Friday, 24 May 2013

Week 9 What's In A Name?

Imagine the proud owner of a Mercedes in Ukraine.  They sit behind their tinted windows knowing that they are in a quality car.  People may suspect the means by which these owners acquired such an expensive car but they will acknowledge the quality.  Imagine the humble owner of a Zaporojez – a Soviet era car that has a top highway speed of 70 km per hour.  The owner sits in plain view with their untinted windows and all passing motorists think, “Twenty minutes of shame and you’re at the office”.  It’s not surprising that these cars are becoming harder to find in Ukraine and the one I did find obviously had not been driven for a while.

Every time we see something, we tend to make some association with it.  I heard of a school teacher who had difficulty choosing names for her own children when they were born.  All her children ended up with names of her former students that she liked.  She did not want her own children to remind her of problem students.  We would like the Mennonite Centre in Ukraine to have a positive image - to be seen as a refuge where people can find assistance in lowering the stress in their life. For example, we are one of the few places in town that actually owns a lawn mower and keeps the grass cut.  Consequently, you will often find seniors sitting outside on our benches just having a chat with their friends and enjoying the environment.  Last Christmas, the Mennonite Centre was decorated with lights for the first time.  It was the only local place with these decorations and everybody in town came past at night to admire the place.  The Mennonite Centre is viewed very favourably in Molochansk.

Last Saturday morning I got a surprising call from Dema Bratchenko, our manager.  I was informed that I was being picked up by the chief psychiatrist of the local psychiatric hospital and would be taken to the men’s ward.  I had five minutes to get ready.  I packed my camera and note book.  The purpose of the visit was to let me see the renovations they were doing to the building.  The staff were all in on their day off and were painting the rooms and hallways.  The funding for this had come from voluntary donations by the staff.  Government funding in Ukraine covers only salaries and utilities.  Most of the patients had been abandoned by their families and there was no way of collecting funds from their families.  The building was constructed in 1955 as a jail.  In 1965 it was converted into a hospital. These were the first renovations done at this hospital in over 40 years.  And yes, the hospital was also requesting some funding from us to replace the uneven outside walkway where the patients spent most of their time.  One of the staff had tripped on the uneven surface and broken their leg.  It was agreed to submit a proposal to the board requesting funding for this project.

The Mennonite Centre is undergoing some renovations.  The heating system with the old radiators and clogged pipes was no longer working efficiently.  The radiators have been removed and new pipes and radiators are being installed.  The principal of the local school, Marina Romanova, found out about these renovations and requested the use of our old radiators for their school.  Marina is the local chair of the Mennonite Centre (we need this to have a legitimate local standing) in Ukraine and a great supporter.  It was an easy decision to give her the old radiators, which they will clean and install in their school.

It is a pleasure to walk to work each morning.  We pass all the beautiful fruit trees along the way.  For us prairie folk to see apricot, cherries and plums all growing in boulevard trees is unusual.  The Mennonite Centre even has a mulberry tree growing on its property.  This is quite appropriate as I believe Mennonites introduced the mulberries to this area 200 years ago when they started the silkworm industry.  I would love to taste an actual mulberry but they will not be ripe before we leave.

Yesterday Dema and I drove to Melitopol to pick up a wheelchair for an elderly lady who recently had a stroke.  She needs this on a temporary basis while she applies for a government issued wheel chair.  The trip gave us a chance to check out the famous Melitopol cherries.  There were vendors everywhere.  We bought 4 kg of cherries for $7.50.  They are smaller than the B.C. cherries we are used to in Winnipeg but sweet and flavourful.

Out time in Ukraine is rapidly coming to a close.  We have just over a week to go.  We are trying hard to stay organized so we can complete everything on our “to do” list.

