Sunday, August 29, 2010

One of the frequent questions that we have to prepare for when we go back to Canada is, “what exactly do you do in Ukraine?” If we think about this question while driving on the “holey” road to Tokmak we are tempted to conclude “exactly” is not a common word used here. However, we take the question to mean, “give us a detailed description of your workday but keep it short.” In this blog report we want to describe what we tend to do and what we would like to do–every day we are reminded that the two are not necessarily the same.

We would like to view needs, think of programs that would connect to the needs, enjoy the rewards of successful programs, and find artifacts and stories that broaden our understanding of what our great-grandparents did here. What we actually find ourselves preoccupied with is writing policies to ensure that students are treated equitably when receiving scholarship grants and seniors get equitable treatment on coal distribution. We also find ourselves dealing with the question, “how much holiday pay do staff qualify for?” We spend a lot of time ensuring that we meet all our tax requirements, particularly the taxes surrounding payroll, vehicle registration, gas and electrical usage, etc. Collecting taxes has become a national obsession since receiving the economic crisis loan from the International Monetary Fund. We also spend a lot of time ensuring that wherever possible we make payments through the bank–this offers much more transparency but at times it is highly inefficient. In other words, we do a lot of paper work. That’s in addition to newsletter and blog reports, emails, project proposals, etc. The thing that keeps us going is that we know that good programs can only continue if they are well documented and consistent with our mission and values. And that doesn’t come just with story-telling, it needs a lot of numbers and policy backup.

What charges our batteries is going out into the villages and finding evidence of how our forebears thrived here. This week we went out to find the Kroeker house in Lindenau. We took a 1941 map and started locating the major markers such as railway crossings, roads, forest plantations, etc. What once was a well-marked cobblestone street with well-ordered farms running perpendicular to it is now only a rutted trail with a few run-down houses. The only things running are free-range chickens and ducks–goats are tethered while dogs can only run up to the fences. There is no longer a road leading to the railway tracks, but the line of trees, the change in land grade, and some cobblestones confirmed its existence. Soon we concluded that we had found the site of the old Kroeker property.

We walked through high weeds and some tall grass, kicking up the soil, and sure enough we soon found a slight depression containing a scattering of bricks. We took pictures of the view from where the house once stood with the hope that family members in Canada could now enjoy the vista that their forebears did. The house had been on a bit of a slope and had good view of the Kolonista hill; no doubt every night they would have heard the nearby train at the end of the grain field. It was a thrilling moment. That re-energized us, after spending several hours on an Excel spreadsheet calculating all the different factors we would use to determine which students would get what amounts for their university scholarships. The twenty-five students we will support this year should be happy for the Kroeker house–after all, it gave us energy to keep doing what we are trying to do exactly.

Next weekend we hope the Star Alliance pilots will also do things exactly so we can arrive back in Canada, with more stories.

Ben and Linda
c/o Friends of the Mennonite Centre in Ukraine
3675 North Service Road
Beamsville, ON. LOR 1B1

Not doing things "exactly." This security guard is supposed to be guarding the money bags in the vehicle while his co-guards are in the bank. Apparently he is working on the door lock!

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Often people in Canada assume that we know Russian or Ukrainian. At least a smattering of it! We know enough to get into trouble but not enough to get out of trouble! Even when we take a walk around Molotchna and look at the bountiful harvest this year, at best we nod or greet the locals with “Zdrastvuyte.”
Now, after 5 terms here in Ukraine we are starting to feel that there are advantages to not knowing Russian or Ukrainian. Maybe we shouldn’t be embarrassed about our poor language skills. Consider this:
• if you don’t know the language you don’t have to spend time explaining why you want to do something. Ukrainians are masters of the shrug and hopefully we can learn from them! That doesn’t mean indifference, it just means “sorry, I don’t understand you.”
• when people realize you don’t know the language they don’t feel threatened around you–they can say anything they please. In other words, you are not a big interference in their lives. The other day while having coffee Ben noticed that when some people finally understood that he didn’t know any Russian they talked to each other much more freely.
• when both sides can’t communicate with each other it can be a great equalizer–no one has power of words over the other. Any sense of coming here with Canadian superiority quickly disappears when you can’t tell anybody about it.
• in a sermon your mind is free to wander–you can imagine what you want the speaker to say. Similarly, you can imagine how your forefathers used to live here, and there is no one here to correct you!
• when you can’t speak the language, behaviour is often more important than words.
• not knowing the language allows you to claim ignorance when you get into a fix. Someone suggested that, when stopped by a policeman, don’t say, “nye pahneemahoo” (don’t understand), demonstrate your complete ignorance by saying “nye pahmeedoree” (don’t tomato)! At this point the policeman will know he is dealing with a total buffoon.
• you are forced to rely on body language, eye contact, the smile, gestures, etc. It can actually be a delightful way to communicate.
• when you can’t understand you actually try to listen more carefully, hoping to get one or two words in a sentence to give you a sense of context.
• there is great delight when you actually find a common words or a common insight–a bond is quickly established, more quickly than if you just use words to convince or ignore.

Two weeks ago we suddenly had no translator in the Mennonite Centre, and five Moms came for their regular support group session. The regular leader had to be away unexpectedly, so we were left to lead the the Mom’s group. We brought out our laptop and started showing pictures of our family–our children and grandchildren. One mother had brought her teenaged daughter who knew about as much English as we knew Russian and quickly we were communicating. Through pictures, gestures, heads nodding, laughing, blank expressions, etc., we told the story of our family. The time flew by; we ended with a meal together and we could see they wanted more. We didn’t need many words–pictures were more important. Let your imagination go when you look at the pictures of our Mom’s group with some of their children. “Dasvidaniya.”

Ben and Linda
3675 North Service Road
Beamsville ON

Sunday, August 15, 2010

An accountant friend of Ben’s always bristled when he was called a ‘number cruncher.’ He said that numbers and currency were mere symbols of programs and people. He looked at the end result, not the process.

One of the advantages of being here is that, while we experience the process, we also can see the beginning of the end result. Last Monday morning we came into a busy office at the Mennonite Centre. There were several bright, young university applicants and an old woman with her son. The students could wait, after all they had a lifetime ahead of them; we weren’t so sure about the woman.

Ella, who is from the former Mennonite village of Lichtenau, has had two surgeries for colon cancer and is facing another on August 24th. Her son, a former vet, explained that so far they have been able to keep their house but have sold their pigs, a cow, and anything else they can sell, to pay for medical intervention. Their income consists of her pension and the pension of her 93-year-old mother–he has given up his job to care for them. She handed us receipts for past expenses and all we could see with the receipts was the loss of pigs and a cow. Her request was modest, some money to pay for the third surgery. Ben said to Dema, “let’s give her 200 grievnas (UAH) today, just to give her some immediate hope, and go to the Board for additional funds.” The 200 UAH are just numbers, but to her they not–they represented hope; we saw the result–a smile which even pain could not hold back. Oksana, our bookkeeper was no number-cruncher, she delivered hope.

The students came next. This year’s numbers suggest that we will approve 20 to 25 students going to university, with a total budget of about 100,000 UAH ($12,500 US). This fall, coming out of our Youth for Life program, five of these students have been nominated by the Superintendent of Schools because they are very bright but come from very poor family and village backgrounds. While they will get full tuition scholarships from government, they still don’t have enough for books, and room and board. One of the students, Denis, is a history buff and was asked by Dema if he new knew anything about Mennonite History in Ukraine. Wrong question if you have to go to the washroom! Denis’ eyes became focussed and by the time we stopped him 10 minutes later he had gone from Menno Simons to the impact of Potemkin. Denis comes from a small, non-German village and we were totally surprised that he had even heard of us. Dema wondered if Denis could come back some time during the university year and give a lecture to other students. Ben thought he should be giving lectures to North American Mennonites! We want to give him and other scholarship applicants money not just because they need it but because we see them as legitimate academics who will have significant influence in the new Ukraine. This is not about money, it is about investment.

Last Sunday we were at the Grace Church in Melitopol. Dema, our Ukrainian Manager, delivered the sermon while Ben provided an introduction thanking the church for giving us two of our Ukrainian Directors from their midst–Kate Ostapenko and Dema Bratchenko. After church we met with the Deaf and Mute group, who were given funds by us for a summer camp. Here, not knowing Russian and not being able to read sign language really means you have two strikes against you. But we could read body language and we had a wonderful time of tea and sharing. Ben asked them if a North American who could “sign” would be able to communicate directly with them; they said most words are transferrable and gave examples of North Americans who have done just that. There is some irony in this–if you can’t speak but can sign, you can communicate with more language groups around the world than most linguists can. As one of our Canadian friends said, “I’m learning the wrong language!” We didn’t just give them money, we gave them a new sense of community and support.

