Every day, a group of senior women gather at the Mennonite Family Centre in Zaporizhzhia, Ukraine, to share some meals, take care of personal hygiene needs, visit, sing, and have a Bible study.
“We are here as a family. … We eat here, we socialize and talk, and we receive support,” said Galina Petrovna, 84, a retiree who has been attending the day program at the Mennonite Family Centre for eight years. She was speaking in Ukrainian and her words have been translated.
The centre was established as a registered charity in 2002 by the Mennonite Benevolent Society in Winnipeg, which continues to oversee and fund its programs.
“This is mainly elderly and disabled people who need material and emotional help,” said Sergey Butyrin, the centre’s assistant director.
“We try to create an atmosphere like a global family so that everyone can feel that they are loved and accepted here … to remind of humanity and love.”
In addition to the day program, the centre offers home care for bedridden clients, most of whom are widows.
There’s also daycare and education for children with special needs, a respite and seniors visitation program and a small medical clinic.
“We thank all those who take part in this because, thanks to your support, we can ensure a dignified existence and a very decent communication, nutrition and stay of those people who especially need attention, especially need help, especially in those very difficult times that our country is going through,” said Irina Gnidenko, program co-ordinator for the respite centre.
Zaporizhzhia is a city in the southeast part of Ukraine. Many people fleeing the bombardment in Mariupol have sought refuge there; more than half of the settlements in the region are currently occupied by Russian forces.
“It is a pity that now a difficult and disturbing time has come, the war has begun. Sirens often howl, we hear explosions, we close the windows of our houses in the evenings so that no light can be seen,” said Petrovna, who was born in Russia and still has family there.
“It is scary to think how it was possible to create such a disaster — bomb cities, villages, kill women, children, old people, mock, rob, destroy in all possible ways.”
Lydia Utkina echoes that sentiment. She also attends the day program and is grateful for the help the centre has provided, especially in the last two years.
“Life before the war, and now, is hard for us. The pension is small,” she said.
“It was hard for us when there was a COVID epidemic, and people hardly worked, there was little money, but we were supported by the family centre. They helped with groceries. When it was possible to come to the centre, we were fed breakfast and lunch.”
Long history of Mennonites in Ukraine
Mennonites first arrived in Ukraine in 1788, at the invitation of Catherine the Great, the last and longest reigning empress of Russia. She offered them free land, religious and educational privileges and a military exemption.
The Mennonites established farming and manufacturing communities that became very successful.
Over the years, though, those religious and education privileges were challenged and repealed, causing the first migration from Russia to Canada in the 1870s, said Conrad Stoesz, archivist at the Mennonite Heritage Archives in Winnipeg.
During the Russian revolution, Mennonites supported the White armies and became targets of the Red armies. In the Soviet years, Mennonites were marginalized and starved. Those who complained were disappeared.
It resulted in another major emigration to Canada and other parts of the world.
Mennonites in North America wanted to help those left behind, “so they administered food aid, soup kitchens, tractors, that type of thing to Mennonites but also to anyone who needed help,” Stoesz said. He has several grainy black and white photos showing people lining up for food in scenes a century ago that are being echoed in Ukraine today.
It was the early work of what would become the Mennonite Central Committee, a relief and peace organization that continues to work in Ukraine and around the world.
Ukraine achieved independence from the former Soviet Union in 1991, which prompted Mennonites from Canada and the United States to return and visit as a way of discovering their roots.
“They came back talking about the plight of seniors and wondered whether the Mennonites in Manitoba or in North America generally couldn’t do something to help the seniors in Ukraine. And that’s how we got started,” said Louie Sawatzky, the Winnipegger who acts as a liaison between the Mennonite Family Centre and the Mennonite Benevolent Society.
“We have had to suspend some of the programs during COVID and now again during the war. There have been strict curfews. … but we’ve tried to return to the programs as soon as we can.”
‘Thank you to the people of your country’
Back at the centre, 83-year-old Dina Khvostenko reflects on what it was like to grow up in Ukraine during the Second World War — and how it compares to the current conflict.
“I remember how tanks of enemies stood behind our house. There were also soldiers behind the Dnieper River and there was a shootout,” she said.
“But such a horror that is happening now, I do not remember. … This war is very cruel. They kill civilians, maim, rob, rape.”
She, too, is grateful for the island of peace she has found at the centre.
“We feel good here, we eat, we pray, we sing, we eat,” she said. “Thank you to the people of your country who help us, who support us, and thanks to the staff of the centre. May God send his mercy to them.”
WATCH | Ukrainians grateful for support from Canadian Mennonite group: