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.