Sunday, October 28, 2018

Support Across Borders

One of the many reasons we enjoy coming to Ukraine is having the opportunity to learn from each other. Our experience seems to be that when we come together it is not just to teach but to listen, and this creates energy and enthusiasm.  This was evident in two outstanding events this week.

Last Saturday, Mennonite Church leaders from various European countries came to Molochansk. Some of these leaders were pastors; others included business leaders, leaders of large charitable organizations, and one lawyer. This group of approximately 20 women and men came from Spain, Portugal, France, Switzerland, Germany, Austria, Poland, Netherlands and Lithuania.  They represented small and medium sized Mennonite Church communities, some of whom could trace their roots back 500 years. These leaders come together every year to discuss emerging issues, successes, and to offer encouragement to each other. This year they met here in Ukraine.

After their meeting, I gave a PowerPoint presentation on the work of the Mennonite Centre in Ukraine. After the presentation I led the group on a tour of significant former Mennonite villages in Molotschna, In the evening, the youth of the Molochansk Mennonite Church gave a spirited evening of music and story telling. They had a question and answer session with the leaders. The European guests ranged in age from 50 to 70. Imagine five of them shuffling up onto the stage to pick up three guitars, a set of drum sticks, and another positioning himself behind the electric piano. They were joined by the local youth lead guitarist and then the improvising began. The youth in the audience looked truly surprised at this display of talent, possibly wondering, "if this is what a bunch of old Mennonites can do, what must the youth be doing?" In reality, several of these leaders were members of bands in their communities. 

Another highlight of this week was having Lil's daughter, Lisa Crawford, come to Ukraine to meet with Probation Officers in the Zaporizhzhia Oblast. Lisa is an analyst with BC Corrections, specializing in high risk offenders. She has also worked as a probation officer, and as a manager supervising probation officers. In the picture below, Lisa is giving a presentation on current community corrections practices to probation officers in the Tokmak office.

Following the meeting in Tokmak, Lisa traveled to Zaporizhzhia to meet another, larger group of probation officers.  Also in attendance were some interested university students.

Uriy is a long-time probation manager in Tokmak.  I have met with him for several years during our trips here to discuss matters related to criminal justice. However my experience is now somewhat dated and it was good to get the latest thinking on risk/need approaches that are currently practiced in BC.  Pictured here are Uriy, Lisa, Oksana our Director, and myself.

The event in Zaporizhzhia was attended by the State Director of Probation Services in Zaporizhzhye, and his Deputy.  Just over a year ago the national government passed a new law bringing probation services in line with those offered by most western countries including Canada and Europe.

The attentive group of approximately 60 was very appreciative of Lisa's informative presentation, and there was a lively question period that followed.  All the PowerPoint slides had been translated into Russian by Oksana in advance of the meetings.  The format for providing reports for the court was also of great interest to them.  The Probation Officers, who get salaries from the government, are expected to pay for their own computers, office rental, furniture and all other supplies.  They are very committed to their work.

This is our last blog for this year.  We have had a wonderful time here and have felt very much appreciated and supported by so many people both from Canada and Ukraine.  Thank you for your support and interest in the work here in Ukraine.  We are convinced it is making a difference.

If you wish to know more about the work of the Mennonite Centre, you can check out our web site at: or follow our daily activities on Facebook at:

Saturday, October 20, 2018

Contrasts of Sounds of War and Sounds of Music

Last Sunday, the 14th of October we decided to take a drive on the west side of the Molotchna river, an area dominated by a large hill that leads up onto a plateau.  This large hill stretches for miles in a rather unusually long hilly formation and is known as the Colonista Hills.  On this particularly beautiful fall day we drove through an area that was populated in the 1800's by German Lutherans and German Catholics. We marveled at the many colours, including vibrant shades of red, orange, gold, and yellow.  When we arrived at the top, we were greeted by the sight of lush verdant fields of green grasses, likely winter wheat crops.  Where there once was a large collective farm that now still has 3 or 4 large storage barns standing, there is currently a very large privately owned farm operation.  From our vantage point at the top of this hill we could see our town of Molochansk and other small villages in the distance.  Even with the slight haze that covered the landscape that day, it was a spectacular view. Taking in these grand vistas gave us a true feeling of serenity and peace.

