Saturday, 28 September 2019

WEEK 1 START OF OUR EIGHTH TERM

Every time we leave Ukraine, I silently ask myself - do you think you will be back here again? I know that we want to come back because Mary and I have fallen in love with the people.  Consequently, I am always pleasantly surprised when health and circumstances have allowed us to return.  Yes, Mary and I are back for our eighth term as North American Directors at the Mennonite Centre in Ukraine. 

Our overseas flight went well for us but there were 2 medical emergencies on board which distracted the staff considerably.  What was memorable aboard the Brussels Air flight was that they liberally plied us with drinks and coffee and then went and locked the washroom doors for over an hour because of some slight turbulence.  We landed in Kyiv on time, were met by Denys, the husband of our manager, who took us to our hotel for a long rest. The next morning Oksana, our manager, and Denys joined us for breakfast at a restaurant.  While we were eating, Oksana was approached by a tall elderly man with a large backpack.  He explained that he had just arrived in Kyiv from the war zone in the east and had not eaten for a while.  Could she get him some food?  Oksana has a toughness about her that lets her say no quite quickly.  There was something about his demeanour that made her look at me, and I nodded yes.  As Oksana was getting the food at the counter, another patron approached her and gave her some money to contribute toward the cost of the meal.  It was our first cost-shared project and reminded us that Ukraine is still at war.

We started our trip in Kyiv because we had arranged a meeting at the Canadian Embassy.  Ben and Lil Stobbe are just completing their term in Ukraine and joined us for the meeting.  Events in Ukraine are changing fast and we wanted to be current on where the government is going with its reforms.  In July, Ukraine held parliamentary elections and for the first time in its history, the winning party got a majority of the seats.  The current government is their first ever that is not a coalition.  Since the July election, they have used their majority to pass over 200 new laws.  The problem is that they have no idea of the costs of these new laws or have done no analysis to understand what implications these laws will have on the country.  The Canadian Embassy is taking a wait and see attitude.  We will also wait and see but we know that reforms are coming in many areas where we are involved such as education, health care, and local government.

We took the train from Kyiv to Zaporozhe with Oksana. I always enjoy seeing the Ukrainian countryside.  At one point I saw a beautiful white swan on a small stream.  We were in the part of Ukraine that suffered terrible starvation during the Holodomor.  All birds including the swans would have been hunted to provide food.  Many species of birds are just starting to recover from those terrible times.

The Mennonite Centre was invited to participate in the 30th anniversary of the work of Otto and Florence Driedger.  Please read Ben Stobbe’s blog at: http://benstobbe.blogspot.com/ for a description of their work.  I was asked to make a short presentation on Mennonite history and the Mennonite connection to Ukraine.  A young lady was my translator and I sensed that she was struggling to find the right words.  I wonder what was lost or added in her translation.  Subsequent speakers talked about their work in researching the Mennonite history of their own area.  It was great to see their enthusiasm for the subject.  It was both fascinating and difficult for me to reconcile my understanding of my history with the facts as they perceived them.  One of them even tried to pronounce the word “Plattdeutsch” (low German).  This was translated as “down German”. 

I met Max Shatzky at this event.  This is a young man who has been very active in uncovering Mennonite tombstones in the Chortitza area that had been used as the foundation for a building during Soviet times.  He was happy to receive some books on Mennonite history that I had been asked to bring to him.
Max and Alvin

On Friday we drove to Waldheim.  We met the current mayor.  She is very warm lady who made us feel at home in her office.  We were offered some tea and were glad to accept the offer.  When the tea arrived, it had miraculously turned into some very strong coffee.  Ben was delighted and I was somewhat dismayed.  Flexibility in adapting to changing circumstances is the norm in Ukraine.  We discussed issues of operating a local government that is experiencing a declining population.  For example, they see the need to transport children to larger schools, but the local roads are so poor that this is impossible.

As we were leaving her office, she gave us each a gift prepared by the local children.  She then turned to me and said, “You have a very lovely wife”.  She was struck by Mary’s warm and welcoming smile.  I am generally recognized as a foreigner, but the locals see Mary as being one of them.  They are drawn to her.  We have each been able to find a way of being accepted.
Oksana, Mary, Mayor of Waldheim, and Office staff

Mary and I feel that we are back home.

If you wish to know more about the work of the Mennonite Centre, you can check out our web site at: http://www.mennonitecentre.ca/ or follow our daily activities on Facebook at: https://www.facebook.com/Mennonite-Centre-Ukraine-735361069838076/

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