Saturday, November 16, 2013

Blogspot #6 November 16,2013

As we evaluate our time in Ukraine these past months, we are struck by the variety of impressions we will take with us: economic, geographic, historical, and of course the many heart-felt expressions of gratitude for the help received from Mennonite Centre donors.

Financially many people in the rural villages struggle to make ends meet. Their pensions and/or salaries are insufficient to pay for medical treatments. Directors of institutions tell us that the money they were promised to run the school or hospital is in the budget, but they are unable to access these funds. Recently a school director shared with us how she had just received the news from the education department that her staff would have to take 3 days of unexpected holidays - without pay! Or we hear of situations in other institutions where staff are working but have not received their salaries. On the other hand, we notice how many more goods, such as grocery products and fresh meat, are now available in our village, in comparison to what was available during our first term in 2006. There must be customers buying these items or shops would not carry them. Huge box stores in large cities display fancy furniture, elaborate bathroom fixtures, etc., so it seems that some of the population can afford these luxuries.

We travelled into southern Ukraine last week and were once again struck by the beauty of this area. The view of the Black Sea, the mountains, the lush and varied vegetation, along with solid buildings, and tidy public spaces, are quite a contrast to the scenes in our village.

Here many houses are in disrepair, roads and streets have huge potholes, and garbage bins overflow. But if we look closely, we see the swept driveways, neatly spaded gardens, and the blooming autumn flowers in some yards, which reveal beauty here as well.

During a recent visit to the war memorial a few kilometers from here, we were once again reminded of the horrific battle that took place here during World War II. Thousands of Russians/Ukranians lost their lives in that battle. What we had not heard before was that besides the thousands of soldiers who lost their lives, there were also hundreds of unarmed prisoners who were released from prison to become a human shield for the Russian army. Such historical events leave a huge impact on the local population for many generations.

Discovering personal historical connections has been a delight for us. When our son and his wife visited here last week, we drove out to one of the villages to see the original home of our son’s grandfather and great-grandfather. Our daughter-in-law discovered that her great-grandmother had worked as a servant in the Willms palace, which still stands next door to our present apartment block, though in serious disrepair. Her great-grandfather worked as a professional photographer in this village almost 100 years ago.

So how about a present day connection? For our chai break this morning Ira had baked a tasty plum cake, so similar to fruit platz baked by Mennonites back home. The plums, as well as a half-bushel of large apples, were gifts to the Mennonite Centre from a grateful Mom whose daughter is a recipient of one of our scholarships. Was it delicious? Yes - vkoozna!

Sunday, November 3, 2013

Blog # 5 November 2013

On Oct. 29 we had the privilege of visiting some of Mennonite Centre’s project sites in Zaporizhya. Olga Rubel relates to these projects for FOMCU, including some additional projects in nearby villages.

Our first stop was to visit a women’s sewing circle that sews patchwork quilts, pillows, sheets, etc. for the needy. The bright colors in pleasing combinations were delightful to see. Some of the children’s blankets were designed in such a way as to tell a story. The women also met here for Bible studies. Mennonite Centre has assisted with the purchase of a sewing machine and some materials.

We were very impressed by the treatment program we observed at a school for children with Down syndrome, cerebral palsy, and autism. The staff consists of well-trained women and men. (There seem to be few male staff members in regular schools.) Activities included movement to music, printing, counting, language instruction, self-care skills, drawing and coloring, physical therapy and exercise. The doctor in charge shared wonderful stories of children who had been unable to walk initially but now manage with a walker, or of others who had been unresponsive initially, but are now interacting with staff and other children. The joy these children radiated under their loving care was obvious. Some are participating in regular schools on a limited basis. At times the staff has worked without salaries, proving their commitment to these children. Volunteers from church have also assisted. This kind of facility is a sharp contrast to the more typical boarding schools for children like this. Mennonite Centre has assisted with summer day camps and paying some of the rent. Other needs are appropriate staff salaries and larger facilities to meet the demand.

