Monday, 16 May 2011

WEEK 10 HIGH LIGHTS AND TRIVIAL MOMENTS

Our time has come to leave Molochansk.  We could not have imagined how difficult this was going to be.  We are looking forward to seeing our families in Canada but feel guilty for leaving our friends in Ukraine.  This final blog is a random compilation of incidents, events and thoughts that occurred during our time at the Mennonite Centre.
My mother told me many things about the Molotschna area.  I am surprised at some of the things she never mentioned.
·         There are poisonous snakes in the area.  I did not see any but was warned about going through deep grass as that is where they like to hide.
·         The summer is unbearably hot.  The daytime temperature is often at 40 degrees Celsius.  People feel they cannot survive without air-conditioning.
·         There is a beautiful view from my mother’s village (Lichtenau) across the Molotschna River to the hills beyond.  It is especially green right now and beautiful.

Burial Mound

·         The land along the Molotschna River contains many burial mounds.  These are from the Scythians, an Iranian nomadic group that was here even before the Mennonites.  The mounds are at least 2000 years old.
One of the high points of the trip was attending the Orthodox Easter service at mid-night with Art and Marlyce Friesen.  We could do this in Winnipeg, but would never have contemplated this so close to home.
During our trip to Kiev, I made a special test of my decoy wallet.  I carried it in my most conspicuous bulging pocket and took a trip on the subway.  I have to admit, that I was a bit disappointed that no one tried to steal it. 

Picnic on the beach in Berdyansk

Made a trip to Berdyansk on our last Saturday.  This is a vacation resort on the coast.  It is a place I heard my parents reference as a vacation destination for rich Mennonite families 100 years ago.  We had to pretend to be rich Mennonites for one day and yes I (Alvin) have gone swimming in the Sea of Azov.  The water was cold.
Almost got stopped by police armed with a machine gun on our last Sunday in Molochansk.  Turns out they were just waving us through but I did not want to have any misunderstandings when they were so heavily armed, so I slowed down and looked back at them until they actually smiled at me and waved me on.  It is reassuring to get a smile from a policeman carrying a machine gun.

SALO

We have tasted many delicious foods in Ukraine.  Salo is not one of them.  It is salted pork fat.  I have tasted it but know it will never rank as one of my favourites.
I am amazed at how “Russian” my upbringing was when it came to food.  My mother’s borscht was straight from here.  If someone had asked me for the German word for meatballs, I would have said kutletten.  That is actually a Russian word.  They are even made in the same shape and size that my mother made.  When my mother made apricot jam, I always had to crack open the pits and take out the kernel which my mother blanched and added to the jam.  That is how they make apricot jam in the “Molotschna”.   Of course cabbage rolls with meat, varenyky with cottage cheese or cherries, and paska all come from here.  Makes me wonder if there are any unique Mennonite foods.
On a trip home from Zaporozhe, we were warned by flashing lights on approaching cars of a police radar check ahead.  After passing the police, the flashing lights continued and we were in for a series of police checks.  In fact, there were five traps in a row, each separated only by a few kilometers.  Drivers in Ukraine can on occasion be quite rude and drive as if they owned the road.  When police are present, all drivers have a common enemy (the police) and go out of their way to help each other.  Drivers were even signalling each other with fingers as to how many more police checks there were ahead.
Spent Friday morning in Melitopol at a talent contest.  The rock band that practices at the Mennonite Centre was one of the contestants.  There were a variety of performers from soloists (most of whom got buzzed off the stage) to dance groups and instrumentalists.   One “mature” sized lady brought the house down with a spoof on the actions of the young female dancers/singers.    Our group performed well and got a good response from the audience.  They did not win.
Many things in Ukraine are judged on a basis of fairness.  For example, the prices in stores should be fair, regardless of the cost to produce.  I have my own complaints about fairness.  On two separate occasions, Mary received a bouquet of tulips and a kiss on her hand from men she had just met while we were out for a walk.  All I got was a kiss on the cheek from a veteran who had not shaved that closely.  Life is not fair.
Mary and I went to the Molochansk town centre on the evening of the victory celebrations to watch the fireworks display.  We were quickly recognized by some young people because of our participation in the program that morning.  They surrounded us and tried to strike up a conversation in English.  One young teenage girl was searching for the correct words and said, “You are such beautiful people”.  That alone made the trip to Molochansk worthwhile for us.
We do have some unfinished personal business in Molochansk.  I would like to make a trip to Melitopol from Molochansk by train.  It would take me along the route that my mother travelled when she left in 1928.  Mary and I would also like to arrange for a ride in the side-car of a motorcycle.  We have seen a few around and it would be a great experience.  Yes we want to return.  The experience has been life changing.
For more information on the work of the Mennonite Centre, please go to:


