Friday, August 15, 2014

A Shortened Visit

Three refuge families
 Impressions from a Shortened Trip

My  first week ended with a memorial service for the Dutch victims of the Malaysian Airliner plane crash. The second week ended with a celebration of joy for the re-opening of the Schoensee Mennonite Church, now the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church. The third week ended with an intense visit with friends in their home where we all asked the question, "What does this all mean?" Here is my response to the question.

While a major cultural divide is developing between the two countries, I am not convinced it is so divisive in communities, and families. While those of Ukrainian background are very patriotic to their emerging country , many who have Russian background are similarly inclined. This seems particularly true of young people and young families. Frankly they see a better future looking westward. I suspect the young people who apparently painted the rails alternately blue and yellow on the great Dnieper dam didn't only speak Ukrainian. The painful division in families comes about when siblings are separated by country. The propaganda information war, particularly from the North say Ukrainians, has resulted in deep differences that may take generations to overcome. This is not the only reason for family stress. Mothers fear the call to arms for their sons and husbands. One family has two sons studying medicine. They are terrified their skilled children will be called to serve. The Director of a Music School recently found that his band teacher has been called up.

The takeover of Crimea is costly on all sides. In past summers whenever you took the busy and somewhat dangerous highway between Melitopol and Zaporozhye you could expect to see a significant number of vehicles bearing Russian license plates. On Friday I saw none on the road or in the city. Businesses on both sides of the border counting on a brisk tourism season must really be hurting. Many people in Ukraine  said to me they will not return to Crimea while it is Russian. In fact Livov in the West appears to be an attractive destination spot for many. The establishment of trade barriers on both sides will hurt farmers. Right beside the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church in Schoensee is a pig farm. I fear the squealing of the piglets will soon be joined by the owner when the price of pork drops.

On the bright side, the fields I saw looked good with lots of corn and the usual open vistas of sunflowers. Winter wheat yields were very good. On the other hand, every Ukrainian I met is praying for a mild winter. Allowable classroom temperature levels have been dropped two degrees, I believe to 16 degrees, and some are turning to electrical radiators to make up for the reduction in gas.

I never really understood what our Mennonite mothers went through in the great trek to the West in 1944 until I saw refugee mothers from Ludansk with their inquisitive children staying at the Mennonite Church in Nikolaipol. Olga, our Director in Zaporozhye was chatting with a mother when suddenly a gust of wind slammed the door behind her. Her body jumped and her face froze in a look of terrified fear that I can't forget.  She described how she and others were held hostage by pro - Russian troops and were told at the count of three they would be shot unless the Ukrainian forces backed off. They did back off. There was no room on the train so they stood for hours in the space between train cars as it moved westward. I told the mothers that probably they were not the first to seek refuge in this church. It could have happened 70 years earlier. They were unbelieving when Olga told the story of other mothers who cried their way westward.

While this is a war that is being fought on the fields and in the cities, it is also on social media with the ever present smart phone. Soldiers give updates to friends and these are relayed as prayer requests or praise items in church services. The plight of civilians can immediately be sent out. Many turn on the news first thing in the morning and the last thing at night.

The ongoing safety of people from the West continues to pose challenges. Short-term visits in the larger cities, where anonymity is easier, present fewer personal safety concerns. However, greater care must be taken in longer term stays in villages where you are easily noticed. Knowing that I had been in Molochansk for three weeks and that there was potential for more disruption in neighbouring areas, I decided it was best to return now to Canada. While we will join other humanitarian aid organizations in not having a longer term Western presence for now, we have procedures in place to fund our refugee, medical, student, seniors, and children's programs.

Thank you for your support.

Ben Stobbe

To contribute to the work of the Mennonite Centre in Ukraine you can make your donations to "Friends of the Mennonite Centre in Ukraine." All cheques should be mailed to George Dyck, Treasurer, 3675 North Service Rd., Beamsville, Ontario, Canada, L0R 1B1.
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At 10:39 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi, Ben. I have become aware of a school in Zaporozhye that helps the refugee kids displaced by war in the region. I have taken it into my heart to supply that school with more art supplies for the kids, and I have put out some feelers now, and have started to strategize how to make this happen. I do not know the name of that school, and it would help if they had a phone number and an English-speaking contact. Do you network with anyone that can help me make this happen? By the way, I lived in Kiev for a month (2013) and will return there in May, 2017. Thanks. Steven Coach (Eureka, California)


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