Wednesday, November 16, 2011


These are grey days.  Trees have become bare and the air is filled with the acrid smoke of smoldering leaves.  At the Centre, instead of burning we are trying to set an example by composting, a practice not implemented yet in our area of Ukraine. For us these are also days of reflection - looking back over the past three months, recalling people we've met and projects undertaken.  Most memorable are times when we've been able to make personal connections. It's amazing what can happen despite language barriers.

Early on we visited Sasha, the 16 year old boy without arms. (for background information see  May 8, 2007 blog).  Since his tragic accident we have kept in touch with the family and have considered ways of helping him.  For major assistance we were advised to wait until he was grown.                                                  

Recently we were surprised to see him with a friend, whizzing by on a bicycle. They were going so fast we almost missed seeing that his friend was steering and Sasha peddling. This boy isn't sitting on the sidelines feeling sorry for himself and his mother refuses to pamper him. The family lives in a little village in dire poverty, no father in the picture. Sasha's mother had work on a cooperative farm, but unfortunately this is seasonal. We plan to provide a computer for Sasha which will enable him to complete school assignments. Until now his education has been exclusively on an oral basis. The computer is ready - we're just waiting for a foot-operated mouse from America. Other issues under consideration are where to put the antenna and how to minimize risk of theft. The computer is going to be linked with our computers at the Centre and Dema will be able to monitor its use. We are so fortunate to have a manager who is also a computer whiz. The other idea we're exploring is adapting a bicycle or tricycle enabling Sasha to steer with his shoulders - hopefully set to go by spring.

Dmitri is young man in a very different dilemma.  He is a fifth year medical student. Last year he had the misfortune of being ill and missing three weeks of lectures. Consequently he was told that he was ineligible to write examinations even though he had studied and knew the material. At the end of the year he received a failing grade. Before the new term began he was informed that he would be admitted on the condition that he repeat the fifth year and no longer be eligible for the State Budget which meant paying much higher fees. What we would call extortion happens too often here. For a time it seemed that Dmitri would have to forfeit his dream. He is an orphan with few resources. For the past year his grandmother has sent him her pension; she survives on the equivalent of $2.50 weekly (earned by doing a little tutoring). We discovered that Dmitri had been living on a shoestring - his clothes and shoes falling apart, his rent in arrears. Then a series of miracles happened. Through a new financial arrangement he has been offered assistance with his studies and a big-hearted donor is covering his living expenses.

It's been a pleasure to connect with women in our little English class and in the Mom's group.  Last week they learned to make "Crustless Quiche", a recipe that uses ingredients that all of them have in their kitchen. Since then, they say, this recipe has been served in their homes with many variations.


Each month we invite a guest for an inspirational or devotional meeting. Here you see Olga Rubel, our staff representative in Zaporozhye, teaching the importance of building life on a sold foundation of faith in Christ.  Several women in the group have very difficult life situations and find this women's group a safe place to confide and to find support.

Last month we made a little craft project - could be a pincushion or a Christmas ornament. Someone had the brilliant idea of making enough to these little treasures as Christmas gifts for all the seniors coming to our lunches. Thursday evening we held a work bee. Thanks to a friend  in Canada we have wonderful fabrics to work with.  Since all the stitching is done by hand it takes more than half an hour to make one - producing another sixty will be a labour of love.    

It's the place, but more so the people who will hold a special spot in our memories - those we've been able to help, those we've had the joy of working with, those we've learned to know and love, and the many who are making this work possible.  We thank you!                                                                                                                                                                                                            

For more information on the work of the Mennonite Centre visit our website at                                                        
Check out the December Newsletter for "gift options".
Don't miss the latest YouTube videos - Polonski Family - east of Kiev
                                                               - Two Mennonite Women - Stories of Survival

Thursday, November 10, 2011


Winter is on its way - snow flurries are wafting through the air. It is crisp and cold, very different from our first autumn here in 2005.  Then, we left for home the middle of December and it hadn't snowed yet. Our time is rapidly drawing to a close. Even though we think of ourselves as seasoned directors we still often find ourselves observing, making deductions, drawing quick conclusions and then "surprise",  things aren't necessarily what they seem.  A few examples.

Known as "the villa" to our friends and neighbours, the ruins of this once grand residence is situated next door to our apartment.  It was built in 1908 by Heinrich Willms and at that time was referred to as a "palace".  The ground floor alone measures over 650 sq.m.  It had a large space which was used as the Molochansk concert hall as recently as 15 years ago.  Sadly there were no funds for upkeep so it fell into ruin and has become a hangout for kids, as well as alcoholics and drug-users  So upset was the lady living upstairs, she threatened to make a personal phone called to President Yanukovych to have this situation addressed.

Last month we noticed unusual activity next door. The roof was being demolished, the interior torn apart and debris thrown outside. We felt greatly saddened as we saw the demolition continuing, feeling that no value was being placed on this once-beautiful heritage building. The yard was becoming a building supply headquarters; each day we saw people coming and hauling wood away. Then, to our surprise a crane appeared. Steel beams had been unloaded and were being hoisted up to brace the walls.  Windows and door have been bricked up.  It seems the building is being preserved after all.

Nobody can tell us what is happening.  The workers themselves don't know.  Rumours are flying around  that perhaps it is going to be a hotel.  We're prepared to be surprised again.