We learned about the Youth Training Centre that provides classes in the regular public school curriculum. Young people are taught about drug prevention, life skills, values, as well as empathy for the less fortunate. The centre organizes sporting events and day camps. The students have become very excited about visiting orphanages and handing out gift boxes, even organizing such projects on their own. The program is well-received by the schools, but more trained teachers are needed.

Closer to home the Mennonite Centre sponsored another Youth for Life program in the Tokmak Trade School last Monday. The school administration welcomed this program for their students. Dema, the director of the Mennonite Centre, organized this event, including the performances of two music groups, dancers, and weight lifters, interspersed with video clips and explanations about alcohol and drug abuse, and the harmful effects of tobacco. We hope that learning about the effects of these substances and portraying more positive lifestyles by the various performers, will have inspired the students to consider positive alternatives.

Monday, October 28, 2013

Blog #4
October 25, 2013

The Rhapsody vocal ensemble over the years has performed a variety of music, from Mozart to Ukrainian folk tunes. However, what they seem to feel most comfortable with is the Orthodox liturgical music. Under the direction of Sergei Lokotkov, director of the Tokmak Music School, this small ensemble has performed in various locations in Ukraine as well as Europe. On Monday, Oct. 14, in honor of Mary, the mother of Jesus, this group of five singers led a small audience of some 80 congregants in worship with their music. The fine tuning, sensitive diminuendos and crescendos with their well-trained voices sent our spirits soaring to the music of composers such as Bortniansky and Tchesnokov. The Mennonite Centre has assisted the Tokmak and Molochansk Music schools with various projects.

On October 24 we visited the Udarnik School. Udarnik (Neukirch) is the neighboring village to Lichtfelde and Alexanderkrone (Gruschevka), the home villages of my parents. We were treated to a brief history lesson and video by several students about the origin and development of these villages as well as the tragedies experienced by the villagers during WW1, the revolution, the holodomor (famine) and WW2. With the assistance of an array of artifacts collected by the children in the school’s museum, the children did an excellent presentation. Time and again we are reminded of the hardships experienced by the Mennonite and Ukrainian villagers during many years of oppression. These stories become so much more real for us when standing on the streets that our parents once walked and from which they fled in the 1920’s.

Today, other forces are at play as village life once again is in decline due to the limited opportunities and the persistent tide of urbanization. This year the school has only 29 students and is slated to be closed, perhaps already this winter as soon as the weather turns colder. Heating a building like this is expensive. The children would then be bused 20 kilometers on deteriorating roads to the larger centre of Kirovo (Juschanlee), leaving staff retired, unemployed or facing relocation.
Nikolai, the school director, has secured full ownership of the neighboring former Mennonite Church building, preventing its demolition several years ago. However, it now remains vacant and he is not sure what to do with it. Without natural gas connections or a reliable water supply in the village and continually decreasing population, the prospects for buildings like these are bleak. The school was built in 1989 while the church was built in 1865.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Blog # 3 October 15, 2013

A special gathering was held Oct. 9 at the Kutuzovka Mennonite Church. Eight different Mennonite agencies working in the Zaporozhya Oblast met to exchange ideas and to learn from each other. We were inspired by the variety of projects and approaches that became evident as representatives from each agency shared about their work. Projects are numerous, but they include services for seniors, camps for children and youth, training for orphans, education on HIV/AIDS, assistance to schools and medical facilities, scholarships, and the list goes on. Questions were also raised about financial support and how to enable these efforts to become self-sustaining. Another concern is the necessity to teach and encourage volunteerism, a quality that seems to have been lost during the communist time. We were encouraged to engage not only young people, but also those on pensions to become involved in voluntary service. A widespread problem is the lack of employment opportunities and the need for loans. This is an ongoing challenge. The various agencies work in different locations using a variety of approaches, but our purpose is the same: to demonstrate God’s love to the people of Ukraine.