For information on the work of the Mennonite Economic Development Association (MEDA) in Ukraine, you can see an excellent Ukraine Youtube video produced last fall by a Winnipeg Mennonite film producer:

Friday, 13 May 2011

WEEK 9 FORGIVENESS

Early in our stay in Molochansk we encountered a very friendly elderly lady on her way into the Mennonite Centre.  She recognized that we were the new North American Directors and greeted us with a smile and the phrase “Guten Tag (Good day in German)”.  We stopped to talk but found out her German was even more limited than ours.  In answer to my question, she told me that she had learned German during the 2 years (1943-45) that she had “worked” in Germany.  From my own knowledge of history, she most likely was part of the forced labour that was brought to Germany to keep the war machine going.  Her circumstances in those years most likely were not pleasant.  However she had such a friendly manner that one could not help but feel that she had come to terms with her past and forgiven the wrongs that happened to her.

 The May 8 victory celebrations (held on Monday May 9) commemorating the end of World War II are a big deal in Ukraine. Mary and I were there for the official celebrations in Molochansk.  We had no choice as I was one of the speakers. 

Band in front of
Zentral Schule
(Mennonite Boys School)

Ambulance



The parade and dignitaries assembled in front of the former Zentral Schule (Mennonite Boys School).  The band played on instruments supplied through the Mennonite Centre by the Bakerview Mennonite Brethren Church in Abbotsford. The new ambulance (also paid for by the Mennonite Centre) was in attendance in case of medical emergencies.  It was parked in front of the building in which Mennonite men (including my 2 uncles) were held in 1937 before being shipped out to the gulag.  The Mennonite Centre also provided the goodies (cookies and bubble gum) to be handed out to the children as part of the celebration.  Along with some other support for veterans associations, it is hard to imagine how the victory celebrations could have occurred without the Mennonites – both past and present.




My friend the veteran


Another veteran receiving flowers

Parade Route with girls
handing out flowers
to veterans




It is an understatement to say it was an interesting day.  I was greeted with a kiss on my cheek from a decorated veteran on my arrival at the parade assembly point.  This is considered to be a sign of deepest respect.  I had talked to this veteran earlier and found out his story.  He had fought as a 14 year old with his brother and father as partisans during the war.  His brother and father were killed.  This same veteran invited Mary and I to walk in the parade with the veterans.  We were a bit uncomfortable with that and walked behind them with the other dignitaries such as the mayor.  The parade route was lined with young girls holding flowers.  These were presented to the passing veterans.  Mary somehow ended up with a bouquet of tulips.  I guess they thought she had fought in one of the Mennonite wars.  The route took us past the Mennonite Centre to the official war memorial site.  The flowers were all placed at the war memorial and the dignitaries were escorted to the front.  There were surprisingly for us, at least 300 people in attendance.  There were six speakers.  The most important such as the mayor, town councilors and veterans spoke first.  I was the fifth speaker.  The last speaker was the representative of the Communist Veterans Association.  At least I outranked him.

As I stood with the dignitaries listening to the speeches (through my interpreter) I realized that my prepared speech was on a different theme than the other speakers.  They were all thanking the veterans for their sacrifices.  I wanted to talk about forgiveness.  I thanked the many people, including some of the veterans, who had shared their stories of the war with me and commented on the fact that I felt that many had forgiven the past and that this gave me hope for peace for the future.


