Sunday, August 26, 2012

Blog 6, 2012

Doing community service

Last year Ben found out that the neighbouring city of Tokmak had a probation office. Quickly, friendships were established and Ben met with other probation officers in the area.

Since they had no community service programs, Ben gave them some suggestions as to how to get one started. Discovering that they had only one old computer he arranged for the Mennonite Centre to give them a new computer. Armed with few resources but lots of enthusiasm, the probation officers quickly developed a community service program and had many files digitized.
Community service projects included having young adult offenders clean up monuments, do landscaping on the hospital grounds, help doing clean-up work at the Orthodox Church, and even got involved in the renovation of the case room of the maternity ward in the Tokmak hospital. While the idea was conceived at the Mennonite Centre, one could suggest that, after several months of labour, a new community corrections program was birthed in this room.

In acknowledgement for his creative work, Yuri, the supervisor of the office, was awarded the national "Probation Officer of the Year."
This week Ben held another seminar where he spoke on developing a Risk/Needs assessment tool for offenders. It has been some time since Ben was involved in this field so he was very thankful for the support of British Columbia Corrections and their Regional Director Community Corrections, Bruce Ganie. Basically, Community Risk/Assessment is an approach that differentiates levels of supervision for offenders in the community. The Ukrainian probation officers, many of whom are office managers, really appreciated the information; they want to go further in developing this tool. This is an example of relatively little money making a big impact.

On Friday Ukraine celebrated its 21st Independence Day. Our Molochansk event was also an opportunity to thank the young dancers who made such an impression at the Sorochinskiy Fair. A teacher from the music school made a public statement at the event, thanking the Mennonite Centre for their support over the past years.
The music school is particularly proud of a young accordionist we have supported, who is now performing at international competitions. Our Ukrainian Board member, Marina Romanova, sang a tribute to Molochansk which made several references to the contributions of Mennonites over the years. It is at events like these, that we realize we have many friends here.
We appreciate that many would not consider a board meeting as a highlight. Yesterday we had the meeting of our Ukrainian Advisory Board, which is in charge of administering the programs and distributing the funds received from North Americans. The Board is very conscious about operating within Ukrainian law, being accountable, and maintaining good communication with the FOMCU Board in Canada. There was a lot of healthy discussion on procedures, working with the program in Zaporozhye, dealing with tax issues, etc. It was a very productive meeting.

We also had nine young people from Elmira Mennonite Church in Ontario come to help in the local Kutuzovka Youth Camp. In addition to Ben providing a tour to neighbouring villages, the Mennonite Centre hosted a dinner for the Elmira and local youth, and provided musical instruments for the youth band. They were great kids with lots of energy.

Ben and Linda

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.




Sunday, August 19, 2012

Blog 5, 2012 – Sorochinskiy Yarmarok

The Sorochinskiy Fair is the Ukrainian version of the PNE or CNE that includes folk festivals and trade expositions. It is a showcase for Ukrainians to celebrate the work of skilled craftsmen, national theatrical performers, as well as Ukrainian works of literature and music. The fair has been going on for centuries and it really immortalizes Ukrainian village life. During the Tsarist times it was held five times a year and during Soviet rule there was a 40-year-moratorium. It now holds the status of Ukraine’s national trade fair. The Russian composer Mussorgsky wrote an opera about the fair.

Friends of the Mennonite Centre in Ukraine provided travel funds for young dancers from Molochansk to compete at the fair. This was their first opportunity to go, and probably first time any group from this region was invited to compete. We were invited by Alexander, the dance director, to join them. Translation services were provided by the English teacher at the local Russian school and by the young dancers who had a surprisingly good level of English. 

The fair celebrates all things Ukrainian. It has produce markets, trade shows showing farming equipment, a kid’s midway, and lots of singing by various groups made up mostly of older Ukrainian women. According to our ears Ukrainians sing two types of songs, the cheerful rhythmic songs often starting with a yelp and a whistle. Even though their throats appeared to be pinched, that did not deter their efforts to grasp high notes. The other type of songs appeared to be the low wailing, mournful descriptions of past struggles. Unfortunately they were not as many male voices, however those who participated really showed off the full range and beauty of their voices. Due to the obviously poor hearing of those working the sound system, we regretted having left our earplugs in Molochansk, however the Ukrainians loved it all! 

Our dancers did us proud. They were asked to perform several times over a period of two days, and won two second-place prizes. They certainly put unknown Molochansk on the map. In fact, when we were walking with some of the dancers people would point to them and say “Molochansk”, giving the thumbs up.

We had lots of delightful surprises. Whenever we had coffee or lunch in the many food gardens we would try to sit where we found young people, and start speaking in English. Many vendors could converse in English when describing their wares.

