Sunday, September 30, 2012

CONTRASTS & PRIORITIES




The landscape of Molochansk (Halbstadt) is changing in front of our eyes.  It’s happening at the major intersection of town where our street (Rosa Luxembourg) joins the main street. 
Last week, in a matter of days, a state-of-the-art children’s playground was constructed.  This week kitty-corner across from this playground at least 10 men are
Victory Day Celebration in front of Zentralschule

hard at work laying cement paving blocks, covering the entire area of the central plaza in front of the Palace of Culture (former Zentralschule).  Just before Victory Day celebrations last week this building received a fresh coat of paint. 
The playground area abuts the duck pond and the mayor tells us that this will be dredged and before long, swans will be swimming there, just like they did one hundred years ago. We had been approached a number of times in recent years asking us whether we would consider taking on this project of restoring the park.  Each time we felt that there were other priorities.
Duck Pond
We see all this and wonder. We question because so many things require attention. The roads are getting worse.  Driving to the next town where we bank and shop should take 10-12 minutes; it takes at least half an hour.  Some streets in Molochansk aren’t even navigable.  This week a woman went to the mayor to complain. When it rains her children have difficulty getting to and from school.  The street is a sea of mud and the depth of the holes is camouflaged.  To solve this problem the mayor offered her pieces of pavement which had been dug up in refurbishing the above-mentioned plaza.  Road repair is frequently done with broken-up bricks. Yesterday electricity and water were off for 10 hours. This happens unpredictably and people take it in their stride.  It’s much better now however, than a few years ago.

What’s most difficult is seeing people, again this week, coming to the Centre ashen-faced because a loved one has had surgery and has a poor diagnosis.  The doctor has just told the family that they need more money before they can do anything.  The family has already spent all their resources and is in debt.  They have heard that there are “good people” at the Mennonite Centre that might help them.  Medical care by law is free in Ukraine.  Our hearts are heavy and we help where we can.


Government priorities? Improvement coming in baby steps?  How does the beautifying of public spaces fit in?  It has been said that beauty can become a survival strategy. In the greater scheme of things might not the delight children and mothers experience at the playground  outweigh the expense? The men laying the paving blocks have temporary employment.  We hear people  saying, “too bad there’s not an election every year.” 



Monday, September 24, 2012

TWO ANNIVERSARIES


September 21 – a day of celebration in Molochansk.  Although it was 68 years ago when the German army withdrew from Molochansk, collective memories are kept alive and fortified year after year.  Last Friday our townfolk celebrated their local Victory Day.  All of Ukraine celebrates May 9 as the National Victory Day.  World War II or, the Great Patriotic War as it is known here, remains a topic of great importance in literature, the arts and in school history lessons. Every town has its monuments. Older people remember that in Molochansk, a town of 7000, only 4 houses remained untouched by the shelling coming from the German army camped on the hills outside of town.  There was mass destruction. 
Parading past the Mennonite Centre
 Friday dawned bright and beautiful.  Mid-morning the parade began and followed the route down our street, past the Mennonite Centre to the park that once was the garden of the grand Willms estate.  We followed the procession not wanting to miss any of the proceedings.  Earlier that day a young man visited the Centre.  
Sergei & Dema before the celebration
Sergei is 19 years old and has spent his life in the orphanage in Prischib, just out of town. He has no memories of his mother.  He was told that she was destitute had six children and didn’t want him.  This young man has an exceptionally fine singing voice and dreams of a musical career.  He was chosen to sing the National Anthem at the ceremony.
A number of dignitaries addressed the crowd, among them the Chief Prosecutor of Ukraine, our local mayor, a veteran and also Dema. 
Molochansk band with donated instruments
We didn’t catch all the symbolic elements but watched as floral tributes were placed on the monument. The band played on instruments we have donated through the years.  


Children danced and sang with appropriate choreography.  These events always involve a cultural demonstra-tion. After the ceremony Dema invited the dignitaries to stop at the Centre for tea and they agreed to come.  We helped the staff to set up a small buffet table in our meeting room.  Our dining room wasn’t available because Friday is also the day our Seniors come for lunch.  We’re always amazed at how quickly our staff can pull something together.  Everything was ready when the gentlemen arrived.  
Artyum Pshonka greeting our seniors
They noticed a group of Seniors still finishing their tea and instead of turning left when they entered the building, they joined the Seniors.  They were welcomed with delight, everyone talking and laughing at once.Their refreshments were completely ignored and after some quick picture taking they made their way to the door.  Artyum Pshonka, the chief prosecutor was presented with Ukrainian copy of Rudy Friesen’s book, Building on the Past.  Their time had run out and it was on to the next part of the day’s agenda. It’s to be remembered that this is election year.  In the greater scheme of things it was much to their advantage to score points with the Seniors than to have lunch. 

Some of the Seniors with the Molochansk mayor and chief prosecutor
All was not lost however.  September 21 also marked eleven years since the Mennonite Centre opened its doors.  We joined the staff in a nice lunch together, reminiscing how times have changed.  In 1944 the Germans were expelled.  Now we are welcomed back.


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 http://www.mennonitecentre.ca/ for information on credit card donations.