It's always a joy to host friends and to acquaint them with our work. Last week  Henry and Leona Thiessen, who are currently teaching at Lithuania International University (formerly LCC), visited for several days hoping to trace their ancestral roots. For starters we thought they should experience an authentic Ukrainian dinner, so we took them to Domashnya Kuhnya (home cooking), which offers a buffet with an array of dishes from vereniki to pilmenye, blini to siriniki.  Our friend Henry thought he should conclude the meal with something more familiar. Why not a piece of pie?  To his surprise the pie-shaped wedge turned out to be another Ukrainian delicacy. Liver blini - layers of crepes alternating with layers of liver, a common Ukraine party dish. Yum-m!

After a crash course in the history and geography of the Molotschna colony we set out to explore - first a walking tour through Molochansk, then a drive to the train station where Mennonites left either for a future in the West or banishment to Siberia, and on to the southern villages, from Jushanlee and Alexanderkrone to an adventure filled cross-country trip all the way to Alexandertal, following the footsteps Henry's father would have taken to court his sweetheart.
Finally we found the ruins of the MB church in Alexander-tal where they married. Henry picked up a souvenir brick.

It took a pioneering spirit because maps showed no roads for parts of this trip.  Luckily Dema was driving and stopping periodically questioning "Gde Alexandrovsk"?  He was always pointed east. We took the risk of  hoping "things would be better than they seemed" and indeed the roads, as bad as they appeared, were better than driving to Tokmak.

We've often wondered how people manage with their meagre incomes.  We know that many rely on their gardens and root cellars, but there are staples they must buy. We think we've discovered an answer - the Molochansk mall. Going down a maze of streets from the Mennonite Centre we find businesses hidden behind residential gates. On one side of the street is an unmarked gate with a doorbell.  Part of the house has been converted into a bulk food store - it is possible to buy sugar, flour and other staples by the kilo at much cheaper prices than in the market or the little shops.

Across the street is another larger gate, it is boldly marked "Second Hand", a term that has become part of the Russian vocabulary. Here is a regular department store - a clothing section, shoe department, lingerie deparment, linens and kitchen-ware . It is possible to get designer clothing here, sometimes even new, at unbelievable prices and if you have an "in" with the proprietor, she will call you when a new shipment comes in. Apparently containers are still being shipped from western Europe and the UK. This explains why many women look so surprisingly up-to-date.

Impressions of a more serious nature and updates, on our final blog next week.,

Thursday, November 3, 2011


Florence, Zena and Lucy
Recently we've been encouraged as we've had opportunities to hear from others in our region who are working to make a difference in the lives of  the poor and disadvantaged.  Delegates of various Mennonite charitable organizations in Ukraine have been meeting annually for mutual support and sharing. This year it was our privilege to host this gathering at the Mennonite Centre.  It was also an opportunity to increase our understanding and broaden our perspective on many different facets of involvement.  For example we heard Zena, a young social worker from Zaporozhye report about the Florence Centre, which was begun 15 years ago by Florence and Otto Driedger, social work professors from Regina.  Today this centre is operating twelve programs, concentrating mainly on providing support for children with disabilities and their parents. Lucy Romanenko is directing a social work program at the university which involves student practicums and supervision. They are also working on creating a volunteer base, a concept that is just beginning to take root in Ukraine.

Representatives from the First Mennonite Church shared about some of their struggles in recent years and how they have changed from being inward looking to focusing on reaching out to needy people in their community and looking ahead with optimism.

Boris Letkemann, director of the Family Centre in Zaporozhye spoke about their objective, introducing people to faith and life by focusing mainly on those who cannot take care of them-selves without some assistance. This centre operates a small respite program for elderly and incapacitated persons as well as providing home support to ninety people in the city.

John and Evelyn Wiens told us about the New Hope Centre - a recent church plant in Zaporozhye that is attracting many young people. They also shared their vision to begin a trade school in the village of Nikolaipole, offering opportunities to orphans who must leave the orphanage at age sixteen. Survival statistics for these young people are dismal to say the least, many going into a life a drug abuse, crime and prostitution. They plan to begin next September by offering programs in dairy farming/agriculture, operating a bakery and possibly a welding course, hoping to house these young people in three group homes.

A farmer in training
A dairy farm begun last year by a missionary couple from Steinbach Manitoba is expected to help fund this venture as well as providing educational training. Last Friday we were able to visit this place. It is already a thriving business, Garry Verhoog has no problem selling milk and plans to expand into varieties of cheese making.

Garry and Teresa live in a house that closely resembles the house my grandmother and her seven children moved into when they were driven from their estate in the early 1920's. Many former Mennonite buildings still exist in Nikolaipole, however we've searched in vain for this house, nothing to match my photograph. A short distance down the road is the school my aunts and uncles attended.  It is still the village school.  The
Olga Rubel below, school director on stairs
Mennonite Centre has been able to provide assistance with classroom equipment. The director recognizes us and welcomes us in. Much of the interior is still in original condition and we once more mount the staircase. A century after construction some ornate sections of the railing are still intact. It's always an emotional experience as our thoughts go back 90 years to those very difficult times.

We've spent this day with Olga Rubel, our capable staff member in the Zaporozhye area.  Together we've visited some of our projects, made deliveries, then met with our medical emergency aid representatives in two villages thanking them for the volunteer efforts they've provided through the years, faithfully distributing medications to those with few resources, keeping meticulous records and reporting back punctually. Through the generosity of our donors it's a privilege to carry on this work and to increase our presence in the former Chortitza and Yazykovo colonies.

The link to a new video on "Care for the Elderly in Molochansk" can be found at

For more information on the Mennonite Centre visit our website at