Last week we received an impressive tour of a long-term care facility for mentally challenged individuals in Orlovo (formerly Ohrloff). This is a large compound with various buildings surrounded by well-tended gardens for 186 men. The patients (aged 18 and up) are involved in helping with animal care, fieldwork, and gardening. We were impressed with how well the buildings were being maintained. At present, they are adding a smaller residence for some of the more capable clients in the style of a family dwelling. The director tried to impress upon us that they consider the patients as their family, feeding them tasty meals and treating them with respect. A soccer team had even participated in an international competition and done very well. We were pleased to see such a positive treatment program. The Mennonite Centre has purchased new flooring for their administrative area. Further requests were to have more trees planted on the grounds.

A quilting group gathers at the Centre every Wednesday. We are reminded of the groups who gather at the MCC Thrift Stores in Canada, converting used clothing, etc. into colorful patchwork quilts. The women enjoy the opportunity to work together on a project and having fellowship with one another.

This week the two schools in Moloshansk, the Russian and the Ukranian schools, celebrated their 70th anniversaries. At one time the Ukranian school used the current Mennonite Centre as part of their facility. We attended both events and were well-entertained by the performances of talented students, including a well-tuned girls’ choir, colorful dances, and a well-rehearsed gymnastic display. There were, of course, many speeches from various dignitaries, and presentations of gifts and flowers. Mennonite Centre assisted with lighting and sound. We appreciated being part of their celebrations and participating in these cultural events.

Friday, October 4, 2013

Blog #2, October 4, 2013

Blog #2  October 4, 2013
When so much of our attention is focused on health concerns, unemployment, the disintegration of infrastructure and public buildings, and the list could go on, our hearts were warmed by the festivities and hospitality we experienced in the village of Orlova (Ohrloff) last Friday.  The program of music, speeches, and awards presented to various villagers, was held in the concert hall of the former Maria School for the Deaf (Tiege).  This was also significant for me because my father’s deaf uncle had attended this school and had been greatly helped by the skilled and well-trained teachers.  The hall has lost much of its former glory, but the people seemed proud to use the facility.  Following the program we were ushered into a bright room that they had renovated for small gatherings.  Bright floral designs decorated the walls.  Although the table and the benches were old and rickety, the spread of platters on the table was a feast for the eyes!  Every platter was creatively arranged with cheese, cold meats, sliced vegetables and fruits.  Bowls of chicken gelatins, potato and carrot salads filled every space.  Then a whole course of hot dishes was brought in: barbecued meats, potatoes, and plov.  Needless to say, the food was delicious!  The real highlight for us, I believe, came when one of the people who were gathered around the table broke into song, others joined in, and someone else picked up an accordion and accompanied them all.  Lovely folksong melodies, some joyous and others etched with longing, filled the room, with which we could hum along and join in the clapping.  Someone got up and danced spontaneously.  The music was interspersed with conversation and more food and then the singing would burst forth anew.   This celebration of village culture warmed our hearts.  They were eager to express their gratitude to the Mennonite Centre, which really means all of you back home who so generously contribute to our projects.  We felt humbled to be the recipients of their warm gratitude as your representatives.
Much of my reading these days has been the memoirs of individuals who suffered horrendously during the Stalin years.  These stories become all the more real for us living here in Ukraine, the land where it happened and where the effects of an oppressive government who destroyed its citizens is still evident.  How fortunate that our ancestors were able to escape when they did!  Some of the expressions of incredible faith amidst this unimaginable suffering raise questions for us.  How would we respond in similar circumstances?  Would our faith survive?  Are we passing on a lasting legacy to our children and grandchildren of commitment and devotion to our God?
 Senior’s Day is celebrated annually in Ukraine on Oct. 1st, and Mennonite Centre’s staff prepared a tasty hot lunch for them.  The tables were filled with seniors enjoying the food, the warmth of the room, and the fellowship with their friends.  Some shared a poem or a song to add to the celebration.
We were quite surprised to be notified that the Mennonite Centre had been nominated for a Tourism Award from the Zaporoschye oblast.  Normally we do not think of the Centre as a tourist attraction, but when we consider the many foreign visitors and the contribution made to the historical knowledge of the local people and beyond, it is definitely true.  A small example from just a couple of days ago proves again the Centre’s historical influence:  a local teacher came to gather information from our library for a history project that she was doing with her students.

