Monday, October 31, 2016

What has Ukraine got going for it?

Here in Canada we all hear the endless litany of problems in Ukraine. Instability, corruption, unemployment etc are accompanied with sighs and headshaking. However, I have had the good fortune of getting into Ukraine annually for many years and always going back to the same villages and cities. This allows me the opportunity to see change, whether good or bad. And for 2016 I see slow but steady improvements.  The pictures show a few examples such as clergy coming together at the Mennonite Centre to share their experiences. In times past villages could be identified as being Baptist, or Ukrainian Orthodox, or Mennonite, or Ukrainian Greek Catholic or Pentecostal etc.  Now you can see more than one church and even signs of working and celebrating events together.

 It's not only the clergy who come together; it is also the babushkas who share a morning together at the Mennonite Centre on a quilting project. They are an example of the increased level of volunteerism in this society. The increasing number of NGOs, Non Governmental Organizations, which are emerging in towns and cities often are started and staffed by volunteers. Organizations to prevent cruelty to animals, to help people in hospital care, who organize sports and cultural activities are critical in developing an emerging civil society.

One such organization was started by Angelika who started working with children with developmental disabilities.  She started a project Prometei, a  group mostly made up of volunteers who would care primarily for autistic children in a very small apartment. Soon the increasing demand required two apartments and staff started to get some financial support from parents. Mennonite organizations such as the Mennonite Family Centre and the Mennonite Centre Ukraine came through with support money. Then a very generous priest who had been given significant property to be used for community benefit selected Prometei as the beneficiaries of his generosity.  Soon the children were placed in a large comfortable space with kitchen and outdoor space. Then the local school received permission to incorporate older children into their school program. Here is the School principal working together with Angelika the Director of Prometei. Now over 60 children are either in the community or school program. Amazing care and progress is being made with these children.

What Ukraine has going for it are clergy who are letting go of turf and seeing the bigger picture, seniors who come together to help, and activists who want to help the vulnerable. This country has a great future. We are privileged to be part of it.

By the way, we plan to have a celebration of our 15th anniversary of the Mennonite Centre in Ukraine. The event will be in Abbotsford on Thursday, November 24 at 7:00 PM. in the Mennonite Historical Musuem, 1818 Clearbrook Road. This will be a Music and Dessert fundraising evening.

To contribute to the work of the Mennonite Centre in Ukraine, you can make your donation to "Friends of the Mennonite Centre in Ukraine". All cheques should be mailed to George Dyck, Treasurer, 3675 North Service road, Beamsville, ON, 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 "V" for View and "P" for Profile. Then "Donate Now".

We thank you,
Ben and Lil Stobbe


Saturday, October 22, 2016

#3 - Gifts that Keep on Giving

One of the factors we consider in deciding whether or not to support a proposal is the potential long term impact.  After being here in Ukraine for 15 years, we can see more clearly which projects have had lasting impact.

This week, we came on a situation where we feel that supporting an IDP (internally displaced person) family from Crimea can also benefit the community where they plan to reside.  We became aware of this family with 4 children last spring when we were told that the youngest suffered from severe allergies.  The family had little funds for medical help and tried several unconventional methods to deal with the extreme rash on his face.  We gave funds for a proper diagnosis and treatment.  The following two pictures show the change.                

This family had a prosperous bee keeping business in Crimea prior to the Russian takeover. They all got into their old Lada and fled into southern Ukraine.  Currently they are renting and working for a greenhouse business.  Their dream is to buy a small plot of land and start growing roses for the market.  They have found nearby property in the village and for $5000 they can get an old house and a half hectare of land.  They asked us for a loan.  We cannot give out loans.  Instead we suggested that if we could find specific donors we would be prepared to consider giving them funds to purchase the house on condition that they agree to benefit the community with their property.  For example, they could consider a community garden or provide roses free of charge for community events.  This is an example of giving a gift that will continue to benefits others.  We have had similar arrangements for other farmers in the past.  

Another version of this concept can be found here in Zaparozhe.  Uri got involved in the drug scene and spent time in prison.  After his release, he became a very committed Christian who has a passion to help the homeless.  Each week he provides an outdoor soup kitchen for homeless people in  a park.  He cooks up a large stock pot of hot food together with salad, bread, and a hot drink.  His wife sets up an outdoor barbershop where the homeless sit on the concrete slab.  The hair is cut and dispatched by the wind.  At today's prices Ben was tempted to get a freebie haircut.  Another benefit of getting a haircut and a different item of clothing is that they find it easier to go into warm places like a railway station.  Meanwhile Uri is putting on his surgical gloves and cleaning and applying salve to a cut and bruised face.  We funded the costs for this meal, and the hair clippers.  People also can choose items of used clothing.  There were about 60 people that came out.  

A new look
And how does our gift keep giving? After receiving this gift, the men and women clean up the park, gathering paper and other debris.  In addition, five men have found jobs.  It is amazing what a haircut and new clothes can do for their self esteem.

Another example of a gift that keeps on giving is the rototiller that we provided for the church group in Novapetrovka, formerly Eichenfeld.  This is more than a rototiller for the church garden; it also serves as a rototiller for the larger community.  Pastor Sergei takes the rototiller to seniors and helps them get their gardens ready for spring planting.

The best way to ensure a lasting positive benefit is not necessarily to physically be here forever, but to make sure that Ukrainians are equipped to continue our legacy.