Women who lost all men in their lives

The impact of World War II on Ukraine and Russia is hard to ignore.  There are monuments everywhere.  In our visit to Kiev, Dema Bratchenko had taken us on a tour of the Great Patriotic War Museum.  He wanted to show us a montage of pictures.  They were drawn during the 900 day siege of Leningrad (1941-44) when many people died of starvation.  The pictures were personally meaningful to Dema, because his grandmother was one of those victims.  Another display in that museum was a mass picture of women who had lost all the men in their lives (husbands, sons and fathers).  The picture is very moving and gives some perspective on how much there was to forgive.

While not a war story, I was reminded of another Mennonite story involving forgiveness.  Sometime in the early 1860’s, a beautiful young Mennonite girl was in one of the seaports on the Crimean Peninsula.  The Russian naval fleet was in harbor and one of the officers on board was a prince in the Romanov family.  They met, things happened, and the young girl ended up back in her Mennonite village, pregnant and in disgrace.  She gave birth to a boy and experienced an emotional breakdown soon after.  The boy was placed for adoption with another Mennonite family and given a new surname to distance himself from the disgraceful events of his birth.  The result is that there are Mennonites with Romanov blood. 

I have a friend in Winnipeg who is a direct descendent of that fateful event in Crimea.  Last summer he was touring Europe with his family.  When they got to St Petersburg, they took a tour of the Winter Palace.  While walking through this beautiful palace, his teenage daughter looked around approvingly and commented, “You know mom, it’s nice to be home”.  Her great-great-great-grandmother would be pleased to know that she has been forgiven.

Our work at the Mennonite Centre is getting busier as we try to wind down our time in Molochansk.  There are more petitioners every day with their heart wrenching stories.  We listen to their stories and decide if we should refuse their request, help them within the discretionary guidelines that we have for making decisions, or document their request and submit it to the Board in Canada for their consideration.


Alvin Sasha and Mary
 A difficult task this last week was to visit Sasha and deliver a hamper of food to their family.  The story as I heard it is that Sasha came home from school one day, was hungry, and asked his mother for some food.  She told him there was nothing in the house and he would have to get some funds.  He went out looking for some scrap metal that he could sell.  He saw some copper wire connected to an electrical box and tried to take it.  The wire was live with electricity and he lost both arms.  The Mennonite Centre is trying to work with him to obtain some proper artificial limbs in Western Europe so that he can have a better quality of life.  His face lit up when we unpacked the hamper of food we had brought.



Orphans receiving picture with
small boy in front wondering
if we will adopt him

In our first week in Molochansk, the Mennonite Centre had sponsored a concert in town by the local orphanage.  They had put on an excellent performance and I had taken a number of pictures.  I knew the orphans would love to have a few prints of themselves as they obviously have no parents to do this for them.  I had been procrastinating with printing the pictures in the office because I dreaded the trip to the orphanage to deliver them.  Misery is easier to cope with if it is kept at a distance.  I finally printed the pictures this week.  It was quite a stack as I wanted each child in the picture to have a print for themselves.  If there were 10 children in a picture, I made 10 prints.  They were warmly received and yes I had to endure that painful look from one boy that said, “Please take me”. 

We have just returned from a short walk to the local grocery store.  It is amazing how the townspeople have changed since our arrival.  When we first got here, nobody would look at us or acknowledge us as we walked down a street.  Now we can’t go out without a greeting or even a cautious attempt to talk from people we meet.  Teenagers are the worst.  They recognize us and we hear a deliberate “hello”.  It is an invitation to talk and we always make the time to do that.  We have never before been so popular with teenagers.

For more information on the work of the Mennonite Centre, please go to:


For information on the work of the Mennonite Economic Development Association (MEDA) in Ukraine, you can see an excellent Ukraine Youtube video produced last fall by a Winnipeg Mennonite film producer:













Thursday, 5 May 2011

WEEK 8 ALCOHOL

Mary and I attended church in Melitopol on Sunday and met an American citizen, Chip Taylor.  He is an ordained minister in the Southern Baptist church but was invited by the Orthodox Church to work in their monastery.  He is instructing local people to be counsellors for those dealing with alcohol addiction.  According to him, the alcohol addiction rate in Ukraine is 60%.  In the west, the comparable number is 10%.  We knew the alcohol problem was bad but would never have guessed that it would affect over half the population.  The local authorities and churches do not know how to cope with the epidemic.  Even Chip Taylor had to smile at the desperation of their situation in inviting a Southern Baptist to work in an Orthodox Monastery.