Our biggest surprise was meeting a bandura maker whose English was so good we asked him where he had learned it—from Raleigh, North Carolina! He was born there but has moved to Ukraine to authentically make these beautiful instruments.

The Prime Minister came and addressed a large crowd at our cultural venue. Before he and his entourage arrived, for security purposes they cleared everyone out of our parts of the stands except us two Canadians and our translator, because we were honored guests. The stands were then filled with politicians and their families and other functionaries. We didn’t feel comfortable sitting there but felt that leaving would make too much of a statement which would be very confusing. Our Ukrainian dancers were on the stage with the PM and they felt honored that we were there. The PM, who drew a large, respectful crowd, arrived during a rainstorm and came with a parade of security people all carrying big, black umbrellas. Mussorgsky could have done something with that scene! To ensure that the PM did not get wet, they put up a portable canopy. After he left, the canopy was briskly carried out until it hit the arch of the gate bringing up short the quick steps of the young handlers. Another missed opera scene!

Our drive home was expected to take 7 long hours. However, our yellow bus developed a mysterious ailment that required it to stop every 15 minutes or less. The engine was turned off, necessary adjustments made, and we trundled off for another 15 minutes. These breaks gave ample opportunity for our late-night, call-of-nature posturing—no high beams please! Twelve hours later we finally pulled into Molochansk at 2:30 a.m. In typical Ukrainian style, not a word of complaint from the kids; there were thanks to the bus driver, and thanks to us for coming and enjoying these happy times. And thanks to you, dear friends, for making this trip possible.

Ben and Linda

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.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Blog 4, 2012

In rural Ukraine one of the features that has not changed significantly since Soviet times is the layout of the yard. Most homes still have the imposing, often concrete, fence with the squeaky metal gate that alerts anyone at home of a visitor or intruder. If the high squeal of the gate doesn’t do the job, the sharp barks of the tethered dog will. People feel secure behind the fence. As soon as the foundation of the new church in Molochansk was poured, a secure fence was installed. It is interesting to note that private enterprises such as grocery stores, markets, etc., are not behind walls and in fact will often have open doors. People feel less secure in their homes.

There are no lawns or big trees in the front or back yards. Trees are beside the road and border the thinly paved, lumpy sidewalks.

 If the trees fail to get you to walk on the road, the electrical poles or other obstacles will surely force you off the sidewalk.

On Saturday we decided to try to stick to the sidewalk and were rewarded by seeing a beautiful front yard behind a fence.
Here was a garden of the regular vegetables, tomatoes, potatoes, peppers, etc., but it also had an amazing display of flowers, raspberries, and grapes. This was the garden that we recall our parents had - a mixed garden of food and flowers.  Certainly roses are a common sight, but even saw marigolds. In the past years we have seen more and more varieties of grapes, and as we have been reminded by friends, there is a new variety called "Victoria" grapes. Probably not named after our home city.  

The fruit here certainly seems to be more tasty. The watermelons are big, sweet, juicy, and cheap. The heavily-laden pear trees provides delicious fruit. Last week we had the best nectarines ever.

For many, gardens provide food security. A good garden takes you through the winter and a goat can produce up to 6 litres per milking. The day hospital in Voladovka (Waldheim) continues to have a garden even though they no longer have a kitchen. They sell their produce at the market to help pay for the hospital’s operating costs.

As we are writing this blog we are experiencing a thunderstorm with rain. Finally after 8 weeks of no rain and virtually no days below 30 degrees you can smell sweet moisture. Cool air finally comes in through the windows. We went for a walk after the rain and met a neighbour collecting water from a large puddle so he could have extra for his garden. He was so happy for the rain and for our brief visit. The rain should help the sunflower crop, but alas it is too late for the corn.

You will notice that “we” are writing this blog - Linda arrived this week. Linda and the rain have brought a spring to Ben’s steps.

Ben and Linda Stobbe

Monday, August 06, 2012

As soon as I stepped into an Orthodox service in Tokmak this morning I felt swept up into an ocean of Ukrainian /Russian history. The high ceilings, the quavering, pleading, singing voices of babushkas, and the icons looking down on you take you into the past and don’t require translation. I found myself mumbling in English when all around others were saying the Thrice Holy Prayers, responding to the Litany with “Lord have mercy,” or joining in the Alleluia. I also noted that you do not just stay put in an Orthodox service, there is an amazing amount of movement including quiet shuffling to an icon, lining up for communion, and taking part in many different forms of bowing.
I am not a frequent attendee of Orthodox services. I feel much more a part of a community in the Kutuzovka Mennonite Church. Here, every Sunday I am accosted by bent-over women, whose walk is an ad for orthopedic surgery. They keep asking, “When is Linda coming?” This is a community that has a caring attitude, almost “in your face” Even here, I am trying to get by with little translation service, focusing on the Spirit and not the words.
The services have a distinctly different approach to dealing with children. In the Orthodox service children are expected to be quiet, not have any toys, and be under parental supervision at all times. They have their own separate communion service where they come up, open their mouth, and the Priest inserts the spoon. Most were amazingly compliant. In the Kutuzovka Mennonite service children worked on puzzles, drew pictures, had snacks, and showed me their hot cars. While the men were serving communion one cute young girl went up front, stood by the communion table, faced the audience, and munched on a fine looking apple.  Ironically, the preacher spoke on Genesis 1; perhaps the little girl was role-playing the scene of Eve eating the forbidden fruit?  I enjoyed both services and did not find the children in either service disruptive. 
Today I was informed that one of the women in the Kutuzovka Church had passed away two weeks ago. She had been in the hospital but was sent home to die with her family. She was given pain medication and died at 6:30 the next morning. The family immediately contacted people, brought in a Minister, and had the funeral by 3:30 that afternoon. Apparently there are no morgue facilities in the area, and with the heat we are experiencing they have to make quick burial arrangements. This experience is another reminder that it is indeed a different world here.
Watching the Olympics here in Ukraine reminded me of some of the projects we have had over the years in supporting athletic events. A couple of years ago we supported youth from a local orphanage to attend a swim meet in Odessa

 Last summer we supported Aram Arzumyan from Svyetlodolinskoye (Lichtenau) so he could travel to the European power lifting championships in Czech.

This summer we funded a camp for physically disabled young adults in Zaporozhye.
The Olympics remind me that it is healthy for youth to pursue their dreams, be that on the national stage or at the community and regional level.
Ben Stobbe
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

Wednesday, August 01, 2012

Backing up village memories

Dema Bratchenko, our Ukrainian Director at the Mennonite Centre, has a desire to tell the youth in this area the story of Mennonites in Ukraine. This winter he developed a detailed story of Mennonite villages based on Rudy Friesen’s book “Building On The Past.” Several youth from Molochansk attended the weekly classes. After taking the course, youth go out in summer on a Friday to Saturday overnight field trip focusing on one or two villages. 
Last Friday I joined Dema and five boys on a visit to Udarnik, formerly called Neukirch. We decided to first go to the virtually non-existent village of Friedensruh, later called Malarovka. Eleven years ago there were six distinctly Mennonite houses in the village. In the book Rudy says “The steep roofs, many still covered with clay tiles, and the brick gables with large flat arched windows gave an impression of what the Mennonite villages once looked like.” Now only one of those houses stands as reminder of a previously thriving community.      
 We met the owner of the house who dreams of restoring it, but in reality, it houses old furniture and bee keeping equipment. All the other houses have disappeared, the land swept clean of bricks and tiles. In the short lifetime of these boys the village has disappeared. There is a cemetery where we discovered two Mennonite tombstones.

 Dema and the boys joined another Ukrainian in waving a Geiger counter and finding a rusted cultivator blade, an axe head, and a coat hook.

After several hours of wandering about in the 37 degree heat it was time to find a camp site. Several years ago an earth dam was built on the Juschanlee River just upstream from Udarnik. The small shallow lake, located close to the former Mennonite village of Prangenau, offers some local fishing and many marshy reeds along the shoreline. We found a quiet site in the woods close to the lake. By sundown we realized we realized we were in the middle of a crow party where someone gave every bird a noise maker. The crickets were not to be outdone. The crows were flat and the crickets were sharp and we were tired. By morning the crows were gone, the crickets were quiet and we were happy.

Filled with a breakfast of bread, cheese, tea and biscuits the boys went into Udarnik to do the village survey. They went from house to house asking if anyone could recall the Mennonites who once lived in this village.

 Soon all the boys gathered around the village grandmother who clearly remembers living with Mennonites before and during the Great Patriotic War. We asked her to tell her story. She said, “how can I talk without a loaf of bread?” A lad was dispatched to buy a loaf of bread. He came back with two. Then she regaled us with complimentary stories of Mennonites which had been told to her by her father. Once their cow broke its leg and had to be put down. The Mennonites butchered the cow, shared the meat with the village and then gave her family another cow. Another time they lost many chickens to a wild animal. The Mennonites took from their own flocks and gave the family, birds to start again. She said, “I never have had such neighbours that took care of the people here.” 

These are the stories given to the younger generation by older Ukrainians. I felt like I was back on the Mennonite Heritage Cruise visiting the former Mennonite villages. But this time it was Ukrainians telling their story, not to tourists, but to their own children. A fitting epilogue to the cruise visits.

Ben Stobbe

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.