Monday, June 29, 2015

Lviv, history, health and charm


After a 24 hour train ride in a double bunk bed cell, Ukrainian managers Oksana, Olga and I arrived in Lviv, Ukraine. To get here we traveled in a north-western direction from Zaporozhye. We arrived in good spirits. Actually most people would after riding for such a long time.

Lviv is a beautiful old city with a population of nearly one million. Virtually no buildings were damaged during the last two wars. It has an incredible number of old churches and appears to be very Polish and western looking. It is 80 kilometres from the Polish border. Tourism is a booming industry here, primarily because Crimea is off limits to many Ukrainians. The downtown was packed with tourists, many coming for the Jazz festival.


Friends of the Mennonite Center board member, cardiologist Dr. Art Friesen, joined us in Lviv. Our purpose was to visit the newly established rehabilitation centre for people having major spinal cord injuries. The Center has civilian and military patients. This Centre was established less than one year ago with virtually no government funding. They were given a run down abandoned building on the grounds of a hospital. They had no equipment ,no staff and a run down building full of holes. Dr. Rustyslav, a dedicated doctor who has training in this area, took on the challenge. He called for volunteers to renovate the building, international agencies to provide rehab equipment, and physiotherapists to come and volunteer at the Centre. Amazingly, he has a staff of 17 who put in long days and make a few dollars a day. They could make 10 times as much in wages at a private clinic.


One of the volunteers is a physiotherapist who spent three years training at the University of Manitoba. Lesya is one of the few foreign students in her class who returned to her home country. Obviously her English is very good. She is also a specialist in dealing with children with special needs. When asked what she needed most in her work at the Centre, she simply said, "a holiday."

We became aware of this facility coming out of a tragic story. A young civilian man from Mariupol was returning to his mother's home near the fighting to pick up some of her personal possessions. While driving the car back to Mariupol he was shot and his spine was severed. We were asked if we could contribute some funds for his rehabilitation here. The goal is to get him to the point in his recovery where he can still find a quality of life even when paralyzed in his lower body. The challenge will will be to find a suitable place for him to live and function. His mother is with him at the rehab Center.


I have met a senior official from the military, and also met with a young man moments after he passed his medical and now was preparing to say goodbye to his wife and two children. I have seen paralyzed young soldiers trying to build up upper body strength, and visited a warehouse of goods for refugees. At times the war seems to be everywhere; at other times it is hidden behind hospital walls and gated army bases.

When you stand with thousands of others in a big open area in Lviv centre and listen to musicians at the Jazz festival, enjoy cherry filled verenika like my mother made, or take in a liturgical service in Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, you appreciate that in the midst of hate there is also hope. And hope is what fuels this country.

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.

If you wish to donate online go to the website, key in "Mennonite Centre Ukraine" and click on the search button. Then click on "View Profile" and then "Donate Now".

Thank You!

Ben Stobbe




Saturday, June 27, 2015

The Mood in Molochansk and Zaporozhye

Coming in and out of Ukraine for nearly 9 years has given me the opportunity to try and sense the mood in Molochansk and Zaporozhye. The information that I gather in numerous conversations, often with the same people, gives me a better sense how people are feeling compared to the previous year.

When I arrived last August, the Malaysian airliner had just been downed. Donetsk Airport was a fierce battleground. People were very anxious about the war and their immediate future. Now, a year later here are some observations.


  1. The concerns about the fighting in Donestk and Ludhansk Oblasts are not as apparent now. People say they are learning to live with this reality. They do not seem to be paralyzed with fear. Often they say, "We need to get on with our daily lives." I see the shrug and hear the saying, Life goes on. However, Call-up for military service certainly is a fear for many young men.
  2. The biggest fear at present is the increase in the prices of necessities and no corresponding increase in wages and pensions. The cost of gas is a major concern. Schools and other institutions which moved to primary heating with electrical radiators felt that the changeover last fall was very successful. We financed some of the rewiring and radiator costs. After a dramatic devaluation in 2014, the Ukrainian currency, the grievna, appears to have stabilized at $1.00 U.S. to 23.00 UAH.
  3. The government is making a very determined effort to collect more revenue by requiring more people to pay taxes. As a registered charitable organization we are increasingly required to do more paperwork to document financial transactions.
  4. Corruption, particularly the payment of bribes, is often being exposed through social media. The call for transparency in dealings is frequently promoted by advocacy groups.
  5. Small villages are losing their institutions and their resident youth mostly due to job loses. Schools are being shut down with children required to go to larger neighbouring schools. Hospitals services are downsized to day only medical clinics. As one person said, " The only thing growing in our village is the cemetery." The plight of the smaller villages often means that cities are under stress with refugees from the war zone, (63,000 in Zaporozhye), and from displaced youth looking for work.
  6. The tremendous spirit of volunteerism coming out of the war has really flowered in this country. The Probation Officer caseload in Tokmak has dropped by 25% with over 100 young men volunteering in the military. The newly established Military Police Unit has lawyers volunteering to join, some going into Military Prosecutor positions. Women join together to make dried borscht packages for the soldiers; only hot water needs to be added. Students in local schools are very involved in sending notes of encouragement and support to soldiers. Volunteers work at the military rehab hospital in Lviv to help the wounded. This volunteerism is often accompanied by an increasing sense of nationalism.
  7. The major church denominations in Ukraine have set aside their differences and seem to be cooperating and working together. Differences over doctrinal issues hold less importance.
  8. The spring crops look good. Molochansk and Zaporozhye have some good rains and sunshine. Wheat, sunflower and corn crops look promising, as do the cherry and strawberry crops in Melitopol.


This provides a bit of an update and summary on what I have gathered and observed on my current visit to Ukraine. Now I am off to Livi in Western Ukraine.

Ben Stobbe



Sunday, June 21, 2015

Revisiting the past

Newcomers visiting this part of the former Soviet Union are always surprised at the number of imposing statues of Vladimir Lenin, leader of the Bolshevik Revolution and first Chairman of the USSR. At the Lenin's Mausoleum in Moscow's Red Square, almost all of the original Lenin is still there. Apparently every year more of his original biological body has to be replaced with look alike parts such as plastic skin. But his statues showing him in a striding forward pose, as in Molochansk, or pointing his hand pose, as at the dam site in Zaporozhye, or ( my favourite) in a sitting, reflective pose, as in Svetnadolinsk, appear to be indestructible. He is as familiar to the landscape as those bland Soviet era apartments only coloured by people shirts and underwear hanging from concrete balconies.

But times are a changing. New laws have been passed in the Rada called decommunization laws. The aim of these laws is remove signs of the Soviet past in Ukraine. The laws, among other things, ban Nazi and Communist symbols and other signs of the Soviet past I have been told that directives have been sent out telling villages to rename streets if they have been named after communist officials. I suspect the Mennonite Centre will soon not be on Rosa Luksembourg Street.

It appears the country is fighting a war on two two fronts; a war in the east to preserve it's future and a war in the rest of the country to rewrite it's past.

The statue of Lenin in Molchansk on the former Willms estate is shorter now, only two legs stand on top of the pedestal, the rest of him has been cut off. He is almost gone, but probably not forgotten.


I am leaving Molochansk on Monday the 22nd. I will be going further north and west in the next week. I am impressed how well Oksana and staff keep the operation going in spite of all of the distractions. Tokmak has had an amazing facelift. There is no garbage lying around, the streets in town are clean and well maintained. There is a building and home materials enterprise could easily fit into Canada. I just don't how locals can afford to buy anything.

The call up for men to go to the front carries on. Every day I seem to hear of someone else I know or am connected with, being called for service. People here want peace. That is the prayer I heard in Church today. Let it be our prayer.

Ben Stobbe


Friday, June 19, 2015

Johann Cornies memorial


Several weeks ago I received word that a historical society in Melitopl Ukraine had put up a plaque at the Berdynask Forestry site. I understood the plaque made reference to Johann Cornies. When I arrived in Molochansk earlier this week, I was told that the society members and other city officials wanted to meet with me to outline some of their plans for future development in this area.


On Wednesday, Mennonite Centre Director Oksana Bratchenko and I bobbed and weaved the 40 kms south to the forestry site. There we were met by a party of 10, eagerly waiting to tell us all about their plans. Pictures were taken of the plaque which announces that a monument to Johann Cornies will be built here. Now this group would like to involve us in the design of a memorial for Cornies honouring his larger contribution to the economic development of the entire Molotschna area. I am sure this is not the first monument to Cornies. I listened with interest and thanked them for their interest in the Mennonite story.

I was introduced to the noted Mennonite historian Nikolai Krylov from Melitopol University. Other society members were also present. Theypresented me with a lapel pin and declared that I am now a member of this group. One of their other projects is to restore some of the barracks that were constructed to accommodate the young Mennonite men who chose alternative service as tree planters before and during WW1. One of the society members is living in one of the barracks and another of the barracks has been developed into a museum.



Every significant event needs to be celebrated with speeches and toasts fueled by local wines and honey vodka. I was told by an apparent local expert in medical matters that honey vodka clears the blood vessels in your brain thus causing you to think more clearly! I only hope that my friend's understanding of history is better than his understanding of anatomy! Fortunately I had my on camera interview before I cleared my brain's blood vessels.

What continually impresses me is the willingness of Ukrainians to celebrate their past and their acknowledgement of the contributions of others in their story. To be noted is the fact that the Berdyansk Forestry site is directly in the path where pro-Russian troops would be fighting to make a land connection between Crimea and Russia. There is no little irony that a forestry and much loved park site built by conscientious objectors 100 years ago could now become a battleground.

Ben Stobbe



Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Blog2, Calculate This

Our Director in Zaporozhye, Olga Rubel, had meetings scheduled for the entire day. I met with our financial advisor who provides guidance on how ensure that we are doing as much as we can with the legal framework work of government. The laws for charitable organizations in Ukraine are always evolving and we are committed to working within that framework. Later in the morning I visited the Prometei Centre and met with preschool children who have special needs. Together with other Mennonite organizations such as the Family Centre and the Florence Centre we are supporting programs for these children. Coming out of a major conference, which we sponsored in December 2014 in Zaporozhye, we are now involved in a joint program with a school to graduate some of these children into grade one this September. I met with the school principal and reviewed some classroom changes we are funding to accomodate these children.

I met with KRAM, a local organization that operates a warehouse of donated materials to help refugees. One of the most telling descriptions of the current conflict is a school math book that was brought to the school warehouse with a bullet hole through the book. There is some irony here that it is a math book that has the bullet hole. Math is the tool which we all use everyday in making decisions, in solving problems, in showing what went wrong, or why something works. While I was not particularly proficient at math, I recognize the beauty and precision of the tool. War is quite the opposite. It is rough justice at best, and indiscrimate and painful. Math can give us universal truths, truth is a casualty of war.

Maybe this book has been transformed to teach us more than math. It can teach us how violence can destroy numbers, take away the answers to questions, destroy equations and equality, and make holes that almost impossible to repair.


Ben Stobbe





Monday, June 15, 2015

Blog 1, A Quiet City

I arrived on Sunday afternoon, June 14, after a 24 hour delay in Toronto. Apparently the delay was caused by technical problems on the plane that was to fly to Vienna. We overnighted in Toronto and carried on the following day. Fortunately, the delay connected me with some interesting contacts. One was a businessman who is involved in selling plastic compounds for the construction industry. He had recently been in Dnepropetrovsk and Zaporozhye selling the plastics that are used in energy efficient windows. Friends of the Mennonite Centre in Ukraine have been involved in funding the installation of these windows in schools which are still found in former Mennonite villages. In addition I had the opportunity In Vienna to meet a senior executive of JDC, an American Jewish humanitarian organization that cares for displaced Jews. They are very involved in Ukraine.
The drive from the airport to Zaporozhye seemed normal enough. Outside the presence of more police at key points on the road and a military presence on the curved dam entering Zaporozhye, everything seemed low key and quiet. The restaurant provided a fabulous meal with a beautifully presented salad and and chicken breast baked with apricot jam and oranges and presented on kiwi slices. Excellent. Together with juice this meal cost under $8.00 U.S.
My initial impression is "all is quiet here. Hopefully it will remain so.
Ben Stobbe