Unfortunately this picture of tranquility was not always able to be enjoyed in times past.  In fact, this exact site and surrounding landscape together with its people in the villages below, experienced everything except tranquility.  Seventy five years ago in September 1943, Russian troops were advancing into the former Mennonite villages in the Molotchna area.  The Germans took the high ground up on the hill, and the bombarding began.  At the very time that Lil and I were there, it would have been 75 years ago the Germans and Russians were fighting a vicious war, fighting to maintain or gain possession over this hill for over a month.  Now there is a striking war memorial site near the top of  that hillside.  Through the crosses we could look down at Molochansk.  We tried to imagine the booming explosions, the screaming, the rumbling of the crawling tanks, and the occasional red-leafed tree that no doubt was not even noticeable, not to mention being able to be seen for its beauty during the warfare and turmoil surrounding it.

Today some of the the signs of battle remain.  In the picture below you can see rusted shells lying scattered in the grass.

The Germans were not the only ones at the top of the hill and moving westward.  Surviving Mennonite families and mothers and children climbed the hill to make their way westward with the retreating Germans. They started the long arduous walk, undoubtedly occasionally looking to their left to get the last views of their former villages.

The following Monday we found ourselves back in Tokmak, a city of close to 40,000 where we took in a wonderful concert by Rhapsody Singers.  The concert was held in a recently built, cozy Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church.  The Friends of the Mennonite Centre provided some funds for building materials.  Now the church is too small and they are putting up another building for a Sunday School and other meeting areas.  Father Taras the priest proudly showed us the Mennonite bricks they are using.  Historically the Rhapsody Singers have served primarily in Orthodox churches and it is good to see them now offering their services in the Ukrainian Greek Catholic church.

The highlight of the week came when the leader of the Rhapsody ensemble brought his young daughter to the Mennonite Centre to give us and the staff a short concert. This is a delightful little girl who loves to sing, and she plays her 6-string guitar beautifully.

Pictured below she and her father are playing a Ukrainian duet.  The highlight of the concert was when her parents both joined her in singing Leonard Cohen's, Hallelujah.

If you wish to know more about the work of the Mennonite Centre, you can check out our web site at: or follow our daily activities on Facebook at:

Sunday, October 14, 2018

When did Ukraine get Independence?

When, would most Ukrainians say they gained independence?  Most would give the date of August 24, 1991, the day when Ukraine became a separate country, independent of the Soviet Union.  This is the date that Ukrainian independence has been celebrated for 27 years.

However, when a Canadian friend asked a Ukrainian what date Ukraine really gained its independence, she stated that it occurred sometime in 2014, after Russian military intervention in the southeastern corner of Ukraine.  It was at that time that Ukraine felt the need to actually become independent.  Sadly, too often in history it takes a war or a conflict to develop one's own sense of destiny. This person said that it was only after the war began that the country started to feel and act in an independent manner.  It started to seriously build its own army, reach out to other European countries, and make significant legal changes. 

This weekend Ukraine will celebrate one of its 11 public holidays.  On October 14 Ukraine celebrates "Defender Day".  When Ukraine was part of the Soviet Union everyone celebrated "Defender of The Fatherland" Day.  Ukraine has now abandoned that holiday but has instead integrated it with a previous Cossack holiday held on October 14, "Day of the Ukrainian Cossacks".  That celebration by the way, started in the 12th century and now has been revived with the bringing together of the army and the Cossacks.  One of the ways we show independence is by bringing together something significant in our history and combining it with something current.

We were invited to a local school to see their youth, together with some adults celebrate "Defender Day".  The community youth band students performed and are still enjoying many of the instruments donated by Friends of the Mennonite Centre in Canada, as well as others which were purchased by the Mennonite Centre.  In the school gym, the sound carried effortlessly and the youth played very well.  A much-acclaimed group of young dancers came on stage and skillfully showcased their talents in their beautiful bright costumes.  There were also a few national songs sung by various talented and powerful voices that didn't really need much amplification.  Young soldiers and veterans received special awards and strong applause from all in attendance.  The dancing group returned and this time was accompanied by a number of male youth dressed in Cossack attire. The boys in particular displayed great agility in near-acrobatic dance maneuvers; all this combined with swift and intricate sword skills.  We thought it might be wise to have an ambulance nearby, but everything went well.  This dance number meaningfully portrayed both the present and the past. Young soldiers and veterans received special awards and strong applause from all in attendance.