To contribute to the work of the Mennonite Centre in Ukraine, you can make your donation to "Friends of the Mennonite Centre in Ukraine".  All cheques should be mailed to George Dyck, Treasurer, 3675 North Service Road, Beamsville, ON  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 "V" for View, then "P" for profile.  Then "Donate Now".

We thank you,
Ben and Lil Stobbe

Saturday, October 15, 2016

Blog # 2 - A Day to be Thankful

Last weekend Canadians celebrated Thanksgiving Day and this Sunday, some churches in Ukraine will celebrate Harvest Day.  And in the middle of this week, we had a day to remember the 15th anniversary of the opening of the Mennonite Centre here in Molochansk.  It was our own version of Thanksgiving.  
The Sudermans, Ira, and Ben Stobbe
Alvin and Mary Suderman received a challenge from the Ambassador of Canada to the Ukraine to have an event celebrating the return of Mennonite organizations to Ukraine after independence.  Our head cook Ira, and her staff made a delicious calories-beyond-counting lunch for the 90 plus guests.  The guests included the Ambassador Roman Waschuk, his assistant Anne Mattson Gauss, Senate leader Peter Harder, who represented the government of Canada, and Senator Don Plett.  Ukrainian officials included the mayor of Molochansk and church leaders from the various church groups of Molochansk. After lunch, several Mennonite organizations gave reports.  All of us who were seated on the wooden benches prayed for brevity in light of the cold gusty winds.  During a break, we went inside and had Ira's famous blini (crepes with cottage cheese filling, and a delicious sauce.). The Faith and Life choir from southern Manitoba sang several selections between the reports.  They were very well received.  This day gave a great opportunity for all Mennonite organizations to meet with the Ambassador and other dignitaries.

Mennonite Centre as a cake
At 6:00 pm, we moved to the Centralschule for a Ukraine evening of celebration.  Here we had a program that included a traditional Ukrainian welcome with bread and salt followed by dancing, a welcome from the mayor, adults singing, including Rhapsody, and the Faith and Life choir. The Ambassador addressed the crowd of over 500 in Ukrainian.  Walter Unger closed the evening with acknowledgements of key Ukrainians who helped Mennonites in returning to Ukraine.

After all the talking and singing, children and adults alike were hungry for the cake portraying the Mennonite Centre. They quickly ate up the green grounds and were soon laying siege to the building.  Attendees also received a gift package of goodies and a 2017 calendar with a picture of the Mennonite Centre, hand drawn by Gallina Pensarova, a Ukrainian artist who paints scenes depicting German colonists.

The finale of the evening was a fire show put on by two daring, non-insurable young people.  They had fire dancing around them, over them, and under them.  The audience was filled with oohs and ahs, and people went home happy.

Mementos of a wonderful evening

Last Monday, October 17, our Ukrainian friends gave us a big surprise.  We had been deceived into believing that Ira was planning a small dinner for the Sudermans and us.  When we arrived, we noticed several other friends that seemed to be anxiously awaiting our arrival for our entry into the centre.  Only after stepping into the lobby did we realize that this was an after-wedding party for us.  Ukrainians often look for any excuse to have a party, and our wedding in June was an event that they were happy to celebrate in October.  And celebrate they did.  Some kindergarten children, formally dressed in wedding attire, danced a type of classical waltz. Another more informal dance was provided by a local pair who had amazing energy.  Fortunately we were not required to join them.  After these introductory events, we had a great supper with about 30 close friends.  The after dinner party included a poem, wishes for a good life, solos and other songs by the Rhapsody singers.  Ben has come here for 15 years and this was Lil's first time here.  However, for both of us it was an evening of heartfelt joy and love.  This is a community that has given us far more than we have ever provided.

To contribute to the work of the Mennonite Centre in Ukraine, you can make your donation to "Friends of the Mennonite Centre in Ukraine". All cheques should be mailed to George Dyck, Treasurer, 3675 North Service Road, Beamsville, ON  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".

We thank you,
Ben and Lil Stobbe

Sunday, October 09, 2016

Ben and Lil's first blog

We arrived in Dnepro on Thursday afternoon from Vienna.  A taxi driver from Zaporozhye whom we have used often picked us up and took us to Zaporozhye in his 630,000 km well-driven car.  First impressions are not always best impressions.  There was a noticeable increase of military equipment at the airport and Lil found this rather surreal.  Almost like stepping into a James Bond movie set.  The roads continue to give poor initial impressions.  Sergei our driver, weaved around big heaves in the road while at the same time passing lumbering lorries with little concern. This was less concern than Lil had.

On Friday we attended a delightful concert performed by the men's Faith and Life choir who are from southern Manitoba.  They sang at the music college in Zaporozhye.  They are here in Ukraine to participate in a celebration event we are having at the Mennonite Centre on Wednesday October 12th.  They were very well received by a large group of enthusiastic students.  Two teachers from the college joined the choir and provided delightful accompaniment for one of the pieces.

On Saturday we met with Alvin and Mary Suderman who are currently serving here as North American directors, and Oksana Bratchenko, our Mennonite Centre director.  We discussed the challenge of how to best respond to cases where individuals have significant pain and medical concerns.  Surgeries can be very expensive and even getting a proper diagnosis can be costly.  We are getting an increasing number of requests and are trying to determine principals and policies to ensure consistency and fairness.  Over the years we have been reducing the amount given to individual requests and focussing on medical support in areas where we can reach the greatest number of people with limited funds.  

Other than trying to understand the door locking systems, reducing the heat in the apartment, and baking with no oven, things are going very well.

Ben and Lil

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