Thursday, 31 March 2011

Week 3 in Ukraine - Health Care

In Ukraine there is a joke that says, doctors pray for good health for the poor and destitute and illness for the wealthy.  What people joke about is often indicative of the issues in their country.  The Ukrainian constitution guarantees free medical help for all its citizens.  The constitution however does not guarantee that this medical assistance will be properly funded.  In Ukraine, when the employer stops paying the salaries, the employees do not quit.  They keep working in the hope that the employer will be able to start paying them again.  Alternatively, they start to look for ways of funding the activity themselves.  Doctors have found a unique way of funding their work.  It is called charging the patient a fee.  Hospitals also do not provide any drugs or medicines to patients as they have no funds to do so.  For example, a patient requiring chemotherapy has to show up at the hospital with the correct drugs already purchased at their local drug store.

The Mennonite Centre is often called on for assistance on medical issues and has developed a number of programs.  On a weekly basis, it has a family doctor, an ear nose and throat specialist, and an eye specialist come to the centre for 2 hours each.  A neurologist also comes twice a month.  These services are funded by the Mennonite Centre and the local people can book appointments.  They are well attended.  The cost to the Mennonite Centre for having a doctor here for two hours is $7.50.  They can see up to 12 patients during that time.  It is very cost effective program.

In addition to the examination by the eye doctor, the Mennonite Centre also provides free prescription glasses for seniors. The cost for a new pair of prescription glasses in an inexpensive frame is less than $4.00.  It is a delight to be at the centre when the seniors come to pick up their glasses.  One gentleman wearing a toque emblazoned with the hammer and cycle (the old communist emblem) just beamed when he put on his “coke” bottle glasses and showed us pictures of his family.  He was so thankful that he kept shaking my hand and finished his thanks by giving Mary a hug.  Being someone who always has to figure out the logic of everything, I kept thinking about why he had the hammer and cycle on his toque.  Maybe he is a rebellious senior who just likes to challenge existing authority.  It also could be the only hat that he owns and everybody in Ukraine wears something on their head.  My favorite explanation is that Mary got a hug from a grateful communist.  It is amazing what a gift of $4.00 can do.  I regret that I did not get a picture.

The week has gone by quickly.  We are starting to get the rhythm of the Mennonite Centre and to understand and participate in the programs when appropriate.  Mary joined the Mom’s Group last Wednesday.  The group was very curious about her and asked many questions. Most of the mother’s in the group do not come from stable relationships.  It is an important morning out for these mothers and gives them a chance to talk and to vent their frustrations on issues that are bothering them.

On Thursday morning Dema Bratchenko, our manager, informed us that we had a meeting at the White House.  The job description for the North American directors states that we are to have a high public profile in the community.  We were prepared to go and then found out that the City Hall in Tokmak is also referred to as the White House.  It still was quite an honour as the Mennonite Centre has been selected to sit on an Advisory Council on Community and Social Services.  This was the first meeting.  Dema is the representative from the Mennonite Centre and Mary and I came along as advisors to our member on the advisory council.

Spent Friday morning at the police station in Tokmak.  If my mother was alive and read that sentence she would have a heart attack.  Tokmak was a place that represented all the evils of the Soviet system to her.  To have her son in a police station in Tokmak would have been the first step to having him banished to Siberia.  We however were there at the invitation of one of the officers to discuss how the Mennonite Centre could partner with them in a program on crime prevention.  There had been previous contact with one of the North American Directors who has a background in the corrections system in Canada.  The police were looking for ideas on programs to reduce crime as well as some possible financial assistance in implementing them.  I admitted to the police officers that I was feeling a bit overwhelmed with the location of the meeting.  One of them responded and said she understood.  Her grandmother had spent seven years in a concentration camp during the Stalin era because she had dared criticize the village officials.  The officer correctly guessed that I had relatives who suffered the same fate.  I did get my mug shot with the senior officer in the meeting. 

Saturday, Mary and I drove out to explore the Mennonite village from which my father’s mother came.  On the way, we passed the famous remains of the Rueckenau Mennonite Brethren church.  It has a memorial plaque placed there in 2010, marking the 150th anniversary of this denomination.  The personal significance of this church is that my grandfather visited there in 1904 to check out the girls.  He saw the one that eventually became my grandmother.

