Sunday, August 31, 2008

Almost a year ago to this day we were having one of our more frustrating times in Ukraine. Our son Joel and his wife Tracy had found their way over to Molochansk after crossing through Eastern Europe, and now they needed to get to Kiev. The trains were full, you couldn't even get First Class tickets, and so we tried the airlines. Now, it is easier for foreigners to fly out of Ukraine than to fly within Ukraine. The problem is getting tickets. We couldn't buy tickets at the airport (!) and so we were left drive around Melitopol looking for travel agents. One travel agent had one ticket but said maybe other travel agents would have more. And sure enough, at the Intourist Hotel in Melitopol we finally found two tickets from Zaparozhye to Kiev. At this point we were quite frustrated with the entire process, trying to do a simple thing like buy an airline ticket. And no, electronic tickets were not available. Ben was walking the sidewalks in Melitopol with Slava, muttering about the inefficiencies of the travel system, when suddenly a young man said in perfect English, "excuse me, do you need help?" He seemed very friendly; when Slava introduced us, this young man said that he had applied for the job of Ukrainian Director at the Mennonite Centre but that Slava had already been hired. This was Ben's first meeting with Dema Bratchenko, the man who is our current Ukrainian Director. When Slava left to pursue his interest in law we remembered that fortuitous meeting in 2007 in Melitopol. This reminded us that we are not alone in this work!

Dema and his family got introduced to the staff when we rented two "marshrutkas" (buses) and went off to the Sea of Azov. There was lots of sun and skin, and not enough lotion. We found a few shrubs where we could get shade and conquer our jetlag. It was a great bonding time with our staff and their families.

Up until yesterday the weather here has been hot and dry. Then we had a wonderful downpour accompanied with a good sound and light show. Fortunately we were in Tokmak at the market. Linda, convinced that it would never cool down, wore shorts and sandals. We were merrily buying produce when all of a sudden it got dark and it started to rain. The Tokmak market is basically a bunch of makeshift shacks covered with corrugated plastic roofing. All of a sudden the crowded alleys were emptied as everyone got under plastic of various sorts when heaven's hydrant opened. Tokmakians have been through this before. No fuss--they knew where all the high spots were and soon water was running down the alleys like the Chilliwack River. People just enjoyed the change in temperature and the freshness of the air. All those flimsy roofs and plastic coverings were built exactly for this. Every so often there would be so much water collected that the plastic would sag, the water overflowing like a spillway over a dam. At that moment we didn't know where all that water could go. We found out an hour later when we could finally get out of Tokmak, and came to the major intersection which must be the lowest point in town. We took our new Lanos slowly through God's carwash and were happy to get on the main road again.

The big event this weekend is "First Bell" at school, which is the opening of the school year. At the Kutuzovka Church the entire service was devoted to the children. Kids came to the front and led in singing and even presented recitations. Pastor Jakob had special prayers for the primary grade students, the intermediate grade students, the secondary grade students, the university students, and the parents of the students. Children and youth in were given a bag full of school supplies for which they seemed very appreciative. Babushkas collected extra bags for their grandchildren who weren't at church.

Tomorrow we are going to the First Bell celebrations at Dolina (Schoenau) where three years ago they had no daycare/Kindergarten in the community and now, thanks to Lorne and Hilda Epp and the Tiefengrund Mennonite Church, they have an enrollment of 15. The government's program of giving major financial support for the birth of each child, and the parents doing their part, seems to be working...

Ben and Linda

Sunday, August 24, 2008

We have stage-coached our way back to Molochansk. On past returns we would have our last sleep in Victoria and the next sleep in our apartment in Molochansk. This year we stayed over in Vienna and also had a sleep-over in Zaporozhye. We did a hand-over in Vienna, meeting with George and Marion Hamm, a hard-working, adventuresome couple from 100 Mile House who were the North American Directors in Molochansk from May to August. They suffered from the same post-Molochansk issues we regularly face—how to walk on level sidewalks and order food in a restaurant where people generally understand you.

We then took our next stage by flying into Dnepropetrovsk where we were welcomed by the generous and optimistic John and Evelyn Wiens. The Wiens’ have little concept of time—after basically retiring from successful ministry in Canada they decide to restart their lives and work as Christian missionaries in Zaporozhye. Little did they realize how the sin of the Tower of Babel would affect their lives as they take on the challenge of learning a very difficult language—Russian. The Wiens’ do not do things in halves, they want to know Russian well enough to be able to establish deep, genuine friendships with their neighbours and their community. Before going to his language lesson, John did mutter about “teaching an old dog new tricks.” It is not easy getting into the Wiens’ beautifully renovated, well-furnished apartment—not only do you have to huff your way up 5 floors (these are high-ceiling apartments), but the Wiens’ seem to have found friends on every floor and visit their neighbours all the way up. Ben resolved that this was the last year we were going to take music books from Victoria as he lugged a heavy suitcase up the 5 floors. These are old Soviet style apartments, built during the time of Jacob’s ladder--no elevators here!

Eventually we met Vitally proudly showing off our new Mennonite Centre car, a Lanos. This is a global car—parts made in Korea, assembled in Poland, and sold in Ukraine. Hope we don’t have to find out who takes care of any warranty issues! It’s interesting to note how the building of this car didn’t include any North American plants, a sad reality.

The road back from Zaporozhye was peppered with police. Every few kilometers there seemed to be another radar trap. And it’s about time. We have been told that in the oblast (province) of Zaporozhye there is an average of 17 car and pedestrian fatalities per day (we can’t confirm this).

Finally we arrived in Molochansk to hot weather and a warm reception. Lots of hugs and kisses.

It didn’t take long to face the realities of living here. Staff brought to our attention the case of a young mother of two small children who is in the final stages of cancer. The family needs money just to help pay back debts from past surgeries and medicines. In addition, a student from the local Russian school asked for funds to help pay tuition costs so he could attend the Berdyansk Pedagogical Institute. His father, a teacher at the Prischieb orphanage, died 2 years ago apparently from a heart attack while trying to fall a tree. He left 3 children and a young wife, and almost nothing to live off. With your generous help we were able to give partial funding to both requests.

We met our new interim Ukrainian Director, Dema Bratschenko. He seemed far too organized and confident a young man, given the fact that he has only been working here for 4 days. The amazing story of how we first met him will be part of our next blog.

Ben and Linda