Molochansk is not immune to the problem of alcohol addiction.  The ground is always littered with empty beer containers.  Alcohol is openly consumed in public and it is not unusual to see someone passed out on the street.  After dark, it is not safe to walk the streets of Molochansk due to concerns about unpleasant encounters with the inebriated.  Because of this, Mary and I were prisoners in our apartment in the evenings during the first few weeks of March.  With the coming of day light saving time and generally longer daylight, we can now venture out for a walk after dinner.


Dina and Mary

A lovely young lady from the Kutuzovka Mennonite Church by the name of Dina has befriended us.  She can speak English quite well and Mary has gone for some walks with her.  Dina wants to be a missionary and is showing the zeal that is needed for that difficult job.  She was drawn to talk to a man who was sitting on the curb drinking.  She told him he needed to stop drinking and come to church on Sunday.  She even gave him a written note that she put in his pocket telling him the location and time that a bus would pick him up to take him to church on Sunday.  Most of us would be reluctant to take such an aggressive approach to dealing with alcoholics or inviting people to our church, but Dina is not easily discouraged.
In one of our early visits to a former Mennonite village, Mary witnessed an alcohol fuelled encounter.  She saw a young teenage girl running screaming down the road pursued by someone, most likely her father, swinging a large pole.  She outran her pursuer who then threw the pole at her and missed.  Neighbours soon came out and the situation seemed to calm down.  Everyone shrugged as if to say, that’s life in Ukraine.  The country needs more Chip Taylors and a fundamental shift in determining acceptable behaviour.

Mary and Marlyce making Paska

Last Thursday was a special day in the kitchen.  Ira, the cook in the Mennonite Centre, had invited Mary and Marlyce Friesen to join her in the kitchen and help bake 70 paskas.  Easter was over but the Mennonite Centre was going to present each senior attending the Friday luncheon with a paska.  There was so much laughter and such an air of excitement in the kitchen, that everyone else was drawn to the place.  I got in only when they requested the “paparazzi” to come and take pictures.  Mary and Marlyce got to learn all the secrets of making paska.  They even learned the secret ingredient to help the paska stay fresh longer.  The final product was delicious and I have to admit tasted better than anything my mother ever made.  The secret ingredient was vodka (used in moderation of course).  No wonder my mother did not know about it.

Making Cherry Varenyky

Cherry Varenyky
Ira is the stereotypical multi-tasker.  While supervising the paska operation, she started making something else as well.  It was a large batch of cherry varenyky.   We had them for lunch.  It was a powerful reminder of something my mother used to make.  They were absolutely delicious and I cannot understand why someone would make any other kind of varenyky.
We said goodbye to Art and Marlyce Friesen on Friday at the train station in Zaporozhe.  We had stopped for lunch at a Ukrainian restaurant and sat there watching the royal wedding in London on television.  It felt like a normal thing to be doing.  I probably would not have bothered watching that event if I was home.

Ruins of my grandfather Suderman's church

Original Suderman farm site 2011

Original Suderman farm site 1910

Saturday was a special day as we drove off to explore my father’s roots in the village of Alexanderthal.  We found the village and needed a few minutes to get oriented.  There are very few original Mennonite buildings left in town.  The ruins of my grandfather’s church are still visible.  The school he would have attended is now a home but easily recognized.  The original Suderman farm site cannot be clearly identified but one can guess pretty closely as to where it stood.  It was a rainy day and we did not spend that much time exploring outside.  It was the longest trip we made where I was driving.  The round trip from Molochansk was 140 km and I did not get stopped by any police.
Monday and Tuesday were official holidays in Ukraine as they celebrated the International Day of Labour.  I found out I had something in common with my co-workers.  They were surprised that we do not celebrate this day in Canada and I was surprised that they still celebrate what to me is an old Communist holiday.


Equipment at Construction Site

Volunteers

There is a businessman with a construction company in Molochansk who has told Dema Bratchenko, our manager that he would like to someday build a church.  Most likely he assumed that he would be building an Orthodox church as that is his personal faith.  God sometimes challenges our assumptions as this businessman is now helping the Kutuzovka Mennonite congregation build their new church in Molochansk.  What happened was that the Kutuzovka congregation had a large group of volunteers   working on demolishing an old structure on property that they have purchased.  It was obvious to Dema and myself that they needed some proper equipment to help load and haul the old concrete away.  Dema contacted the businessman with a dream for building a church.  The next day a tractor with a front end loader and a dump truck were on site helping the demolition.  The businessman gave the church very favourable rates for the equipment which basically will only cover the costs of fuel consumed by the job.
It has been beautiful to watch the volunteers work on the site preparation for the new church.  The volunteers have consisted of church members as well as a number of people from Molochansk with no connection to the church.  The spirit of enthusiasm is obviously contagious.
Mary and I are very aware that our departure date is rapidly approaching on May 17.  We have a week planned in Germany before we head home to Canada.  It is going to be very hard to say goodbye to this place and the many friends we have made here.
For more information on the work of the Mennonite Centre, please go to:


For information on the work of the Mennonite Economic Development Association (MEDA) in Ukraine, you can see an excellent Ukraine Youtube video produced last fall by a Winnipeg Mennonite film producer:







Wednesday, 27 April 2011

WEEK 7 EASTER

Every country is good at celebrating something.  Ukraine is good at celebrating Easter.  We decided to participate in their Easter celebration to the fullest and enjoyed every minute.


Paska

I grew up eating paska because that is just what my mother made at Easter.  I knew it had a Ukrainian origin but never understood the proper ritual and practices surrounding it.  Every store and street vendor was selling paska in Molochansk on the Saturday before Easter.  If we bought one, we would get a wag of the finger from the vendor admonishing us about something or other.  We started asking questions.

The Orthodox Church encourages its members to observe the rules of the Lenten fast.  That is, they are supposed to abstain from meat or animal products during the six weeks preceding Easter.  Easter morning is a joyous occasion when they celebrate the risen Lord by breaking the fast and eating the prohibited foods.  The Saturday before Easter is a busy day when people bake and decorate the paska and colour the eggs. Paska contains a lot of eggs and milk and even the traditional icing for the paska contains egg white.


Easter Eggs

We celebrated Easter with Art and Marlyce Friesen from the Friends of the Mennonite Centre Board in Canada.  Saturday evening at mid-night we were at the Orthodox Church in Molochansk.  It wasn’t really a dark and stormy night, but it was so dark it felt that way.  Marlyce had a small flashlight we used to navigate our way from the car, over the ditch, through the gate and up the steps of the church.  Once inside, there was light and we could observe the service.  People were arriving in a steady stream.  The women were all carrying baskets covered with a specially decorated towel.  The baskets contained their decorated eggs and paska.  These were brought to the church to be blessed and were placed on a special table.  Mary and Marlyce looked like “mumtches” with their required head coverings.  There are no seats in an Orthodox Church and we stood there listening to the chanting and the harmonic singing of the choir in the background.  My sense was that the people around us were worshipping in ways I do not understand.  The service goes till sun rise.  We left at to get some sleep before our regular church service at at the Kutuzovka Mennonite Church.  The finger wagging we had from the vendors was telling us not to eat the paska before it had been blessed.

“Christ is risen”, was the happy greeting from everyone Sunday morning.  It is amazing how quickly you can learn to understand that expression in Russian.  This continued to be the greeting for several days.  At the senior’s lunch on Tuesday at the Mennonite Centre, one elderly gentleman came up to me, shook my hand, and said in Russian, “Christ is risen”.  I understood him without an interpreter and was happy to give the official response in English and say “Christ is risen indeed”.  We both felt good about the verbal exchange as well as the knowledge that we were both celebrating the risen Christ.  I suspect that the gentleman may have seen me at the Orthodox service and came over to connect.


Vincent Klassen Family

Another week and another embassy visit.  Vincent Klassen and his family stopped in for a brief tour.  Vincent works for the Canadian embassy in Berlin and decided to come to Ukraine to explore his roots.  His real interest was in the Chortiza area but the Canadian Ambassador in Kiev, a friend of his, insisted that he had to visit the Mennonite Centre in Molochansk as well.  It is good to have friends in high places.