On Monday we were inundated with applicants.  Apparently this is typical after a weekend.  There was another flood of sorts after a pipe burst in our apartment and flooded the apartment below us.  We did our best to help clean up.  There may be some damage to their ceiling which the Mennonite Centre would be responsible to cover. 

There is something unfair in our presence here at the Mennonite Centre.  We get to hear and see the thankful response from so many recipients.  They are thanking us as if we had personally donated everything.  The thanks comes from individuals as well as significant organizations who received assistance.  This last week we were personally thanked by an individual for assistance in buying coal during the winter. We also heard from the Superintendent of schools for the Tokmak region who expressed his support for the scholarship program that benefits his students.  We are glad to accept this thanks on behalf of the donors in North America.

For further 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.

Alvin and Mary

Wednesday, 23 March 2011

Week 2 in Ukraine - Getting Adjusted

A frequent question from home is, are you aware of all the events occurring in the world?  I have to admit that we are somewhat disconnected from outside events.  Our TV is unreliable and our news comes via the Internet.  The people around us are not buzzing about the latest disaster in Japan or Libya, and if they are, how would we know as we don’t speak Russian.  We are aware of the tsunami and nuclear disaster in Japan, the attack by world powers in Libya, the possibility of a federal election in Canada, and the state of the negotiations in Phoenix regarding the possible return of a NHL team to Winnipeg.  What else do we need to know?  It is an amazing discovery for me to understand that without the constant reinforcement of news media and discussions on the topic with colleagues, that we are much calmer about the disasters in the world.  Our world is the Mennonite Centre in Molochansk.

Mary and I are trying hard to adapt to our surroundings but it is obvious that we have a long way to go.  We were walking down the street of Melitopol the other day and I asked Dema, the manager of the Mennonite Centre, if I was recognizable as a foreigner.  He assured me that I was.  When I asked what the people were seeing , he told me that I looked “too smart”.  Unfortunately he was not referring to my intelligence or even the style of my clothing but rather to the “smartness” of my general appearance.  He said that the face of a man of my age in Ukraine is quite haggard and worn – the result of a hard life.  This could have come, for some, through the abuse of alcohol and for most, through the general hardship of their local circumstances.   I am starting to see this, now that the difference has been pointed out to me.  It would have taken a long time for me to figure this out on my own.  I must have been subconsciously thinking that there were no men my age in Ukraine.
My lack of knowledge regarding local practices has continued to hurt me.  For example, we were touring the Kindergarten next door in response to a request from them for assistance in buying new cups and dishes.  In Ukraine, a Kindergarten covers children from 6 months to the completion of grade 1.  The children are provided with three meals a day and consequently needed to have dishes that were not chipped or broken.  We were given a royal tour of the place including a beautiful dance performance by some very cute children.  I was amazed at the orderliness of everything including numbered potties so each child could use their own.  Their bedrooms are clean and the beds all made up uniformly.  This is a substantial organization and my mistake came when I innocently asked if they would show us their financial statements.  After all I thought, if you are requesting financial assistance, it would be good to substantiate your need.  The director gave me a puzzled smile and handed me her note book in which she recorded each financial transaction – in Russian.  It was too much information.  In an environment where the government pays the salaries and utility bills, the parents pay for the food and some urgent repair bills, and the rest is done through fund raising, what is the need and relevance of a financial statement?  I am slowly learning.

We anticipated coming across some events that would stay with us.  One such event occurred last Thursday.  An elderly lady came requesting assistance.  This lady is known to our manager as they have helped her in the past.  She lives with and looks after her incapacitated brother.  The problem was her pension money had been stolen and she was destitute.  While the Mennonite Centre does not normally give out cash, it was agreed that it would be safe to do so this time and the lady was given the equivalent of $25.00 and a food hamper.  We gave her a ride home and saw her place.  It is hard trying to imagine anyone living in such filth.  I could not see a bed in her bedroom - just piles of empty boxes and other containers.  Her brother is bedridden.  I do not know how she copes. The heartfelt thank you from the lady needed no translation.

While we were dropping off this lady at her residence, we noticed the body of a man lying in the road.  On closer inspection, he appeared to be totally intoxicated.  We called an ambulance.  The emergency crew tried to revive the man with something I will call smelling salts.  He did not regain consciousness.  We helped roll him onto a filthy canvas stretcher and loaded him into the back of the ambulance.  The ambulance is basically a van with the back seats removed.  I am sure that it carries a first aid kit but it has no equipment, such as oxygen tanks, which we would associate with an ambulance.  I watched the vehicle leave and prayed that I would never have to be transported by ambulance in Molochansk.