Perhaps the most dramatic part of the program was when the dancers were joined by a number of male students who represented soldiers in their uniform costumes.  It is difficult to look at these young students dressed as soldiers, realizing that in a few short years they could be at the front. They were accompanied by a very talented young voice singing a nationalistic song.
This part of the program ended with a very thought-provoking depiction of a young soldier being carried off the stage; as one who had sacrificed his life for a new independent Ukraine.

But independence doesn't only come as a result of war.  It can also develop from a peaceful, open  society that people can be proud of.  A few days ago we were reminded of a very real change in the new Ukraine.  Our driver was stopped by a policeman who when approaching the car with a non-threatening voice, stated "I stopped you because you are required to have your daylight running lights on," and cited the applicable Article number of the legal code.  He was very professional and basically reminded our driver to turn on the running lights and have a good day.  There was no hint of  requesting money.

A mother reminded me this week that one of her two daughters lives in Crimea and requires a visa to get out of the country. She knows her travel options are limited. Her younger sister with her Ukrainian passport, has now gone to Germany on more than one occasion with her new biometric passport.  That also gives a sense of independence and much sought-after freedom.

And this week the Ukrainian Orthodox Church has been recognized as a separate orthodox church no longer under the rule of the Moscow patriarch.  For many, this is a monumental milestone, reaffirming their new status in the Eastern Orthodox world. 

To our friends, cherish the freedoms that have been given to you.

If you wish to know more about the work of the Mennonite Centre, you can check out our web site at: or follow our daily activities on Facebook at:

Sunday, October 07, 2018

Strong Women who are Changing Ukraine

In the 3 years that Lil and I have been coming to Ukraine, we have been pleasantly surprised at the evidence of a number of positive changes that have taken place.  Since 2015 there have been significant changes in policing, education, medical services and infrastructure improvements, to name a few. We feel a sense of thanksgiving in knowing that "Friends of the Mennonite Centre in Ukraine", (FOMCU) has played a role by assisting with financial aid, the implementation of some of these processes. But there is no question that Ukrainians themselves, in many cases women, have taken initiative and shown strong leadership. In this blog we want to introduce just three of these women.

Irina, Chief Doctor of the Shirokoye Territorial Region

Only a few months ago, doctors were given the freedom to develop their own family practice in a community.  Previously if a person wanted to see a doctor they would most often have to go to a hospital to see a doctor there.  Presently, doctors can accept patients and develop their own practices.  In the Shirokoye territorial region, a young energetic doctor went to the council and worked together with them to establish a clinic that would serve several surrounding communities.  She recruited other doctors including some very experienced doctors who left their hospital work to join her in the clinic.  Through her initiative, the territorial council was able to re-direct some funds from the hospital to village clinics.  We helped this clinic purchase inhalers, urine testing machines, and 2 blood testing machines.  So far 8,000 of 12,000 residents, or 2/3 of the territorial region, have signed up at clinics with various doctors.  A blood testing machine is seen in the following picture.

Doctor Irina could have practiced throughout Europe but she chose to stay and work in the former Mennonite villages of Chortitza, now known as the Shirokoye territory.  She worked together with the council and with other doctors to develop a community medical model where patients come first.  FOMCU Board member Dr. Art Friesen and his wife Dr. Marlyce Friesen were instrumental in helping them get their new clinic equipment.  Here Dr. Irina is pictured with Ira a council deputy, Olga Rubel our director in Zaporozhye, and Ben and Lil.

