The Mennonite Centre has a history of working closely with local or municipal governments in Ukraine. An investment by us at that level can benefit many people now living in the villages once occupied by our ancestors. We have made it a practice to get to know the local authorities. This week we had the opportunity to dig a bit deeper and met with four mayors.
Chris Goertzen, one of our board members, was visiting along with 5 members of his extended family. Chris is the former mayor of Steinbach and under his leadership, Steinbach had signed a twinning agreement with the city of Zaporozhe. The original Mennonite settlement of Chortitza in Ukraine is now part of Zaporozhe. This gives both cities a common Mennonite heritage. The City of Zaporozhe is about 30 times larger than Steinbach and ironically, the twinning arrangement appears to be more important to Zaporozhe than it is to Steinbach. Chris’s presence was a great opportunity for the Mennonite Centre to get to know some mayors just a little bit better.
I had the opportunity to accompany Chris to a meeting with Valerii Edeliev, the deputy mayor of Zaporozhe. Chris was here in an informal capacity as he is no longer the mayor. There was a very friendly exchange of gifts, along with the obligatory handshake and photo op. The talk centered around the famous 700-year-old oak tree growing in Chortitza which is remembered so fondly by many Mennonites. An acorn from the tree in Chortitza was brought to Canada many years ago and is now growing at the Mennonite Heritage Museum in Steinbach.
|Chris Goertzen and Deputy Mayor of Zaporozhe|
On Thursday, Chris and his family toured their ancestral village of Waldheim located in the Molotoschna settlement. They were warmly greeted by the local mayor and had the opportunity of having a picnic lunch on their ancestral land. The picnic, arranged by my wife Mary and Oksana our manager, consisted of fleisch perischkie (meat buns), fresh vegetables, and arbuse (watermelon). The family enjoyed the local foods and reminisced about their ancestors.
Chris spent 2 nights at the Mennonite Centre. On Friday morning we visited the local mayor of Molochansk (Halbstadt). He was obviously pleased to have a mayor from a Canadian city in his office. I learned a lot about the issues in Molochansk. The biggest issue for the mayor is that 80% of his budget goes to support 2 day-care facilities in town. He only has the equivalent of $50,000 Cdn to pay for all other staff salaries as well as roads and general maintenance for an area with over 5000 people. Now I know why the roads are in such disrepair. There are so many exclusions to the paying of property tax, that only four properties in Molochansk are liable for this tax. The property tax ironically is not paid by the homeowner, but rather by the employer of the homeowner.
|Chris Goertzen and Mayor of Halbstadt|
On Friday afternoon we drove to Svetlodolinskoya (Lichtenau) to meet another mayor. We had another lengthy and interesting discussion. The issues were a bit different than Molochansk. Here a higher level of government is responsible for daycare and the mayor had a budget of $75,000 Cdn for a population of 2000. However, there are other problems. The higher level of government had just run out of funds to pay the local daycare workers and there was pressure on the mayor to step in and cover these costs. That is unlikely to happen. The most likely resolution will be for the daycare workers to continue working at no pay in the hope that their salaries will again be paid at some time in the future. This has obviously happened before. When I asked for a photo op, the mayor responded by giving Chris a hug rather than the formal handshake in the photo. He had enjoyed the conversation. For me this was a special event. My great-grandfather had been the mayor of Lichtenau in the 1870's and he built the house that is now used as the mayor's office.
|Mayor of Lichtenau, Chris Goertzen and my great-grandfather's house in background|
There is an initiative in Ukraine to amalgamate local authorities into larger areas. These are given a larger budget but also take on added responsibility for their areas. On Saturday we met with Denys Korotenko, the mayor of one of these new amalgamated communities called Shiroke. He lives in the northern area of the Chortitza settlement including the Mennonite village of Neuendorf. While the other mayors are resisting the drive to amalgamate, Denys has embraced it. He has made some progressive moves including reducing redundant staff and utilizing the savings to fund more urgent programs. For example, he has replaced all night watchmen in the schools with automated remote monitoring. It has taken a toll on Denys, but he is young and determined to make his area a place that people want to move to. The Mennonite Centre will continue to support him.
|Mayor of Shiroke and Chris Goertzen|
There were some stresses this week. On Wednesday I was driving our vehicle toward our apartment. A motorcycle came out of a side street without stopping and hit the van in the front fender. By the time I stopped and ran around the vehicle, the driver was lying on the road, holding his knee and groaning in pain. Suddenly the pain seemed to stop, he jumped up, picked up his motorcycle and drove off. He knew he was at fault and thought it best to leave the scene as quickly as possible. I was in shock and did not even get the plate number. Our vehicle had a slight dent in the fender and the front bumper was totally dislodged. An inebriated pedestrian stopped to offer some kind advice in Russian. Of course we called Oksana and she came to console us and deal with the mess. A passing trucker helped her put the bumper back on temporarily. In the morning she took the vehicle to a local garage where an accommodating mechanic gave her priority service and spent an hour re-attaching the bumper. He refused to accept any payment, saying he was doing it for Canada. Our country is viewed very favourably in Ukraine.
Friday morning we were having breakfast in our apartment with Chris Goertzen. There was loud pounding on our door and Mary went to answer. An aggressive lady came rushing in and pointed at our washroom. A pipe in the washroom had burst and was flooding her apartment below. It took me a few minutes to find and activate the shut-off valve. My clothes got soaked and the washroom floor was flooded. Chris just took off his shoes and socks and went to work with Mary to get rid of the standing water, while I changed my clothes. I believe they managed to limit the damage in the apartment below us.
Mary and I are looking forward to an uneventful week where we can focus on our work.
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/