Saturday, July 30, 2011

On a recent visit to the hospital Ben spotted his friend Sergei mowing the lawn. The mower had a beautiful, quiet hum to it and Sergei had the contract to do this lawn as well as several others. Sergei is industrious. Not having a lawnmower did not hinder him in getting contracts--he just built one. An electric one. And it appears he used a baby carriage as a chassis and flipped over a small, electric motor. Now he cuts all lawns to one height and uses the owner's electricity to boot! No wonder he can win the contracts. However, he didn't take on the nearby football field, he left that to an impressive tractor-driven mower.

Ben has always had an interest in the criminal justice system and how it is being developed in Ukraine. This week he met with 13 probation officers from many of the neighbouring towns/cities who are in the very beginning stages of Community Corrections. Ukraine has had probation officers for only 10 years and this fall they are planning to develop a legislative base for Community Corrections. Until now, community supervision was primarily done by the police. The probation officers really reminded Ben of the staff he worked with in BC--lots of energy, enthusiasm, and good ideas.

We are also developing short videos which we hope to post on YouTube, describing the work of the Mennonite Centre here. Linda is preparing the script for a video showing a talented young accordion player. The video should be posted shortly.

Ben feels that an indicator of a civilized society is the availability of coffee shops. There is a fine shop in Tokmak which is near the market. A Saturday morning visit to the market followed by an espresso coffee for 63 cents (Cdn.) makes for the start of a good day.

Last week in Zaparozhye we stopped in for pizza. Ben went to the counter to help build his pizza, and with his charades and a little vocabulary he got chicken, tomato, cheese, and various greens as his toppings. The lady knew no English, so this took some effort. He stood around for several minutes, waiting for his pizza to bake, until the barmaid, busy making drinks, said with a smile and in perfect English, "you can go sit down--we will bring the pizza to you!"

We appreciate that our readers have many competing interests. If you wish to contribute to the work of the Mennonite Centre in Ukraine make your Canadian cheques to "Friends of the Mennonite Centre in Ukraine" or "FOMCU." Cheques from American donors should be made out to "MFC-FOMCU". All cheques should be mailed to George Dyck, Treasurer, 3675 North Service Rd, Beamsville, Ontario, Canada - L0R 1B1. Check our website at for information on credit card donations.

Ben and Linda Stobbe

Sunday, July 24, 2011

The tale of two people from one village:

Svetlodolinskoye is not a big village; in Mennonite circles it is known as Lichtenau. Both titles mean “light.” Lichtenau is known for its train station, which in the 1920's was the point of departure for many Mennonites westward to Canada, and which in the 1940's was the point of departure for many eastward to Kazakhstan and Siberia.

This week we were reminded of another major contrast in this village of probably no more than 2,000 residents. This week the village mayor introduced us to one of the most popular current residents of Svetlodolinskoye. Aram Arzumyan has just been crowned the Ukrainian Powerlifting Champion for his weight class of under 59 kilos. He trains in nearby Melitopol and works at the once-famous train station. He said he knew about the story of the Mennonites and the train station by the pictures he has seen. Being a national champion makes him a hero in this village. However, the Ukrainian National Powerlifting Team doesn't have a lot of money to send their champions abroad. He wants to compete in the European Nationals and the mayor asked if we can help get him to Europe. He has put in at least 2,000 of his own savings and been able to raise 3,000 UAH from the locals, and we were asked for the remaining 5,000 UAH (around $640).

But there is another person from Svetlodolinskoye whom we have given support to. We don't even know his name yet. We heard about him, again from the mayor. Our unknown friend was literally unknown in the system. Apparently he was kept contained in a barn because he is mentally challenged. Over the years he lost all his documents and was basically a non-person. When Dema, our Ukrainian Director, heard of him, he immediately phoned the local psychiatric hospital and asked that he be admitted there. 

They said they couldn't, because he had no documents to prove who he was. Interestingly, the Director of the psychiatric facility, has just recently asked us for funding for a water cistern. Apparently it's not easy running a psych hospital when the water runs out.

Dema offered a solution that would help everyone. If the psych hospital could find a way to temporarily admit him without documents we would find a way to provide a cistern. They agreed and proper documents have been created. Our friend is now admitted and n fact qualified for a government pension. The hospital also has a backup supply of water. (Quid pro quo is not our normal way of doing things but this case was an exception.)

Sometimes we get too accepting of the status quo. Aram is not imposing, but he is focused and determined, and will for the first time realize his dream of travelling outside the country, to Czech. 

The family of our unknown friend simply felt that they were doing the best they could do, but they needed outside help to have him travel outside of his prison to a place that at least offers some care and comfort.

For some Mennonites, Lichtenau meant a journey to freedom and for others a journey to despair and death. For Aram and our unknown friend it's a journey to recognition. Thank you, North American friends, for helping people on their journeys.

Thank you.
Ben and Linda Stobbe
View our website at

Podium appearance
The pride of Svetlodolinskoye
Staying focused

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Mennonite museums are opening up like sunflowers in Southeastern Ukraine. In the Molotschna area we have three school museums, two city/ town museums and one private musuem. The town of Vasilievka has an excellent museum with a few German artifacts, and of course Zaporozhye has a signifcant display of Mennonite artifacts in their city museum. The school museums often are the most fascinating. Children from former Mennonite villages are encouraged to bring artifacts found in their homes.

This week the history teacher from Udarnik (Neukirch) showed me a pocket watch which was recently brought in. The watch case itself was in pretty bad shape, but behind the watch, under a piece of leather-like material, were two folded scraps of paper which told a story. The papers looked offical and had typewritten notes and some scribbled notes, all in German. Board member Walter Unger suggests that the watch probably originally belonged to a German officer in WWII, who could well have fought in the final defense of Germany. He may have been killed in action, the watch removed by a Soviet soldier who brought the watch back to Udarnik. The date of 1945 is typed in the document.

While this is not a Mennonite story it graphically reminds us that nearly 70 years ago villages in this area included two very different German speaking peoples - men who were primarily soldiers as well as women and children who were struggling to survive without a husband and father.

 The other artifacts come from Vasilevka, a town half-way between Molochansk and Zaporozhye. The Director said, "do you want to see a Mennonite icon?" Now, I was expecting a picture either of Menno Simons, Board member Harry Giesbrecht or boys playing crokinole while "distributing" sunflower shells. Surprisingly, he showed me a picture of Mary with the baby Jesus and probably Joseph. There is a German inscription which says something like "God's strong father's-hand protects your marriage." What was somewhat disconcerting that this "icon" was placed right beside a photograph of two young men who apparently were bandits/anarchists involved in the plundering raids on Mennonite villages during the Bolshevik revolution. In fact the Director claimed that many Mennonite items stolen from homes during this time were brought to Vasilevka for redistribution.

I am skeptical that the so called icon necessarily came from a Mennonite home. After all, this area was also populated with Catholic and Lutheran Germans. But the irony of having these items side by side is telling. Nearly 100 years later the memories still hurt, but we want to be involved the reconcilation process. Your support and the goodwill extended by so many Ukrainians makes this a very satisfying process.

Check our website at for more information on our work and how you can help.

Saturday, July 09, 2011

Making Living Somewhat Easier

One of the exciting developments this Spring was the conversion of the 2nd floor of the Molochansk hospital to a floor dedicated for the care of Seniors. Dema Bratchenko, our Ukrainian Manager at the Mennonite Centre,  is on the Tokmak Social Care Committee which spearheaded this project. A dedicated facility for seniors care is relatively new in Ukraine. Two hospitals in former Mennonite villages - Molochansk (Halbstadt) and Vladovka (Waldheim) are converting some of their beds for the care of Seniors.
The Molochansk facility is desperate need of infrastructure upgrades. On the entire floor of this hospital there is only one toilet which actually works. FOMCU, Friends of the Mennonite Centre in Ukraine, is funding major upgrades to get all toilets working. Several years ago through the Respite Centre, we brought in used adjustable beds that certainly are a vast improvement over the existing beds.

In addition to providing the plumbing upgrades we also purchased new equipment. It's hard to believe, but the entire hospital food was cooked from three ancient hotplates sitting on a wooden table. These units were expected to make meals for at least thirty  patients! Often family members would bring in their own food. We have provided a modern grill and oven that will be a vast improvement. In addition we have provided  a new washing machine, a gas boiler and a new fridge for the seniors. Hopefully, by Christmas we will find donors to fund a TV in each room, This is win, win for everyone. Seniors can receive proper care, hospital equipment is upgraded, and staff layoffs are avoided.

This facility has room for up to thirty seniors. They will be able to receive medications from the pharmacy downstairs, and  we are currently negotiating how we can subsidize the cost of medication for these seniors. In addition to the resting areas we will have a common meeting area for socializing. Seniors turn over their pension cheque to pay for their care. They are the most vulnerable group in Ukraine. Elder abuse is far too common.

Mennonite groups have been leaders in providing seniors care. In Zaporozhye the Mennonite Family Centre has done a remarkable job in providing care services for seniors. In Kutusovka the Mennonite church runs a nine bed seniors home in the church annex. We hope that our work in Molochansk and Vladovka will be models that demonstrate how to develop care facilities for seniors in rural communities.

Thanks for your support. Please visit our website at to learn more about our work and see how you can assist us.

Ben and Linda Stobbe

with new washing machine and boiler

old cooktop for entire hospital
and you thought your kitchen needed upgrading!

with new grill and oven

adjustable bed?

used Candian bed from container

basic bed

Saturday, July 02, 2011

This year Linda and I took a detour through Poland before I flew into Dnepropetrovsk. Touring the former Mennonite settlements in Poland with noted genealogist Alan Peters helped us put Mennonite history in context. We certainly saw similarities in architecture and noted that the significant economic contributions by the early Mennonites in the Vistula Delta were repeated by those who migrated to Southern Russia. In both areas many Mennonites felt compelled to leave to continue practising their beliefs and those that remained behind were forced to accept the new political realities.

Now after spending nearly a week in Ukraine - without Linda who is back in Victoria - and having been in Poland for almost two weeks, I notice a striking contrast between these two former Soviet states. The standard of living in Poland is noticeably higher, and there does not appear to be the grinding poverty one can find in Ukrainian village life. Cars are newer, pollution is not as obvious, and buildings appear to be in far better condition. While roads are passable in Poland, in Ukraine they are impassable. The problem is that most Ukrainians are unaware of this.

Is this because Ukraine is closer to the West and a member of the EU? Partially, but I feel there are more significant factors. Poland had forty-six years of communism, Ukraine seventy-four. More significantly, Poland did not experience the same upheaval of collectivization and the purges that precipitated collectivization in the 1930s. Not only did this destroy the family based system of agriculture in Ukraine, it also took away the people, particularly men, who had the ability to manage, to innovate - in short leaders at the local and national level. Riding the train from Warsaw to Krakow, one could see the well-ordered farms with diverse crops running in long, narrow, straight lines. While Ukraine is anticipating a very good crop this year - good rains have blessed this week - the organization and ownership of land holdings continues to be in dispute twenty years after Independence. In addition while both countries suffered in ways that cannot be imagined during WWII, Poland had a stronger history of being a unique country compared to Ukraine, which at times seems to be the younger sibling, still somewaht attached to Russia.

When you consider that all older Ukrainians can quickly list a handful of lost siblings, parents, grandparents, uncles and aunts, you are amazed at their resilience, their faith and their committment particularly to their grandchildren. I have yet to meet a Ukrainian babuska who wouldn't give up her pension so her grandchildren can continue in school. We have much to learn from these bent over, head covered women.

Ben Stobbe in Molochansk

School in Nikolaifeld Ukraine

Early Mennonite House of Worship in Elbing Poland