This article was originally published by Mennonite World Review

‘Regular lives’ pursued in Ukraine

As political and economic instability ripples across parts of Ukraine, Mennonite agencies — sometimes in communities once home to North and South American Mennonites’ ancestors — are working to help people pursue peaceful and fruitful lives.
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Aliyah, a client from MEDA’s Ukraine Horticulture Development Project, stands in her greenhouse in Crimea at the end of 2012. She received a grant to start a grape vineyard and purchased a strawberry package to grow them alongside the grapes. — Photo by MEDA

Months of protests against the Moscow-supported government of President Viktor Yanukovych escalated into street violence in February, and Yanukovych fled to Russia when a new government supported by the U.S. and Western Europe took power in Kiev.

In response, the Russian navy took control of Crimean ports March 3, and thousands of Russian soldiers moved into Crimea, which is predominantly the home of ethnic Russians.

Mennonite Centre

The Ukrainian/Russian ethnic divides that grab headlines are being addressed by the Canadian-sponsored Mennonite Centre in Ukraine, located in what is now the mostly pro-Russian village of Molochansk north of Crimea and south of Zaporozhye.

“I shouldn’t say it is a challenge, but we are very aware that there is a difference,” said Ben Stobbe of Victoria, B.C., chair of Friends of the Mennonite Center in Ukraine. “But we have staff from both sides at the center and you wouldn’t know a difference unless you ask them.

“We aren’t going to focus on the past. We will help anyone — Russian or Ukrainian. We’re trying to model that, trying to work together.”

Founded in 2001 in a renovated girl’s school built in the early 1900s, the Mennonite Centre offers humanitarian services to people living in a cluster of villages in what was formerly the Molotschna Mennonite settlement.

“It’s very organic,” he said. “They come up with the ideas, and we review them and do about 100 little projects a year. We have the community center, we have meals twice a week, we run medical clinics, a mom’s support group.”

The center distributes medicine, offers camps for kids and assists with medical bills and fuel costs, which can rapidly spike if Russia cuts off the flow of gas products.

“A pension in Ukraine is about $150 per month, but all this imported gasoline is the same price you pay in the U.S. and Canada,” said Mennonite Centre director Dema Bratchenko. “A cataract surgery is about $600 for one eye… . There are some old people who can’t afford to buy coal and just burn whatever they have, so we have a program where we provide bedridden people with coal. We are trying to fill the needs.”

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Alexander, a client from MEDA’s Ukraine Horticulture Development Project, stands in Zaporozhye in early 2013. He found buyers for his produce and received a low-interest loan to build a greenhouse. — Photo by MEDA

Bratchenko said that even though unrest has not spread to Molochansk, there is a feeling in the air that something big is going on.

“We don’t have the army here, but it’s pretty demoralizing to know we are on the edge of terrible things that could happen,” he said. “That is very, very depressing.”

Stobbe noted an underlying fear has developed.

“The word ‘mobilization’ has made people fearful. That is serious,” he said. “I had a conversation with a young man who said, ‘Boy oh boy, do I have to pick up arms?’

“I think the young people have identified war as something of the past. Their parents talked about patriotic war, but they haven’t seen that in their communities or their times.”

The center’s approach is to simply function as it always has.

“We give out medicine, we help people, we pay all the bills for doctor visits, we give grants. Yesterday we sponsored a group of people who went to a local sports competition,” Bratchenko said.

“ … In the middle of these frightful things we try to live regular lives.”

MEDA

Mennonite Economic Development Associates operated a horticulture development project from 2008 to 2013 in the Crimean peninsula and Zaporozhye region of southeastern Ukraine. It continues a presence as majority shareholder in a separate agricultural leasing business.

MEDA President Allen Sauder said Agro Capital Management — which offers financing to farmers for things like tillage and irrigation equipment and greenhouses — has a staff of about half a dozen, including one American.

“It is of course continuing,” he said. “Events in the last week or so have significantly affected the business environment. The business is still open, and the staff are safe.”

The project has assisted 6,500 farmers, 35 percent of whom are women, to increase farm income by 75 percent annually. MEDA has been in discussions to pursue a second phase, expanding both in the southeast and other parts of the country, but the economic tailspin that has accompanied the political upheaval has put progress on hold.

Sauder said MEDA didn’t pursue Crimean development because of its role in Mennonite history.

“As the project unfolded, we were aware of the Mennonite areas, but they are also some of the neediest areas,” he said, noting Agro Capital Management works with all ethnic backgrounds, including the somewhat persecuted Tatar community. “I had heard the stories of Mennonite success in farming there.

“It was almost appalling how the land was tended. Farmers had potential, but it just wasn’t being used. That’s why we had such success; because the potential was there.”

Mennonite Central Committee reports its 10 partners in Ukraine continue their work in spite of protests and military actions. MCC continues to monitor the situation and — like the other organizations — asks for prayers for the people of Ukraine.

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