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


  1. Dear Mary and Alvin--
    Welcome to Ukraine! I'm an American who has been working, on and off, in Ukraine, first as a Fulbright Scholar and now with museums here. I had worked with the MCC and the International Menno Simon Centre on the exhibit Passing on the Comfort ( and I've been able to develop a Ukrainian version, with some of the original quilts, which will open here in Kyiv next week--on April 8 at the Museum of the Great Patriotic War. It's quite amazing to have it here, and the museum has made an incredible effort to find materials relating to other humanitarian efforts in their own collections which will supplement the exhibit. Current plans call for the US Ambassador and the Dutch Head of Mission to open the exhibit, and we would love to have a representative from the Mennonite community join us. I know it's quite a trip from your region, but if there's any possibility, please let me know. In addition, the exhibit will be open through June 24, so even if you don't make the opening, I hope you have a chance to see it. Hope to meet you in person.
    Linda Norris

  2. Oh, and you can email me at linda at

  3. Alvin & Mary - let me echo Linda's welcome to Ukraine. I'm a Canadian, living in Kyiv and working at the Canadian Embassy there. I'm currently in Melitopol with my wife visiting one of her CIDA funded projects there. I hope to drop in at the Mennonite Centre this Friday, April 1st on our way back to Kyiv. With both my parents coming from this area (father from Molochansk and mother from Kutuzivka), I'm extremely interested in seeing the area for an hour or so.
    We spoke with Dema today, so he's aware of our intended visit. Hope to see you soon.
    Best of luck to both of you!
    Robert Koop