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Expensive cars, fashionable clothes mask underlying poverty of many in Ukraine

December 6, 2006, 0:00 3067 Author: Gladys Terichow Mennonite Central Committee

Expensive cars, fashionable clothes mask underlying poverty of many in Ukraine, says MCC worker

Fertile farmland borders a well-maintained four-lane highway between the Dnepropetrovsk airport and Zaporozhye, a city of about one million people in Eastern Ukraine that once was part of the Chortitza Mennonite settlement.

"I had expected to see old Ladas maneuvering around potholes," recalls Stella Toews, as she describes striking similarities between Eastern Ukraine and her hometown of Steinbach in southern Manitoba." I was surprised to see so many new and fancy cars-Nissans, Hondas, Mercedes Benz's and BMWs."

Toews, a descendant of Mennonites who migrated to Manitoba from Russia during the 1874-1878 migrations, has returned to her ancestral home on the banks of the mighty Dnieper River to serve as the administrative assistant in the MCC office in Zaporozhye.

Within a few weeks of her arrival in May 2006, striking similarities between Ukraine and southern Manitoba were overshadowed by the complexity of living and working in a country of contrasts.

Like most of the larger cities in Ukraine, stores in Zaporozhye are filled with a large selection of merchandise, restaurants offer fine dining experiences and city streets are filled with young people wearing fashionable clothes.

However, the large number of older people selling flowers, sweeping streets and collecting garbage shows the plight of people who lost their jobs following the collapse of the Soviet Union and receiving pensions well below the poverty line, explains Toews.

Other transitional problems in this post-Soviet republic include political instability, rampant corruption and growing health and social problems.

Spurred in part by lack of public funds for social services, churches and community organizations are embracing newfound freedoms to start programs and projects that help people adjust to new economic, social and political realities.

"MCC has opened my eyes to a world bigger than Steinbach," said Toews, as she relates how MCC is working with churches and community organizations in Ukraine and Russia to provide mobile health clinics, HIV/AIDS awareness programs, mediation and restorative justice programs, church-run loan funds and practical support for orphans, the elderly and people with addictions and disabilities.

"I'm still learning about the challenges that people are facing," says Toews, adding she is especially interested in learning more about events leading to the dissolution of the Soviet Bloc, the ratification of Ukraine's independence in 1991, the oppression and persecution of churches under Soviet rule, the collective farming system and Ukraine's current economic and political situations.

But she first needs to improve her language skills. Although the official language is Ukrainian, she is learning the Russian language because this language is widely used in Zaporozhye and many regions in Ukraine.

Her language studies, she adds, bring back many memories of learning the English language as a nine-year old child when she moved to Steinbach with her family from Paraguay. "I'm very hesitant to speak the few phrases I know because I'm scared that people will laugh."

But she is eager to learn the language so that she can learn more about her ancestral roots in Ukraine. During a recent tour of former Mennonite villages and cemeteries, Toews met an 81-year old widow, Galina Stephnova, living in a brick house built by Mennonites in 1882.

Despite the language barrier Toews observed that Stephnova did not base her happiness on materialistic goods "I am amazed at how content she is," notes Toews, as she reflected on the visit. "Her home is so simple-no TV, no microwave and no dishwasher. I didn't even see any books. She has a cow, a garden, a few chickens and children who help her. She has food on her table and roof over her head. That's all she needs to be content."

Another motivation to learn the language is her desire for independence. "At first doing silent transactions by pointing and nodding is interesting, but that gets old very quickly," she explains. "If you don't know the language you can't ask for directions and can't read the signs. You don't even know if you are on the right street until you know the alphabet. That's a big motivation for learning the language."

Toews, a graduate of the Steinbach Secondary Regional School, worked for MCC Manitoba in Winnipeg prior to leaving for Ukraine. She is a member of the Springfield Heights Mennonite Church in Winnipeg.


Gladys Terichow is a writer for Mennonite Central Committee

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