A major frustration this week was trying to change the ownership of the Mennonite Centre car from our retired bookkeeper Ada, to our current bookkeeper Oksana. Before you ask why the car isn’t in the name of the Mennonite Centre, be sure to take a washroom break! Too long a story for this blog! To do this, our money had to go to the police–not once, but several times–all legitimate. To change ownership you have to change licence plates. First, before you can take off the old licence plate, the police have to inspect the car to confirm registration. Then you put on a red licence plate, signifying ownership is in transition. Then you have to bring the car to a notary public who reviews documents and confirms that Oksana can be the new owner. Then you take the car back to the police, show the new documents, and get another inspection to confirm that the car is the same one as you brought since the red plates were put on. All of these visits involve a fee which some of you dear friends have contributed to. We always want to believe that all our money goes to widows and orphans, but some of it has to go to the process–to get mobility and to deliver services. Our challenge here is to do this with integrity, to fill out every form, not “buying our way” through the system, even if that means we are in the slow lineup and have to wait hours longer than the young fellows who come with their black BMW’s. Even here it’s not just about the money, it’s about doing it right.

The week ended off with our Saturday morning Tokmak market visit. We hold our breath, gird our loins, and step into the meat market, a place we have visited for the last several years. We are always greeted by a community of pigs’s heads, ears, and a display of other livestock anatomy. We are also greeted by the welcoming smiles of fly-swatting vendors, some who remember us from past visits. We buy a pork roast for our Saturday night dinner, then remembered that some poor family from Lichtenau had to give up their pigs to provide not only money, but also hope.

Ben and Linda Stobbe,
c/o Friends of the Mennonite Centre in Ukraine,
2675 North Service Road,
Beamsville, Ontario. L0R 1B1

Saturday, August 07, 2010

One of the areas of noticeable difference in Ukraine since our first coming as North American Directors in 2005 has been the general improvement in the conditions of the orphanages and treatment of children with disabilities. This generalization is only based on the orphanages and programs we are aware of, here in the Molotschna area. The state-run orphanages such as the one at Prischib and the one near Melitopol have certainly improved their facilities with new windows, better floors, chairs, and even food. The state appears to have made a major investment in these facilities. This Monday we went to Kalinikovka, the site of the Steinbach estate on the southern end of the Molotschna colony. Significant renovations and facility improvements have occurred at this institution for physically and mentally challenged children aged 5 to 18. However, we have been told that the capital costs for the improvements have been supplied by non-governmental groups, not the state. Here again, we were very impressed with the conditions we saw, particularly for the younger children. The renovated rooms were clean and bright. Compared to conditions at the adult psychiatric hospital in Molochansk, this facility was a vast improvement.

Compared to our North American practices, Ukraine still institutionalizes far more children on a per capita basis. While the long term plans should be to integrate them into as normal an environment as possible, at least on the short run we are pleased to see improved facilities. In walking amongst the young children in the former Steinbach estate we were struck by two things: the need and desire of children for human contact and the fact that an estate which once showed prosperity and success can now be used to show care and support for the most needy of children. We just stood among the children and allowed them touch us. They grabbed, snuggled, and rubbed our hands. We did not come out of there feeling despair, but had a new sense of what can be considered beautiful. Staff were very encouraging to the children and encouraged us to be with the children. It is good to see how the original Jacob Dick and Nicholas Schmidt buildings continue to be used for the good of the community and have not been allowed to disintegrate like so many other places. We were guided through the buildings by Yulia Romanova, one of our scholarship students who was doing summer volunteer work there. Yulia, who speaks good English, has a better understanding of Mennonite history than 99% of North American Mennonite young people her age and is a model of the new Ukraine.

On Wednesday we went to another old estate, this one not Mennonite–Count Popova’s castles in Vasilievka. Here we saw an estate consisting of several old castles built in the 1800's. These big buildings also depict wealth, status, and living conditions of the nobility in Tsarist times. Unfortunately they are not really being used and while the state appears to be trying to prevent further deterioration of these buildings, one senses that much more could be done here to make them a centre that would serve the community.

On Thursday, after a particularly long afternoon, we were just ready to go home when two rather dignified-looking women came into our office. They were sisters, and one was a former teacher in the Mennonite Centre which once was a school. Both women would have been pensioners in Canada but they did not reflect the stereotypical “babushka” look of Ukrainian grandmothers. In fact, we have also noticed how that look is increasingly changing as Ukrainian women are beginning to carry their natural beauty and class into their senior years. These women came in confident and smiling, and said, “we want to thank you for being here. I am so delighted that this building is now being used to provide care for the community. My sister just got new glasses here. Those of us who can remember the war years often have nightmares and the best cure for me is to come to the Mennonite Centre and sit on the benches because this is a place of peace. We have a nephew in Toronto. He is coming to visit us next summer and we will bring him here to show him that we have a little piece of Canada right here in Molochansk.”

Sometimes when you improve buildings you also give hope, joy, and good health to those whose lives have been filled with fear and despair. Thank you to all our supporters.

Ben and Linda Stobbe
Friends of the Mennonite Centre
3675 North Service Road
Beamsville, ON
L0R 1B1

Sunday, August 01, 2010

The pears are ripening and we are back in our second home, here in Ukraine. Actually, Ben came on his own for a few weeks this past May in his role as Board Chair, arriving when Rudy and Hildegarde Baerg were wrapping up their spring term. After an absence of nearly 18 months, Ben picked up some good advice on how to adapt to our apartment previously occupied by Larissa Funk, our German missionary friend. Advice such as: use the top of the oven to bake–the bottom element will burn everything; the local butter is hard to cook with–it is probably mixed with water; the best yogurt is that which you buy in a bag–just pour it into a jar when you get home; buy triangular bread in the Dar store–get there early or there won’t be any left; light the oven with a match, leading it into the hole at the bottom; turn the oven knob to 10–your heat should be no higher than 200 and 180 is equal to 350; the narrow bowl on the bottom shelf is perfect for beating eggs...

All of this good Hildegarde-Baerg-advice assumed we would be cooking food in the kitchen–as it turned out we were the ones being cooked! There was no advice on how to deal with a broken air conditioner in +38 degree weather. The good news was that we had running water, the bad news was that the only running water came down the wall from the air conditioner! After the second night of trying to sleep in a sauna the air conditioner was fixed and we heard the sweet sound of water running from taps.

When we arrived together on July 26th we had needed no advice regarding all our friends here in Molochansk–they are as friendly as ever, proud to show us how they have fared, and happy to share the produce from their garden plots. A big thank you to whoever brought the sweet corn seeds into this area–it appears that corn for human consumption is now being grown in several garden plots in Molochansk and we were given a handful of beautiful, sweet cobs shortly after we arrived.

When we left in the fall of 2008 the economic crisis had just hit many parts of the world. In Ukraine many industries and exports came to a sudden halt. Unfortunately Ukraine is still mired in the recession. You don’t see many new bikes–in fact the only bikes we have seen are the indestructible, plain-coloured, single-geared Soviet-era bikes. You don’t see as many scooters and if you do the drivers continue to ignore the recently-passed law on wearing helmets. You do see many more policemen standing at the side of the roads, looking for traffic violators. Apparently the fines for violations have skyrocketed, giving the government increased revenue with the hope of making the roads safer.

It’s hard to believe, but some of this area’s roads are worse than they were in 2008. Going to Tokmak is like watching car ballet in slow motion, as drivers carefully manoeuver figure-8's from one side of the road to the other in hopes of avoiding these gaping “minefields”. Apparently the contractors hired to repair this stretch of road fled with the advance they had received–at least the police could figure out the direction they were going–the road south would be too rough for a quick getaway! Someone has said they have been captured and are in jail; may their new digs have lumpy mattresses...

We spent several days this week interviewing candidates for our scholarship programme. Some want to be doctors, others teachers, and one–a missionary. It is exciting to hear these young people, some of whom we have known since they were young teens, speak of past volunteer work as student leaders in the school, youth camp leaders in summer, and their dreams for the future.

Ben and Linda Stobbe
August 1, 2010

Trees in the Willms park near our apartment Salad for Seniors Lunch