Monday, September 17, 2012

OF BUILDINGS AND BREAD


OF BUILDINGS AND BREAD

Back in 2009 we were approached whether we would be willing to participate in restoring an old building to become a gathering place for surrounding communities.  A century ago this had been a school in the Mennonite village of Schoenau.  We found this structure in very poor condition. At that time we felt we’d rather put our resources into helping people instead of restorations. So it was unexpected to receive an invitation this week to attend a ‘gala grand-opening concert’ in this very building. Of course we had to go.  Getting there was a harrowing ride, potholes have grown bigger and more abundant.
Former Schoenau village school
What a surprise to see the building restored; the regional government has made this possible.  A plaque on the wall pays tribute to its Mennonite past. 

It reads that one hundred years ago this building was a Mennonite village school and is now a club. In a society where performance begins in kindergarten, the palace of culture becomes one of the most important, and usually the most attractive building in the community. 


We watched young and old gathering from all directions.  A political party took this opportunity to make a bold statement hoisting blue banners and passing out T-shirts (parliamentary elections are coming up October 28).

A young woman in ethnic costume offered the traditional welcome of bread and salt placed on an embroidered ceremonial cloth called a rushnyk - bread symbolizing the warmth of Ukrainian hospitality and salt representing friendship.  It was a three-hour event of many speeches, dances, and music making.
Molochansk Dance Troupe

Rudy’s father was born and grew up in the next village just a few kilometers down the road.  It is very possible that he may have set foot in this building.  Rudy offered words of congratulation and we left with a feeling of optimism. In contrast to so much bleakness we see this piece of history being transformed into a place of potential, the former village school now a palace of culture. 

Yesterday the Kutuzovka church celebrated their Harvest Festival.  The opening words were poignant.  “Do we have reason to be thankful this year since it has been such a dry summer with little harvest?”  The day before, the question had been: “what can we use to decorate?"
Bread tree
Bread became their symbol and thus the theme developed.  People brought what fruits and vegetables they had and in their characteristically creative way a wonderful display evolved. The sermon centred on Habakkuk 3:16-17-18.  Though the fig tree does not bud and there are no grapes on the vine, though the olive crop fails and the fields produce no food . . . yet will I rejoice in the Lord.  There is cause for gratitude - among other  things there are grapes on the vine the cost of bread hasn't risen, and the walls of a new church building are being erected in Molochansk.  It was another three hour event, excluding the meal.  
Step #1 in the process

The Mennonite Centre provided the main course.  Dema, Plov Master, presided over the new plov pot and 120 were fed.  Everyone loves plov. It is a dish of Uzbekian origin that contains meat, vegetables, rice, lots of oil and special seasoning.

Both events this week touched our hearts.  The focus was thankfulness and it was a privilege to participate. 

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 http://www.mennonitecentre.ca/ for information on credit card donations.

Saturday, September 8, 2012

A YEAR LATER


Little did we think when we said our “good-byes” last fall that we would find ourselves back in Ukraine.   It has been heart-warming to meet our colleagues and friends again, akin to a homecoming.

What has changed?  It's still a little too early to make any meaningful evaluation, but a few things are obvious.  Contrary to last year when we arrived, we’re experiencing hot weather.  They tell us that summer started in April and that harvests are at least a month ahead.  Many regions in southeastern Ukraine have experienced a severe drought.  Ukraine is the third largest global corn producer.  In our area the corn crop was almost wiped out.  Sunflowers have also taken a beating.  It is sad to see the stunted plants with their sagging shrunken heads – so different from last year. 
      
    September 4, 2012
September 7, 2011

The consequence is higher prices. This, of course, has a disproportionate effect on those that are already struggling - the poor, the elderly and the unemployed. Our hearts go out to the widows and elderly we meet from day to day.  Their root cellars won’t be as full this fall.  We’re told that there is also something affecting the potato crop, early rot setting in. 
People keep goats for milk & meat
Gazing out of our kitchen window we see the town soccer field.  Not only is this a playground, it is also one of the tethering areas for town-folks’ goats.  Last year we heard a wise person saying, "there is a direct correlation between the economic climate of a community and the number of goats you see."  As we look out now we see ten - last year there were two or three.

One thing that doesn’t change in Ukraine is the love people have for their children and for celebration.  On September 1 we had the privilege of attending “First Bell” at the former Mennonite village of Neuosterwick, now Dolinskoye.  
First graders with cake representing their school
This event had triple significance – celebrating the start of a new school year, which in itself is a big occasion, then also the school centennial and the village bi-centennial. The school first opened its doors to students on September 3, 1912. The ladies auxiliary of the Mennonite church had raised money for the land and business owners put up the building. This event coincided with the 100th anniversary of the founding of the village by our Mennonite ancestors in 1812.  History became alive. It was our privilege to participate in a large part of this full-day affair of many speeches, music making and dancing.

The school is still an impressive building.  In an effort to maintain it and due to scarce government funding we have partnered in replacing seven windows.  The school motto states  “. . . from creative teacher to creative student.”  What a statement of hope for these young students.

We had visitors from Chilliwack and from St. Catharines this week.  It's always a pleasure to host guests and to interpret the work of the Centre and historical sites to people that come.