Angelika, Director of the Prometei Centre;
 Changing Attitudes and Approaches towards Children With Disabilities

Several years ago, Angelika wanted to develop and start a program that would help children with disabilities particularly autism, with the hope of enabling them to develop social skills well before attempting to go into the public school system.  She was convinced that the sooner she could get these children into a program, the better their chances of being able to adapt to public school.  This was at a time when schools were just beginning to think of possibly integrating children with disabilities into the regular school system.  Angelika rented two apartments and asked the Mennonite Centre to pay the rent costs for one of them, and the Mennonite Family Centre (a group connected to the Mennonite Benevolent Society in Winnipeg), to pay the rent for the other.  Parents had to pay to enroll their children, and staff wages were well below the minimum wage.  Six years later, Angelika has over 100 children in her program.  The Ministry of Education has allowed her the use of a large school that is now otherwise unoccupied on the westbank of the Dnieper River. Many of these children with autism who are now school age attend a regular public school in Zaporozhye.  Angelika has appeared before a parliamentary committee in Kiev, met with the President's wife, and various other government officials in effort to promote her program.  What she has accomplished is amazing and could well be a model for all of Ukraine.  She has received national recognition, and has connections throughout Europe.  Children do come first with Angelika!  FOMCU has been her largest financial supporter.  Here, Angelika is pictured with the long-standing public school principal, Nikolai, who is one of her strongest supporters.

Tamara, a tireless leader of several NGO's (Non-government organization)

In 1990, Tamara was elected deputy in the Zaporozhye state government.  She was very interested in developing NGOs in Ukraine and shortly after, traveled to the United States to meet some NGO groups.  Later, she also had the opportunity to come to Vancouver to see how organizations such as the Vancouver Foundation and the Rotarians, function and contribute to civil society. After she came back from these trips, she formed four organizations in Ukraine that provided much-needed services. The first NGO she started was a crisis centre for women in Zaporozhye.  Currently she is working to get a study done on why Ukrainian men have a much shorter life expectancy than women.  Just recently she applied for UN funding to  help women and families living in the war zone.  She is also working on a program to encourage and increase the number of women running for office in local and state governments. She has been a long-time friend of the Mennonite Centre.  Tamara gets most of her funding the hard way; by approaching and enlisting the support of business people, holding silent auctions, and meeting with members of government.  She always has an open door for us.

Dear readers, it is through your contributions that these and other women have turned their aspirations into wide-spreading benefits for many Ukrainians. Many thanks to you as donors, and to these visionary leaders.

If you wish to know more about the work of the Mennonite Centre, you can check out our web site at: or follow our daily activities on Facebook at:

Sunday, September 30, 2018

Winging It

What makes our work here a whole lot easier is that our two Directors, Oksana Bratchenko and Olga Rubel are both fluent in English and are willing translators. If left on our own we would be like passengers without a pilot, going down quickly. Or so we thought.

Well, this last week they were both gone for the week, as well as Ira our chief cook, who has a rudimentary knowledge of English.  She was on holidays, and Maria the School Principal who speaks German fluently was also gone for the week.

And so we entered the Mennonite Centre on Monday morning and promptly used up our entire Russian vocabulary by the 5th step inside the door. But then we soon found that our staff, while hesitant to speak English, understood more than we expected. We  retreated into our office and decided to learn Russian the easiest way possible.  In 3 easy clicks we were into our Google Translate app. Google Translate is a lifesaver.  In a short while we were having morning coffee break with staff, speaking into the microphone and having the words come out in Russian.  For the most part everything seemed to make reasonable sense.  Then our first test came when a lady came into the office to inquire about the status of her son's student aid application.  We quickly got the spelling of his name using Google Translate on a document she had, and then Ben went to his computer and found his name in the student aid file.  We were then able to tell this mom the amount that he was receiving.  She was astounded and delighted, and so were we.
The next day one of our former student aid  recipients came in to give us a gift in appreciation for the support she had received as she pursued and obtained a law degree.  Her English is very good and so we could hold a conversation with her and she could translate for staff, and everything went well.

Since we arrived here in Molochansk, there have been 3 occasions where we have been shopping on our own and people have offered to help relay our wishes or questions to the shop owners.  One of these helpers was a 13 year old girl who astounded her mother when she told us "I can help you" when we were trying to find glue at the store.  She immediately pointed to some glue which was near the counter, and we made our purchase.  Afterwards we had an encouraging chat with her.  I don't think that either her mother, or the clerk, had ever heard her speak English with foreigners.  She was very composed and her mother looked very proud.  The other 2 occasions involved young women who had been involved in international trips and had well-perfected their English abroad.

On Friday, we had the usual seniors' lunch at the Mennonite Centre.  Because this was the last Friday of the month they honoured the seniors who had birthdays in September.  Honouring includes giving gifts like chocolate bars, and reading poems.  Then the seniors started to sing various songs.  It seemed to be a very joyful group; about 60 altogether.  I asked our staff member how many of the seniors were over 80.  In fact there were at least a half dozen including two that were into their 90's.  The lady in the photo below and her husband fled Donetsk during the war with the separatists and ended up in Molochansk.

We have always enjoyed a good working relationship with other Mennonite organizations here in Ukraine.  This week we met with Pastor Alexsiy (who is overseeing the seniors home in Kutusovka), staff of the Mennonite Family Centre in Zaporozhye, and board members from the Mennonite Benevolent Society from Winnipeg (who have for many years supported the Mennonite Family Centre in Zaporozhye).  It was good to get together and compare notes and discuss future challenges.  Here we are having lunch at the Mennonite Centre.
So we didn't crash with our language difficulties this week but we did bring smiles and some good laughter with Ukrainians with our efforts.  Don't worry, Olga and Oksana, you are still very much needed!

If you wish to know more about the work of the Mennonite Centre, you can check out our web site at: or follow our daily activities on Facebook at:

Sunday, September 23, 2018

Request, say thank you, then celebrate. Week one in Ukraine, 2018

After landing on the hot tarmac in Dnepro and having to take the transport bus for about 50 metres to the Arrivals section, we had our first hint of a good start here in Ukraine.  In his haste to get going, Ben got into the wrong passport lineup.  Of course, he chose the line for Ukraine citizens only.  A smile, an apology, and a sharp stamp on the passport confirmed we were accepted into the country.

At first we thought we might be in the wrong country.  The newly paved road done by a Turkish contract company felt as though we were on the autobahn.  We had barely arrived in Zaporozhye and we stopped to deal with our first request.  Pamela, a deeply committed parish nurse originally from Pennsylvania, met with us to talk about a community parish nursing concept.  She has been doing this work in Kiev for 17 years.

By our second day, we had already met two people who came to say thank you for our aid.  In one case we contributed funds for a hip surgery, and the other we helped someone to get their cataract surgery.  You don't need to understand Ukrainian to know and see they are grateful.

On our third day, we went to the Molochansk hospital (known by our grandparents as the Muntau hospital) to check out some requests.  The Molochansk hospital is really only a day facility with people coming in for diagnostic work and some physical therapy.  On the second floor there are 24 resident seniors.  The challenge here is that we have a medical care facility and a seniors home in the same building.  And like all well-meaning government bureaucracies, they don't necessarily work well together.  Right now the common kitchen is the issue.  A recent inspection report stated that the kitchen is not up to standard and needs to be upgraded.  They are to replace the floor, install an additional sink, and get better food prep areas.  The pictures below show the food prep area that needs replacement and the worn and uneven tile floor.  We have reminded both departments that they need to agree on a common proposal.

On Friday, we attended the Molochansk Liberation Day.  It used to be that Liberation Day was a very solemn day featuring marching soldiers, long speeches, and bored children.  Now it has turned to a much more celebratory event that, while it acknowledges the contribution of the veterans who defeated the Fascists (only a few of these veterans were present), it also celebrates the new Ukraine, as well as the veterans coming out of the current war between the separatists and Russia.  But Ukraine is not mired in the past.  It is also celebrating the contributions of so many who are part of developing a new future.  For example, over 20 women from villages throughout the Zaporozhye oblast who are advocates for changes in their own communities, met at the Mennonite Centre to be informed about the story of Mennonite history in Ukraine and to hear about the work of the Mennonite Centre.  Some of these women are already very involved in local government.  We had coffee and some sweets with the group at the Mayor's office.

The celebrations continued that evening.  On the plaza in front of the former Centralschule, the community of Molochansk held a grand street party with rides and slides for the kids, including a dreadfully derelict-looking attempt at a replica of the Pirates of the Caribbean ship, put on wheels; the tires of which looked like they could deflate at any given moment.  The only water this "boat" ever met was the water in the potholes.  There was singing and dancing, the singing done by people of all ages, and the dancing left mostly to the younger children.  The music was well amplified by the equipment purchased previously by the Mennonite Centre.  The kids really loved their activities, and the youth let out screams while trying out the apparatus similar to a flying trapeze while parents smiled at the kids' enjoyment.  It was so good to see that Molochansk still has many small children and young families.  Ben estimates there to have been around 2000 in attendance.  We left there feeling very optimistic.
If you wish to know more about the work of the Mennonite Centre, you can check out our web site at: or follow our daily activities on Facebook at:

Saturday, June 10, 2017

Myths from Ukraine

Like any other country, Ukraine has stories about its past or present that never seem to go away. The following is a Mennonite version of "Myth Busters".

Young people who are very good in the trades or in university invariably leave Ukraine for countries in the west. When we review the list of our graduating students to whom we gave financial assistance, we find that journalists, medical doctors, nurses, and teachers have chosen to remain in Ukraine. In fact one of our new doctors who is a recent graduate from our financial aid program, is coming to provide relief help at the Mennonite Centre clinic.

Ukraine isn't serious about cleaning up the environment. Ukraine has been forced to find ways of decreasing its dependence on expensive Russian gas, and its reliance on coal for the production of electricity. Just north of Tokmak, the city has a very large field of solar panels and the mayor informed us that they are going into a major recycling program. In addition, the current 65 windmills near the Sea of Asov will soon be expanded to 150.

Ukrainians don't volunteer for community service as much as other countries. This is definitely not true. Teachers spend a lot of their summer helping to paint, plaster, and get their schools ready for the fall.
In Molochansk, a local businessman organizes Saturday clean-up days where people collect garbage throughout the town. Both Tokmak and Molochansk are a lot cleaner than they used to be. Here are two pictures to show how clean the Willms estate now is.

We recently had a man who received medications after hip surgery volunteer to take people to the sea for summer holidays. During the recent conflicts in the south eastern area, many people collected food, medicines, and clothing for the soldiers. Many people volunteer to help their infirm neighbors with home care, gardening, and shopping. In fact this is a country where everyone knows their neighbors and looks out for them. They practice neighborhood watch.

Some Ukrainians believe that the roads are not really that bad. We believe that this not true; the many car tire repairs, and Lil's back, can vouch for that. Recently we took a trip to Orekhov, a village that in the 1870's had very few but very influential Mennonites.  This year they are celebrating the tenure of the first village mayor, a Mr. Johann H. Janzen, who was mayor there for 25 years. At one point the road was so bad that people had made a parallel road with their vehicles on the grass for well over a kilometer. Now you had a so-called four-lane highway. The new section was dusty but smooth. It was a new form of a passing lane.
The myth that there is nothing modern about the current methods of agriculture. That may have been the case shortly after independence, but from the vantage point of the Colonista Hills on the west side of the Molotchna River, the fields look spectacular with canola, winter wheat, sunflowers, and barley. In 2016, Ukraine had very productive crops, and so far this year looks the same. The Melitopol cherry harvest has been abundant, and our fridge here gives evidence of the good fruit and the generous nature of the people. John Deere dealerships appear in many towns.
Fruit trees in Melitopol
Ukraine lost its tourist potential after it lost Crimea. While the loss of Crimea is significant, towns along the Sea of Asov are doing a booming business in building seaside resorts. New motels, parks, playground areas for children and restaurants, are springing up to accommodate those who can't get into Crimea for their summer holidays. The water is already warm enough to swim in, the beaches are gentle, and the sand is clean. For a family of four, you could have a good dinner without drinks for around $15 Canadian.

The more we get to know this wonderful country and its people, the more we question our preconceived notions.

On Tuesday, June 13, we will be off to Vienna and finally into BC. Then day will become night, night will become day, and the meaningful time spent here will be well worth the adjustment.

To contribute to the work of the Mennonite Centre in Ukraine, you can make your donation to “Friends of the Mennonite Centre”.  All cheques should be mailed to George Dyck, Treasurer, 3675 North Service Road, Beamsville, ON, L0R 1B1.
If you wish to donate online, go to the website, key in “Mennonite Centre Ukraine”, and click on the Search button.  Then click on “V” for “View”, and “P” for “Profile”.  Then “Donate now”.
Please browse our new website at

We thank you,

Ben and Lil Stobbe