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

Friday, 17 May 2013

Week 7 & 8 A Mennonite Cossack

In Ukraine, jokes about Cossacks are as common as jokes about Mennonites in Manitoba.  Have you heard the one about the Cossack guide who was taking a Mennonite visitor from Canada on a tour?  As they left Zaporozhye by car, the traffic lights turned red and the Cossack driver sped up and went charging through the intersection.  The Mennonite passenger was totally shaken and yelled at the driver asking why he did such a dangerous thing.  The Cossack calmly shrugged his shoulder and replied, “Because I am a Cossack”.  The next intersection the light was also red and the driver just charged through at full speed.  By the third intersection, the Mennonite passenger was already bracing himself for a crash, when the light suddenly turned green and he could relax.  The Cossack driver also saw the light turn green and slammed on his brakes.  The Mennonite inquired as to the reason why he would stop for a green light.  The Cossack again shrugged his shoulder and said cautiously, “There might be a Cossack coming”.

“Cossack” is a Turkish word meaning “freeman”.  They were generally runaway serfs who banded together for their own protection.  They developed their own customs, clothing, and reputations.  They lived in the Khortitsa area before the Mennonites arrived and had a fort on an island in the Dnieper River.  They were generally loyal to the Russian crown and fought many battles with the Turks who had controlled their land at one time.  There is a famous painting of the Zaporozhyzian Cossacks drafting a response to a demand of surrender from a Turkish sultan.  This historic response has survived in the archives.  It is not a document you would read in polite company.  The painting is very well done and you can imagine the response just by studying the characters in the painting.  (Click on the picture to enlarge)

I had the opportunity to meet a direct descendant of the last leader or “hetman” of the Cossacks.  His name is Boris Polubotko.  His mother’s maiden name was “Froese”, so we really have a Mennonite Cossack.  I presume that he is inclined to aggressively pursue the peace position.  Boris has relatives in Winnipeg and they asked me to deliver a gift to him and that was my reason for the meeting.  If you are wondering what a modern day descendant of the Cossacks does for a living - he is an orthopedic surgeon.  It was a pleasure to meet him.

We celebrated Easter on May 5.  Sometimes Easter falls on the same day as we celebrate it in the West.  This year it did not.  We spent Saturday before Easter shopping for paska.  Every store and vendor was selling it.  Saturday night at midnight we went to the local Orthodox Church for their service.  We enjoyed listening to the choir and just watching the people worshipping.  Their service continued all night till sunrise.  Mary and I did not last that long.  We wanted to join the Kutuzovka Mennonite Church for their 8:00 AM breakfast.  The greeting on Easter morning from everyone is “Christ is risen” and the proper response is “Christ is risen indeed”.  Someday I will learn to say this in Russian.  Easter Monday was paska baking day at the Mennonite Centre.  Mary loved spending the day in the kitchen with Ira, our cook.  The process is fascinating and the final product is beautiful.  Each senior coming for lunch on Tuesday got a paska.

There have been the usual number of petitions - everything from medicines for a man suffering from hepatitis to a lady with a badly scalded hand asking for groceries.  Our lives were disrupted by water problems in our apartment for a few days.  Thankfully we are now back to showering on a regular basis each morning. (no picture available)

A few days ago we were informed that there were a number of “German” tourists at the Mennonite Centre.  They just showed up one evening.  Mary and I went to find out what they wanted.  They were 8 Mennonite men from Germany.  They were working as volunteers in the Melitopol area doing renovations at an orphanage.  They were taking the evening off to come and find the villages from which their parents had been forcibly removed in 1941.  It turned out that a number of them had roots in my father’s village of Alexandertal.  One of them, a Doerksen, lived across the street from where the Suderman’s used to live. They needed maps of the village and directions on how to get there.  I was happy to do this but felt a bit guilty as I photocopied a few pages from Helmut Huebert’s atlas (my neighbour in Winnipeg).  Mary had a chance to practise her low-German as she communicated with them.  They were a delightful, enthusiastic group and we counted it a privilege to meet them.  They had moved to Germany from Kazakhstan in the 1990’s and were now back making a contribution to the area from which their ancestors had come.

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

Friday, 3 May 2013

Week 5 & 6 Back to the Orphanage

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: