January 17,2009

Greetings from Ukraine -   we hope you are all well.   We are doing pretty good - our hot water adventures continue, and from time to time we are without hot water.   But unfortunately this is getting to be normal, so it doesn’t seem like the big deal it was at first.   We have decided that the only real cure for this may be spring, when we won’t care if the showers are cold.  We still have some heat though, especially in the kitchen, so that part is good.   And we put one of our sleeping bags as an additional cover on our bed, and even figured out how to keep it from sliding off at night!

But we think we will quit complaining so much about our hot water.   We met two Peace Corps volunteers, recently arrived, who have been assigned to a “village”  (population 25,000) about an hour south of here.   They have water (cold only) five hours a day (hour and a half in the morning, two hours at noon, and hour and a half in the evening).   It is that way for the entire village.   They talked to a couple city officials about this, and the officials told them that last year they had water all the time.   The city officials professed to have no idea of why the entire village only has water 5 hours a day this year.

Don happened upon something we didn’t expect a couple of weeks ago.   He happened to come home at noon for lunch, and noticed the lid to a pine coffin propped up against our building.   An older lady who lived in one of the apartments above us had died, and the family and friends had come to have her funeral.   After a while about 20 people came down out of her small apartment, followed by 4 or 5 people carrying the bottom part of the coffin, with her in it.   They also brought down two small stools, and set the coffin on the stools in the backyard in the snow just beside our kitchen window, and had her funeral.  No priests or anyone at all official, just people gathering together to say good-by.  She was dressed very nicely, with Orthodox scarves on her forehead and chest.   Then the friends and family each kissed her three times, at her head, her chest and her feet, and then they carried her to a “hearse” (an old vehicle, beaten up and at least 40 years old) and off they went to the cemetery.

We met last week with a human rights activist in Vinnytsia;   he works for some part of a United Nations refugee office, and we may go to work for him part-time.  He is a doctor, graduated from Vinnytsia Medical University, and also studied in London, but along the way also became interested in human rights.   He then went to law school, and now works with refugees from Somalia that find themselves in Ukraine.   The Somalians speak English, so he thinks we would be a good fit to help.   He doesn’t help them with food and shelter – that is something that an office in Kiev does, but what he does is help with the application process and any other legal issues if any of them want to stay in Ukraine.   Most of them don’t – in fact, most of them are quite surprised to find that they are in Ukraine at all.   Back in Somalia they would have paid the smuggler whatever money they had to take them to Western Europe – the smuggler gets them to Russia or Ukraine, tells them that they are in Germany, and then leaves them to go back to Somalia to bring out more refugees.   The Somalians for the most part cannot read or write, so they don’t know the difference until they are told where they are by someone like the human rights agency here.   So once they find out where they really are, then they have to find another smuggler (we don’t help with that part) to get them farther on their way.   We turned in our resumes last week, and we have now been approved by the United Nations to observe how the interviewing is done and whatever other training they may think we need.  If they ever decide they want us to actually do something, then we will need to get approval for that also.   But one step at a time.   We will let you know.

We have also gotten to know a young man from Bulgaria.  Actually, sort of from Bulgaria.   In 1992 he and his family wanted to leave Bulgaria and go to America, but America said no, so they decided to go to Canada.   But Canada said no.  So they decided to get as close as they could, and picked out Iceland as a destination,  and the dad went on ahead.  Except that when the plane had a stopover in Denmark he got off the plane and never got back on.  He applied for refugee status in Denmark and got it, and then the rest of the family came.  The family ended up staying in Denmark until about 6 years ago when they moved to Sweden.   Our friend (named Todor)  looks dark and very “Bulgarian”, so we wonder what all the blond Swedes think.  But he is here working for a computer software company (the wife of his boss in Sweden is from Vinnytsia), and has traveled around the world and is very interesting to talk to.  

Our offices are managing to stay busy.   My office (Karen’s) has no central heating, so we have been making do with space heaters that you need to turn off if you want to turn the hot water on for tea or else you blow a fuse and lose everything, but they all just seem to take it in stride and think it is normal.   The current project is trying to put together a training seminar for local NGO’s and journalists to try and teach both sides how they could work together better, and we are hoping that the US Embassy will help us with the funding..  It could be a good project if we can get this put together.    We take it for granted that people have some initiative and bring some creativity to the table, but after 80 years of the Soviets telling them what to do every hour of the day and who knows how many years of the Tsar before that, initiative and creativity are still relatively new concepts.

 At the same time I (this is Don now) am working rather frantically to get a grant application finished that I have to submit with all attachments by Friday.  My organization wants to increase foreigners in Vinnitsia because it helps the economy, especially foreign students who come here to the medical and technological universities, both of which have excellent reputations and have attracted foreign students since at least the 1930’s.   So we’re trying to get funding for a multi-language website and a series of seminars that would help them to get adjusted to life in Ukraine and explain their rights and how to get legal status if they decide they want to stay here.  This will also be directed at any of the refugees that choose to stay.  It does get interesting.

 We seem to be having a milder winter than those of you in Nebraska, Illinois and Wisconsin.  Snowed some more today but not any nasty wind so not bad at all.  Due to the lack of nasty winds like back home we’ve been able to walk to work all week without any problems even though the temps have been in the mid to high 20’s Fahrenheit and snow still on the ground.    Anyway, please take care and we do enjoy hearing from you.    All the best -    Don and Karen

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