Friday produced a visit of a different sort.  Two burly policemen stopped by for a visit.  They did not smile but asked who we were and somewhat surprisingly asked how they could help us.  Mary told me that the police looked uncomfortable when I started taking notes – as I have been doing for all meetings.  One of them kept looking around the room as if he was checking for cameras.  We were very uncomfortable.   Felt like we had a visit from two goons trying to practice their public relations skills.

Saturday was another one those days I will never forget.  We went to a local orphanage to hear a program put on by the young people from the Kutuzovka church.  There are over 500,000 children in orphanages in Ukraine.  These could be children whose parents have died or they were abandoned.  At the age of 18, they are required to leave the place and fend for themselves.  They have no life skills and no connections outside the orphanage.  It is estimated that approximately 10% of them commit suicide in the first year.  The others frequently lead a life of crime or prostitution. 


Orphan with Pet Bug

With that information as background, it is easy to understand the reaction of children at the orphanage to a car load of foreigners arriving at their place.  We were soon surrounded by clambering friendly faces – each trying to get as close to us as possible.  They would look right into our eyes with their big eyes and smile as if to say, “Please take me”.  No translations were required.  Many of them have fetal alcohol or developmental problems.  Others look like the kind you would just love to have as grand children.  You end up asking yourself, does anyone in the system care?  The Mennonite Centre has helped out the orphanage on a number of projects to improve their facilities.  A lot more needs to be done for the long term welfare of the children.


PLOV

Sunday afternoon, the Kutuzovka Church had a picnic at the Mennonite Centre.  Dema Bratchenko, the centre manager was asked to cook a large pot of “plov” – a food originating in Uzbekistan.  It contains pork, rice, oil, and lots of garlic.  It took 3 hours to cook over an open fire.  We enjoyed the meal.

Have spent several days looking at local medical services with our guests, Art and Marlyce Friesen. They are both doctors in Canada.  We toured a number of hospitals and nursing stations in villages looking at how the Mennonite Centre could assist them.  There is a major challenge in trying to understand their system.  I have been assured that I will never understand it and that we need to help anyway.

For more information on the work of the Mennonite Centre, please go to:


For information on the work of the Mennonite Economic Development Association (MEDA) in Ukraine, you can see an excellent Ukraine Youtube video produced last fall by a Winnipeg Mennonite film producer:



Thursday, 21 April 2011

WEEK 6 - BUREAUCRACY

I have worked for 38 years for the Manitoba Government and thought I understood something about bureaucracy.  It has been taken to a whole new level in Ukraine and I still have a lot to learn.  There is a real scarcity of government resources in Ukraine when it comes to doing something positive for its citizens such as repairing a poor road. However there is no shortage of those same resources when it comes to controlling its citizens.  Some examples may be of interest.

The Mennonite Centre has provided a school bus for Svyetlodolinskoye, one of the former Mennonite villages in the Molotschna area.  The bus was due for its technical inspection.  As the bus is still legally owned by the centre, we were involved in the process.  On Saturday morning, the assembled crew was on hand to see if this could be accomplished.  The essential crew consisted of the mayor of Svyetlodolinskoye, the bus driver, another essential person from the village as well as Dema Bratchenko and myself.  I will acknowledge that I was not really essential but rather curious about the process.  All possible documents were assembled and we were off to the appropriate police department in Tokmak with the bus and the Mennonite Centre’s car.  Dema figured we had a less than 10% chance of completing our mission without coming back to find some other required document and that it would be faster to do this in a car. The police department was quiet – the door was locked and there were a few clients waiting.  After an hour’s wait, we were told that no one from the police would show up that day.  The previous day had been National Road Police Day and the police were still “recovering” from their celebrations.  The entire crew will have to be assembled for another attempt.  The second attempt still has only a 10% chance of being successful.

Another frustrating bureaucratic experience of the last week was dealing with the changing ownership of the Mennonite Centre’s car.  There has been a lengthy dispute regarding a fee that should be paid when the centre had to change the registered ownership from one individual to another.  (Why the centre has to register its car in an individual’s name is another bureaucratic story.)  After numerous phone calls and several trips to Tokmak, we felt the dispute was settled when we paid the requested fee of $2.50.  It may not be settled and may even require a trip on our part to Zaporozhe to get more documents.  Always more documents.

The frustrating part of these experiences is the terrible drive to Tokmak over a road that has more pot holes than actual pavement.  The cars weave and bounce and frequently hit bottom as they navigate this treacherous road.  One day we had 2 flat tires on that stretch of road as a result of bending the rims in a sharp pot hole.  Just using the salaries of a few useless bureaucrats would have been enough to finance the reconstruction of the road. That is not the way a former civil servant should be speaking but ….

There were also many positive moments in the week.  The Kutuzovka Mennonite church is starting the construction of a new building in Molochansk. Most of their attendees live in Molochansk and have to be transported by bus to Kutuzovka.  The church had purchased a lot and we were present as a group of volunteers gathered, had a prayer of blessing on their construction project, and started the cleaning operation to prepare the site.  A lot of old concrete was being smashed and no one had any safety protection for their eyes.  The part of our job description that says, “Show up and see what needs to be done” came into play.  Went to the local hardware store and inquired as to the price of safety goggles.  They were under $1.00 a pair.  We bought the six pairs that they had in stock and distributed them at the construction site.  They were well used and no eyes were injured.

Had a short visit from two Canadian families exploring their Mennonite roots in the area. Both families were from the Church of God in Christ Mennonite (Holdeman) congregation.  The women were more conservatively dressed and the men both had beards, as is the custom in that church.  One of the families is working in the Ukraine city of Kharkov as missionaries and the other family was visiting from Canada.  It was amazing that they knew which villages their ancestors had lived in as they are descended from Mennonites who immigrated to Canada in the 1870’s.  Their story has obviously been passed on for many generations.  We had a very pleasant visit with them and Dema stated that he is considering converting to their faith as it will save him the effort of shaving every day.

On Sunday afternoon Mary and I went for a pleasant drive in the countryside.  Spring is here and the grass has turned green.  We were looking for storks and found a large nest.  As we approached the nest, the storks became concerned and flew away.  We got some great pictures and then left the area to minimize the disruption of their lives.

Tuesday morning we were back in Tokmak for a meeting of the Advisory Council on Community and Social Services; on which the Mennonite Centre has a seat.  It was a major meeting involving the regional councilors (deputies they call them) voting on several important issues.  For Dema, the high light was seeing a motion pass that would create a 30 bed seniors care home in the Molochansk hospital.  The space is sitting unused at present.  He has been fighting for this for awhile. 

The meeting was memorable for Mary and I also for a very different reason. One of the councilors got up to read a motion and as she went past the head table, she casually borrowed the eye glasses that the chairperson was wearing.  He relinquished them without any fuss.  No one thought anything of it.  In Canada, it would be the equivalent of the Governor General having difficulty reading the Speech from the Throne and walking over to the Prime Minister to borrow his glasses.  It would make the national news.  I am glad I wasn’t asked for my glasses as I know I would have hesitated and caused an embarrassment.  I am still learning.

For more information on the work of the Mennonite Centre, please go to:


For information on the work of the Mennonite Economic Development Association (MEDA) in Ukraine, you can see an excellent Ukraine Youtube video produced last fall by a Winnipeg Mennonite film producer:



Friday, 15 April 2011

KIEV

Every week has been filled with new experiences.  This past week was no exception.  We left last Wednesday evening for an overnight train ride into Kiev.  There were a number of meetings and errands to attend to.  We travelled with Dema, his wife Oksana and their 3 children.  Our accommodation in Kiev was arranged in a traditional Mennonite fashion.  We were going to stay with Oksana’s parents and her sister in their apartment for five nights. For a group of ten people, we got along very well.  Oksana’s parents went out of their way to make us feel comfortable – even giving up their bedroom.

Friday was an important day.  We had received a formal invitation to attend the opening of a Mennonite display in the Great Patriotic War Museum (World War II for the rest of us).  The irony alone made it worth the trip.  The display was called “Passing on the Comfort”.  It told the story of a Mennonite lady in Holland during and after World War II who used quilts made by Mennonite ladies in the United States and Canada to assist the many victims of that war.  A few of the original quilts have survived and were the basis for the display.  The lady was An Keunig-Tichelaar and is currently 89 years old and still living in Holland.  It is worth reading the story at


Dutch Representative

US Ambassador


The exhibition was officially opened by the US Ambassador as his embassy had provided the funding.  There was also representation from the Dutch, German, and British embassies.  It was a very formal occasion.  Mary, Dema Bratchenko, and I were formally recognized in the crowd as representing the Mennonite Centre in Ukraine.  We had our picture taken many times.  We had a chance to meet the US Ambassador as well as the Dutch representative.  We presented them with some gifts (books and music CD’s) that had been sponsored by the Mennonite Centre and invited them to visit us in Molochansk.  Took advantage of the opportunity to tell the US Ambassador that we were going to Kansas in June to meet some of my American cousins.  It turns out that he and his wife had roots in Kansas and wanted to know where my cousins lived.  I have his permission to pass on greetings to my American Mennonite cousins. 


On Sunday afternoon we were invited to the home of Robert Koop and Natalia Zavarzina.  They both work in the Canadian Embassy.  We had gotten to know them when they stopped in the Mennonite Centre on the previous week to explore their Mennonite roots.  We determined that Robert and I both have a great-grandfather by the name of Johann Sudermann and that they lived diagonally across the street from each other in 1917 in the village of Alexanderthal in the Molotschna settlement.  We cannot confirm that we are related. 

The invitation from Robert and Natalia was for lunch, but they served us a full meal.  We felt royally entertained.  The conversation at some point turned to working in Molochansk and Robert expressed an interest.  Dema jokingly told him there was an opening for a night watchman.  Robert turned to Natalia and asked, “Would you move there with me”?  Her answer was very touching when she said, “I would move anywhere with you”.  Mary and I were both reminded of the verse, in the Book of Ruth, where Ruth tells her mother-in-law, “Where you go, there I will go….”   It was beautiful to see such devotion, especially in a position such as Foreign Affairs where people are forced to move all over the world and couples frequently have to make a choice between being with their partner or looking after their career.  Maybe the Canadian Government will open a Consulate in Molochansk someday.

My fame as a chef in Ukraine is spreading.  On Sunday evening, Oksana’s family requested that I cook my famous stir fry that they had heard about at our banquet in Molochansk – this time with the chicken.  We ate in shifts in their kitchen.  What else could they say – they enjoyed the meal.


Canadian Ambassador

At on Monday we had a private meeting with the Canadian Ambassador.  This had been arranged by Robert and Natalia.  I was amazed how informed he was on Mennonite issues.  He has been a guest at the Mennonite Centre and Dema had a good opportunity to explain the role we play in our area.  He was also familiar with the Mennonite Economic Development Association (MEDA) and their work in the Melitopol area.  He has even attended a MEDA conference in Calgary.  It turned out that he had also worked at the Mexican Embassy at one point in his career and knew about the issues that Mennonites faced in that country.  He was somewhat uncomfortable in trying to diplomatically describe the difference between his perception of Canadian Mennonites and Mexican Mennonites.  Being a diplomat, he was successful in choosing his words carefully.


For our last dinner in Kiev, Mary and I decided to thank Oksana’s parents for their hospitality by taking everyone out for a night of fine dining that all ages would enjoy.  We ordered two taxis for the 10 of us and were off to McDonald’s.  If you think that there is a contradiction in this, then you do not understand something about Ukraine.  McDonald’s is relatively expensive for the local population and to go there is a treat.  It was a unique experience for them  It was also a unique experience for us as Mary and I have never before gone to McDonald’s in a taxi.

The trip home to Molochansk was relatively uneventful.  We left Kiev at on Tuesday and were in Melitopol by .  Our pre-arranged van was there to pick us up.  We were stopped by the police as we entered Molochansk.  A van full of Mennonites at in the morning does look suspicious.  The police were unable to find a problem and had to let us go.



For more information on the work of the Mennonite Centre, please go to:


For information on the work of the Mennonite Economic Development Association (MEDA) in Ukraine, you can see an excellent Ukraine Youtube video produced last fall by a Winnipeg Mennonite film producer: