Sunday, October 28, 2018

Support Across Borders

One of the many reasons we enjoy coming to Ukraine is having the opportunity to learn from each other. Our experience seems to be that when we come together it is not just to teach but to listen, and this creates energy and enthusiasm.  This was evident in two outstanding events this week.

Last Saturday, Mennonite Church leaders from various European countries came to Molochansk. Some of these leaders were pastors; others included business leaders, leaders of large charitable organizations, and one lawyer. This group of approximately 20 women and men came from Spain, Portugal, France, Switzerland, Germany, Austria, Poland, Netherlands and Lithuania.  They represented small and medium sized Mennonite Church communities, some of whom could trace their roots back 500 years. These leaders come together every year to discuss emerging issues, successes, and to offer encouragement to each other. This year they met here in Ukraine.

After their meeting, I gave a PowerPoint presentation on the work of the Mennonite Centre in Ukraine. After the presentation I led the group on a tour of significant former Mennonite villages in Molotschna, In the evening, the youth of the Molochansk Mennonite Church gave a spirited evening of music and story telling. They had a question and answer session with the leaders. The European guests ranged in age from 50 to 70. Imagine five of them shuffling up onto the stage to pick up three guitars, a set of drum sticks, and another positioning himself behind the electric piano. They were joined by the local youth lead guitarist and then the improvising began. The youth in the audience looked truly surprised at this display of talent, possibly wondering, "if this is what a bunch of old Mennonites can do, what must the youth be doing?" In reality, several of these leaders were members of bands in their communities. 

Another highlight of this week was having Lil's daughter, Lisa Crawford, come to Ukraine to meet with Probation Officers in the Zaporizhzhia Oblast. Lisa is an analyst with BC Corrections, specializing in high risk offenders. She has also worked as a probation officer, and as a manager supervising probation officers. In the picture below, Lisa is giving a presentation on current community corrections practices to probation officers in the Tokmak office.

Following the meeting in Tokmak, Lisa traveled to Zaporizhzhia to meet another, larger group of probation officers.  Also in attendance were some interested university students.

Uriy is a long-time probation manager in Tokmak.  I have met with him for several years during our trips here to discuss matters related to criminal justice. However my experience is now somewhat dated and it was good to get the latest thinking on risk/need approaches that are currently practiced in BC.  Pictured here are Uriy, Lisa, Oksana our Director, and myself.

The event in Zaporizhzhia was attended by the State Director of Probation Services in Zaporizhzhye, and his Deputy.  Just over a year ago the national government passed a new law bringing probation services in line with those offered by most western countries including Canada and Europe.

The attentive group of approximately 60 was very appreciative of Lisa's informative presentation, and there was a lively question period that followed.  All the PowerPoint slides had been translated into Russian by Oksana in advance of the meetings.  The format for providing reports for the court was also of great interest to them.  The Probation Officers, who get salaries from the government, are expected to pay for their own computers, office rental, furniture and all other supplies.  They are very committed to their work.

This is our last blog for this year.  We have had a wonderful time here and have felt very much appreciated and supported by so many people both from Canada and Ukraine.  Thank you for your support and interest in the work here in Ukraine.  We are convinced it is making a difference.

If you wish to know more about the work of the Mennonite Centre, you can check out our web site at: or follow our daily activities on Facebook at:

Saturday, October 20, 2018

Contrasts of Sounds of War and Sounds of Music

Last Sunday, the 14th of October we decided to take a drive on the west side of the Molotchna river, an area dominated by a large hill that leads up onto a plateau.  This large hill stretches for miles in a rather unusually long hilly formation and is known as the Colonista Hills.  On this particularly beautiful fall day we drove through an area that was populated in the 1800's by German Lutherans and German Catholics. We marveled at the many colours, including vibrant shades of red, orange, gold, and yellow.  When we arrived at the top, we were greeted by the sight of lush verdant fields of green grasses, likely winter wheat crops.  Where there once was a large collective farm that now still has 3 or 4 large storage barns standing, there is currently a very large privately owned farm operation.  From our vantage point at the top of this hill we could see our town of Molochansk and other small villages in the distance.  Even with the slight haze that covered the landscape that day, it was a spectacular view. Taking in these grand vistas gave us a true feeling of serenity and peace.

Unfortunately this picture of tranquility was not always able to be enjoyed in times past.  In fact, this exact site and surrounding landscape together with its people in the villages below, experienced everything except tranquility.  Seventy five years ago in September 1943, Russian troops were advancing into the former Mennonite villages in the Molotchna area.  The Germans took the high ground up on the hill, and the bombarding began.  At the very time that Lil and I were there, it would have been 75 years ago the Germans and Russians were fighting a vicious war, fighting to maintain or gain possession over this hill for over a month.  Now there is a striking war memorial site near the top of  that hillside.  Through the crosses we could look down at Molochansk.  We tried to imagine the booming explosions, the screaming, the rumbling of the crawling tanks, and the occasional red-leafed tree that no doubt was not even noticeable, not to mention being able to be seen for its beauty during the warfare and turmoil surrounding it.

Today some of the the signs of battle remain.  In the picture below you can see rusted shells lying scattered in the grass.

The Germans were not the only ones at the top of the hill and moving westward.  Surviving Mennonite families and mothers and children climbed the hill to make their way westward with the retreating Germans. They started the long arduous walk, undoubtedly occasionally looking to their left to get the last views of their former villages.

The following Monday we found ourselves back in Tokmak, a city of close to 40,000 where we took in a wonderful concert by Rhapsody Singers.  The concert was held in a recently built, cozy Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church.  The Friends of the Mennonite Centre provided some funds for building materials.  Now the church is too small and they are putting up another building for a Sunday School and other meeting areas.  Father Taras the priest proudly showed us the Mennonite bricks they are using.  Historically the Rhapsody Singers have served primarily in Orthodox churches and it is good to see them now offering their services in the Ukrainian Greek Catholic church.

The highlight of the week came when the leader of the Rhapsody ensemble brought his young daughter to the Mennonite Centre to give us and the staff a short concert. This is a delightful little girl who loves to sing, and she plays her 6-string guitar beautifully.

Pictured below she and her father are playing a Ukrainian duet.  The highlight of the concert was when her parents both joined her in singing Leonard Cohen's, Hallelujah.

If you wish to know more about the work of the Mennonite Centre, you can check out our web site at: or follow our daily activities on Facebook at:

Sunday, October 14, 2018

When did Ukraine get Independence?

When, would most Ukrainians say they gained independence?  Most would give the date of August 24, 1991, the day when Ukraine became a separate country, independent of the Soviet Union.  This is the date that Ukrainian independence has been celebrated for 27 years.

However, when a Canadian friend asked a Ukrainian what date Ukraine really gained its independence, she stated that it occurred sometime in 2014, after Russian military intervention in the southeastern corner of Ukraine.  It was at that time that Ukraine felt the need to actually become independent.  Sadly, too often in history it takes a war or a conflict to develop one's own sense of destiny. This person said that it was only after the war began that the country started to feel and act in an independent manner.  It started to seriously build its own army, reach out to other European countries, and make significant legal changes. 

This weekend Ukraine will celebrate one of its 11 public holidays.  On October 14 Ukraine celebrates "Defender Day".  When Ukraine was part of the Soviet Union everyone celebrated "Defender of The Fatherland" Day.  Ukraine has now abandoned that holiday but has instead integrated it with a previous Cossack holiday held on October 14, "Day of the Ukrainian Cossacks".  That celebration by the way, started in the 12th century and now has been revived with the bringing together of the army and the Cossacks.  One of the ways we show independence is by bringing together something significant in our history and combining it with something current.

We were invited to a local school to see their youth, together with some adults celebrate "Defender Day".  The community youth band students performed and are still enjoying many of the instruments donated by Friends of the Mennonite Centre in Canada, as well as others which were purchased by the Mennonite Centre.  In the school gym, the sound carried effortlessly and the youth played very well.  A much-acclaimed group of young dancers came on stage and skillfully showcased their talents in their beautiful bright costumes.  There were also a few national songs sung by various talented and powerful voices that didn't really need much amplification.  Young soldiers and veterans received special awards and strong applause from all in attendance.  The dancing group returned and this time was accompanied by a number of male youth dressed in Cossack attire. The boys in particular displayed great agility in near-acrobatic dance maneuvers; all this combined with swift and intricate sword skills.  We thought it might be wise to have an ambulance nearby, but everything went well.  This dance number meaningfully portrayed both the present and the past. Young soldiers and veterans received special awards and strong applause from all in attendance.

Perhaps the most dramatic part of the program was when the dancers were joined by a number of male students who represented soldiers in their uniform costumes.  It is difficult to look at these young students dressed as soldiers, realizing that in a few short years they could be at the front. They were accompanied by a very talented young voice singing a nationalistic song.
This part of the program ended with a very thought-provoking depiction of a young soldier being carried off the stage; as one who had sacrificed his life for a new independent Ukraine.

But independence doesn't only come as a result of war.  It can also develop from a peaceful, open  society that people can be proud of.  A few days ago we were reminded of a very real change in the new Ukraine.  Our driver was stopped by a policeman who when approaching the car with a non-threatening voice, stated "I stopped you because you are required to have your daylight running lights on," and cited the applicable Article number of the legal code.  He was very professional and basically reminded our driver to turn on the running lights and have a good day.  There was no hint of  requesting money.

A mother reminded me this week that one of her two daughters lives in Crimea and requires a visa to get out of the country. She knows her travel options are limited. Her younger sister with her Ukrainian passport, has now gone to Germany on more than one occasion with her new biometric passport.  That also gives a sense of independence and much sought-after freedom.

And this week the Ukrainian Orthodox Church has been recognized as a separate orthodox church no longer under the rule of the Moscow patriarch.  For many, this is a monumental milestone, reaffirming their new status in the Eastern Orthodox world. 

To our friends, cherish the freedoms that have been given to you.

If you wish to know more about the work of the Mennonite Centre, you can check out our web site at: or follow our daily activities on Facebook at:

Sunday, October 07, 2018

Strong Women who are Changing Ukraine

In the 3 years that Lil and I have been coming to Ukraine, we have been pleasantly surprised at the evidence of a number of positive changes that have taken place.  Since 2015 there have been significant changes in policing, education, medical services and infrastructure improvements, to name a few. We feel a sense of thanksgiving in knowing that "Friends of the Mennonite Centre in Ukraine", (FOMCU) has played a role by assisting with financial aid, the implementation of some of these processes. But there is no question that Ukrainians themselves, in many cases women, have taken initiative and shown strong leadership. In this blog we want to introduce just three of these women.

Irina, Chief Doctor of the Shirokoye Territorial Region

Only a few months ago, doctors were given the freedom to develop their own family practice in a community.  Previously if a person wanted to see a doctor they would most often have to go to a hospital to see a doctor there.  Presently, doctors can accept patients and develop their own practices.  In the Shirokoye territorial region, a young energetic doctor went to the council and worked together with them to establish a clinic that would serve several surrounding communities.  She recruited other doctors including some very experienced doctors who left their hospital work to join her in the clinic.  Through her initiative, the territorial council was able to re-direct some funds from the hospital to village clinics.  We helped this clinic purchase inhalers, urine testing machines, and 2 blood testing machines.  So far 8,000 of 12,000 residents, or 2/3 of the territorial region, have signed up at clinics with various doctors.  A blood testing machine is seen in the following picture.

Doctor Irina could have practiced throughout Europe but she chose to stay and work in the former Mennonite villages of Chortitza, now known as the Shirokoye territory.  She worked together with the council and with other doctors to develop a community medical model where patients come first.  FOMCU Board member Dr. Art Friesen and his wife Dr. Marlyce Friesen were instrumental in helping them get their new clinic equipment.  Here Dr. Irina is pictured with Ira a council deputy, Olga Rubel our director in Zaporozhye, and Ben and Lil.

Angelika, Director of the Prometei Centre;
 Changing Attitudes and Approaches towards Children With Disabilities

Several years ago, Angelika wanted to develop and start a program that would help children with disabilities particularly autism, with the hope of enabling them to develop social skills well before attempting to go into the public school system.  She was convinced that the sooner she could get these children into a program, the better their chances of being able to adapt to public school.  This was at a time when schools were just beginning to think of possibly integrating children with disabilities into the regular school system.  Angelika rented two apartments and asked the Mennonite Centre to pay the rent costs for one of them, and the Mennonite Family Centre (a group connected to the Mennonite Benevolent Society in Winnipeg), to pay the rent for the other.  Parents had to pay to enroll their children, and staff wages were well below the minimum wage.  Six years later, Angelika has over 100 children in her program.  The Ministry of Education has allowed her the use of a large school that is now otherwise unoccupied on the westbank of the Dnieper River. Many of these children with autism who are now school age attend a regular public school in Zaporozhye.  Angelika has appeared before a parliamentary committee in Kiev, met with the President's wife, and various other government officials in effort to promote her program.  What she has accomplished is amazing and could well be a model for all of Ukraine.  She has received national recognition, and has connections throughout Europe.  Children do come first with Angelika!  FOMCU has been her largest financial supporter.  Here, Angelika is pictured with the long-standing public school principal, Nikolai, who is one of her strongest supporters.

Tamara, a tireless leader of several NGO's (Non-government organization)

In 1990, Tamara was elected deputy in the Zaporozhye state government.  She was very interested in developing NGOs in Ukraine and shortly after, traveled to the United States to meet some NGO groups.  Later, she also had the opportunity to come to Vancouver to see how organizations such as the Vancouver Foundation and the Rotarians, function and contribute to civil society. After she came back from these trips, she formed four organizations in Ukraine that provided much-needed services. The first NGO she started was a crisis centre for women in Zaporozhye.  Currently she is working to get a study done on why Ukrainian men have a much shorter life expectancy than women.  Just recently she applied for UN funding to  help women and families living in the war zone.  She is also working on a program to encourage and increase the number of women running for office in local and state governments. She has been a long-time friend of the Mennonite Centre.  Tamara gets most of her funding the hard way; by approaching and enlisting the support of business people, holding silent auctions, and meeting with members of government.  She always has an open door for us.

Dear readers, it is through your contributions that these and other women have turned their aspirations into wide-spreading benefits for many Ukrainians. Many thanks to you as donors, and to these visionary leaders.

If you wish to know more about the work of the Mennonite Centre, you can check out our web site at: or follow our daily activities on Facebook at: