On Friday we had reason to visit the local orphanage located across the Molotschna River in the village formerly called Prischib. It was a visit that I looked forward to and dreaded at the same time. I looked forward to it because I wanted to see how many of the children I would recognize from two years ago. Just seeing them would give me a sense of peace that they were alright. I dreaded it because our visit would raise a false hope in some children that we were going to rescue them from their loneliness and give them the loving parents that they obviously longed for. Both feelings came into play during the visit.
We were invited to the orphanage because it was having a program for all its residences at which a number of the orphans would perform. As the Mennonite Centre is the only local organization with stage lights and a smoke machine, they wanted to borrow our equipment and have Dema, our manager, operate it for them. The program was sponsored by two elderly gentlemen who were former orphans from this institution.
We got there early so Dema would have time to set up the equipment. Mary and I were soon surrounded by children of all ages trying to interact with us. They were fascinated by my big Pentax camera and wanted to touch it; maybe even mug for the camera and then come back to look at it in the display.
The program was great but what really got our attention was the interaction with the children. One 16 year old girl stayed close to Mary. She had very limited English but was desperately trying to communicate. She showed Mary a worn note. It was written in English and had been sent from the United States and said, “Don’t be concerned, we will come to get you. Love and hugs, Mom and Dad.” She obviously treasured the note but looked like she no longer believed it. Mary gave her numerous hugs and the girl followed us to our car. This girl is the one on the left with other performers crowding in to get in on a picture as well.
I sat at the front of the hall in order to get better pictures. The boys right behind me were eager for my attention and there were many arms stretched out to try to touch my camera. In all the tangle of arms, I was suddenly aware that one boy had reached out but instead of touching the camera was stroking my arm. All I could give him was a smile of acceptance.
I enjoyed the concert. The performances ranged from amateurish to quite professional. The older students with the support of some returning graduates did some excellent singing of folk songs as well as performing a Ukrainian dance routine. They were so good I was sitting there wondering how to bring them to Canada for a fund raising concert. Issues with visas and travel logistics would make it complicated.
At the end of the concert, each performer got a prize. These prizes consisted of a small statuette together with a present. The presents were the shoe boxes supplied by the Samaritan’s Purse organization. I have seen these shoe boxes collected in my own church but never imagined I would be in a place where they were handed out. These shoe boxes are supposed to contain some practical items, such as a tooth brush, as well as a small gift to the recipient. I sat there hoping that the individual donors of these shoe boxes had been generous in what they included in their shoe boxes
I was relieved to see a number of their former graduates that I recognized from 2 years ago. Some of them are studying at nearby universities and it looked to me that they were doing well. I was quite aware that I remembered only the more high profile children. What about the other less talented children that were struggling out in their own world with limited or non-existing supports? Ten percent of orphans commit suicide in the first year after they have to leave the orphanage at age 18. I was thankful for the support we are able to give to this orphanage through the Mennonite Centre. The Mennonite Centre has also supported the work of John Wiens, a missionary from Canada, who has set up a half-way house for orphans to acquire some work skills before venturing out on their own.
Our drive home from the orphanage was a silent one as we were in our own thoughts and dealing with our own emotions. I was reminded of a story my aunt told me shortly before we left Winnipeg. She told me of the two Russian orphan girls in the village of Alexanderwohl who had been kept alive in 1925 by the village when they shared their limited food with them. These two girls had begged my aunt’s family to take them along to Canada. This was impossible as they lacked any of the required paper work. It is interesting that after 88 years, this story is still fresh in my aunt’s mind. I also do not expect to forget the orphans I have seen in Ukraine.
Mary and I continue to enjoy our work at the Mennonite Centre. Each day brings its own issues and struggles. We have quickly passed the half way mark on our time in Ukraine. Next week we have to go to Kiev on business. Look forward to this adventure.
For more information on the Mennonite Centre, please go to: http://www.mennonitecentre.ca/