because FOMCU pays for her tutor. There is an optimum time for this type of learning and we don't want her to miss out. Alyona is capable and also artistic. When we visited she was a little shy initially, but warmed up and showed us booklets of her artwork and penmanship. She has a beautiful script. Also it was exciting to hear her and her mother hold a short verbal conversation.

Were this 120 years ago Alyona may have been attending the school for the deaf built by Mennonites in the village of Tiege, a half hour drive south of Molochansk. In its time this was a state-of-the-art institution and had the reputation of being the best school for the deaf in all of Russia. Teachers were trained in places as far away as St. Petersburg and Frankfurt. The building still exists but is in poor condition. Busts of Marx and Lenin hold pride of place in the front yard. The last time we were there the mayor, showing us around, pointed to these statues and remarked "Which one is deaf and which one is dumb."

Sasha Mezunsky is not disabled but became disfigured due to an accident. He is 13 and lives in the village of Novokhorivka 45 minutes north of Molochansk. Three years ago his parents brought him to the Centre asking for help. Sasha had been watching his older brother working on a motorbike when an accidental explosion caused severe burns to 65% of his body. Sasha was hospitalized for 2 months and had much skin grafting done; other donors were required. As time went by and he was growing it became evident that the scarred areas weren't stretching. What Sasha needed at that time was a surgical implant to administer silicone. The family asked for financial assistance; this procedure could only be done in Dnepropetrovsk. We were able to help them and today Sasha is a well-adjusted grateful boy, shown here with his school principal.

To be continued next week.

Friday, April 16, 2010


Coming to the Mennonite Centre Monday morning rumours are confirmed that all schools and businesses are closed. The president of Ukraine has declared "A Day of Remem-brance" standing in solidarity with the people of Poland who have suffered such tragic losses. Coincidentally this day and also Sunday are already days of remembrance in which Ukrainians traditionally visit the gravesites of their ancestors to tidy the plots, leave brightly coloured plastic flowers and sip a little vodka. Commerce stands still in Molochansk and it is quiet at the Centre. We take our receptionist Olga to the cemetery to tend the graves of her husband and daughter.

Tuesday we visit the local Sanatorium, a rehab institution for children with heart and respiratory illnesses. This is a residential complex housing children from a wide area of Ukraine. Some spend many months in therapy and we are told that 47 children are permanent residents because they have no other home. The government pays for treatment but gives little further support. Children are taught regular classes. Teachers have minimal resources. There are also no funds for infrastructure - broken floors need replacing, no money for outdoor sports equipment, children's games etc. Through the years we have helped in many ways and will continue to provide support.

Wednesday we are invited to attend the Red Cross annual general meeting. We provide monthly support to this organization and are impressed to hear of the many ways in which they help people. They give us a certificate and express warm gratitude for our contribution. Wednesday is also the day our Mom's Group meets. This week we have a special guest who speaks to the hearts of our young mothers and encourages them. Some have very difficult lives.

Thursday is catch-up day, banking, shopping supplies for the Centre. Rudy installs a new faucet in the kitchen and washes the car. Currently we have no maintenance man. A student from the Ukrainian school comes for information. She is doing a research project on our building, the former Mennonite Maedchenschule. It's a delight to pass on historical material to interested young people.

Today is Friday. We arrive at the Centre and find a man waiting for us, obviously impoverished and very dirty. He has ridden 15 km. on a wired up and bound together bicycle to ask if we can help with transpor-tation so that he can bring his mentally disabled 14 year old son home from hospital in Zaporozhye. He tells us a little about himself. He has bone cancer. He shows his foot to one of our receptionists - she can hardly bare to look. He was given the diagnosis last November and showed us a document recommending amputation of his foot. He didn't have money and now the cancer has spread and he will likely lose his leg at the knee. He is wearing glasses, arms wired together, a lense missing and the other hanging crooked on his face - such a sad picture. We give him a sandwich and tea. In the meantime Rudy drives to Tokmak and returns with a new pair of glasses. A receptionist gives her own money to fix the bike tire. All he is asking is transportation money and we give him a little extra. Someone mentions that he is an alcoholic and we wonder about giving money. But this proves to be false. Much wisdom and discernment is required. By law medical care is free in Ukraine, but not so in reality. Doctors are paid so little that they usually won't help unless the patient pays.
In an hour the bike tire has air again, the man can see, he has a little money, he is grateful and leaves on the two hour ride back to his village. Our minds can hardly perceive the poverty, sometimes there is so little we can do and once more our hearts ache.