Friday, September 27, 2013

September 2013

“Tis the last rose of summer . . .”?

Perhaps. But that does not diminish the work of the Mennonite Centre in Molochansk. The weather in the last few days is serving notice that the hot, dry summer is nearing an end. A recent rain has been much anticipated by the farmers as they wait for moisture before seeding their winter wheat. Harvesting has been mostly completed with the exception of a few sunflower fields. However, the crops have been generally quite poor in this area. Even garden produce such as tomatoes have not done well this summer while the grapes on the drive-way arbors seem to be abundant. Small rural villages like Dolina (formerly Schoenau) struggle as their school closes and other services are threatened.

Our first week in Ukraine coincided with several communities celebrating the 70th anniversary of their liberation from German occupation during World War II. The battles in this area were brutal and so we find it understandable why the communities are keen to commemorate their victories. While militarism is not something we wish to endorse or promote, these celebrations do give opportunity to commend and encourage community development and confidence. The Mennonite Centre has supported and funded numerous projects in our local communities and so we are the fortunate beneficiaries of their words and expressions of gratitude. This was also the case when we delivered a new computer to the Tokmak blood donor clinic which had recently received a new autoclave (sterilizing unit) from the Centre. These gifts enable the clinic to continue functioning in the city of Tokmak and the surrounding region, employing some 62 professionals. We have often lamented the high unemployment rates in these rural communities, wondering how the Centre can facilitate employment. Perhaps with gifts such as the above we are not only facilitating health care, but also preventing further unemployment, at least for these professionals.

We also received a visit from a German historian interested in the life of Dr. Tavonius, well-loved doctor in the Muntau hospital in the early 20th century (presently Molochansk). Many Mennonites in the Molotschna Colony were helped by his expertise, skill and compassion. A published German interview with his grandson, now living in Germany, has been forwarded to us. I could forward this article if anyone has a particular interest in it. More frequent than visits from historians, however, are the numerous requests for assistance that come to the Centre from individuals as well as institutions. Any assistance we can offer is always gratefully received.

Donations to the Mennonite Centre may be directed to “Friends of the Mennonite Centre” c/o George Dyck 3675 N Service Rd Beamsville, Ontario L0R 1B1

Monday, May 7, 2012

 Blogspot #7
May 8, 2012

One of the challenges for the Mennonite Centre is to find local leaders who will be able initiate strategies that will further develop their own civil society.  We feel fortunate in having developed positive working relationships with a number of such leaders in Molochansk.  On Friday, May 4, a number of these, together with their spouses joined us for a delightful evening at the Mennonite Centre.  This group consisted of school principals, deputies of town council, hospital and care home directors, etc.  Ira, our head cook, together with our staff, prepared a lovely meal, delicious and beautifully presented.  Following the meal, we enjoyed the wonderful music performed by Sergei Lokotkov (guitar) and his daughter (flute).  The purpose of this gathering was to show our gratitude to these leaders who are serving the people of their community and to encourage them.  Secondly, we wanted to present a challenge that all of them could be involved with at various levels.  The challenge was to make Molochansk  “A Clean City”.  This could involve students in various ways, encourage volunteerism, rewards for the best “clean” project, helping elderly neighbors, being an example to others, etc.  The potential for beauty is abundantly evident. The deputy in attendance agreed to set up a meeting for Mennonite Centre and the mayor to further explore this idea.  Those in attendance appreciated the positive atmosphere and pleasant entertainment of the evening.