The Mennonite Centre is such a pleasant ray of sunshine in a sea of need.  It is properly equipped to do its work.  The surroundings are pleasant.  The staff is cheerful.  It is a pleasure for us to walk to our office every day and look forward to the unexpected.  Mary and I are glad to be here.

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

Please note that you can click on any picture in this blog to enlarge it.

Alvin and Mary Suderman

Wednesday, 16 March 2011

First Week in Ukraine

We arrived in Molochansk one week ago.  It is hard to comprehend how much has happened in one week.  We do feel that our comfortable apartment in Molochansk is already our home.  Thursday was the first day that we felt a bit useful and are starting to get comfortable in our role as North American directors.  The staff at the Mennonite Centre are extremely friendly and helpful and this has assisted in making us feel comfortable.  I would like to high-light some of the major events of the past week.

Sunday, March 6 saw us at the Winnipeg airport preparing for departure.  Our bags were packed, electronic tickets were in hand, and my decoy wallet containing some fake credit cards, an expired drivers license, and some genuine Canadian Tire money were ready to go.  I was fascinated by the reaction of the somewhat jaded Air Canada agent, who saw our destination of Dnepropetrovsk and was forced by his own curiosity to ask – where are you going?  Yes we were off to Ukraine – a place I had heard so much about from my parents and I would now have an opportunity to live there.  Our flight out of Winnipeg was 2 hours late.  We had 15 minutes in Toronto to make the long dash to the section for international departures.  We made the connection but our luggage was left behind.  It caught up with us 2 days later. 

We were met at Dnepropetrovsk by Dema Bratchenko, the manager of the Mennonite Centre.  While giving us a ride to our apartment in Molochansk, he explained the local traffic laws, showed us the likely locations for police traps, enforced the need to memorize the road in order to avoid potholes at highway speeds, and stopped in Zaporozhyze at McDonalds for coffee.  We finished off the day with a beautiful borsht dinner with Dema and his family.  It was a comprehensive introduction to Ukraine and its culture for two weary travelers.

Wednesday was our first day at the Mennonite Centre.  We were officially received by the staff in a traditional Ukrainian manner – a lady in full Ukrainian dress greeted us with a loaf of bread and salt.  We had to break off a piece of bread, dip it in the salt and eat it.  We were really touched by the friendliness of the staff and the warmth of their greeting.   Apparently this is the first time that North American directors have been greeted in the traditional fashion.  We felt very honoured.

On Friday we had an opportunity to attend a concert to see performers from a local orphanage.  The program consisted of singing by individuals and groups as well as some beautiful dancers in bright costumes.  We were amazed at the high level of professional performance by the children involved.  The event was sponsored by the Mennonite Centre and enabled the people in town to see a group perform that might otherwise not have a chance to be noticed in society.  Orphanages are isolated institutions in Ukraine.  They have their own schools and accommodations on site and the orphans are not really visible to the surrounding population.  The event was well attended by local school children as well as a number of seniors. 

We attended church Sunday morning in a neighbouring village.  The church is used to having North American directors from the Mennonite Centre attend their church.  We were given a warm welcome and asked to introduce ourselves.  Dema attended the service with us and acted as our interpreter.  It was touching to hear a prayer from the Pastor thanking God for the warmer weather thus reducing the need to buy expensive gas for heating.  The cost of heating homes is a major issue in the area.

Sunday afternoon was sunny and we went for a long walk.  This took us over the Molotschna River and into a neighbouring village of Prischib.  For me this was a momentous walk as I know that my grandfather had walked this route many times in 1920-21. According to my mother he went here scavenging (a more painful word would be begging) for food during that time of famine and unrest in Ukraine. 

Since our arrival, Mary and I have participated in a number of meetings with petitioners coming to the Mennonite Centre asking for assistance.  It is a difficult job to be making decisions on behalf of distant donors. It is obvious to us that the need is real.  While not living here any more, the Mennonite community is still impacting the lives of people living in the area. 

If you would like to find out how to support the work of the Mennonite Centre in Ukraine, please click on the following link: 

Alvin and Mary Suderman