Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Open World: New Horizons and Ukraine Today

At Dr. Laura Kline's Russian Class at Wayne State University. with Vera Andrushkiw of the Ukraine-American Foundation. The women delighted us with some Ukrainian songs. Natalia lost her voice and couldn't join in, but presented gifts at  program's end.  Stanislava, Mayor of the town of Burtyn, where Rep.Marcy Kaptur's ancestors are from, presented Laura with a Ukrainian scarf.  
"It's been beyond our wildest dreams. We're learning so much,"  Natalia Dohadailo, an English teacher at Taras Shevchenko University, enthused.  Vera Flyat, director of Victoria, a human and women's rights NGO, added, "I already have lots of new ideas to take home to Starobelsk with me." Tonya Aksenina, a rural activist, philosophized about the meeting of cultures, the exchange of ideas, the human condition we all share no matter where we are from.  A teacher, a social activist, and a philosopher reformer all had their say. 

We were at Dr. Laura Kline's Russian class at Wayne State University for a "Ukraine Today" program.  The women from Starobelsk and surrounding villages in eastern Ukraine talked eloquently about how much the Open World educational exchange meant to them.

Stanislava, Mayor of
Burtyn, with Tamara
Stanislava Ostrovska, the mayor of the village of Burtyn, Antonina Swintiska, a teacher, and Tarama Zykova, of Save Ukraine Now (SUN) in Kyiv, joined in.  "I am sorry I never learned English," Stanislava confessed to a rapt audience, "but I never thought I would come to America."  She had tears in her eyes.  We all did.

The women talked about "Ukraine Today," the theme of the program. Of course it's impossible to address this topic without talking about the war raging in the east. Vera wanted people to know that  "the war is not a civil war.  It is an invasion and occupation. Russia has invaded Ukraine, with troops, tanks and weapons, caused many deaths, and there's no end in sight."  She said she worried about her son Konstantin, 24, who joined a volunteer militia to defend Starobelsk from the war that's only 20 miles away.

A huge problem now is the refugee crisis, the women agreed. For example, the population of Starobelsk has almost tripled, we learned, with thousands fleeing from the fighting in southern Lugansk and Donetsk oblasts with little more than the clothes on their backs.  It's a huge humanitarian crisis.

But these women from Ukraine, who are keeping body and soul together, keeping families and communities going, won't let a war stop them.  They will continue to fight, assist in the war effort, and do what they can about the refugee crisis.  Meanwhile, they are concerned about their national government and its ability during war to address the serious needs of the people of Ukraine. Many are unemployed.  Many are homeless.  Many who do work are not even getting paid, teachers, nurses and health care workers. "Who knows what the future will bring?"

Dr. Kline's class, which began with presentations about Peace Corps (RPCV Michael Gall did a great job) and ended with an informative question and answer session, engaged all of us.  A great success!

After the class the women were invited to tour the Detroit Ukrainian community, organized by the indefatiguable Vera Andrushkiw of the Ukraine-American Foundation, who lives in Detroit. A church, cultural center, meal and songfest were highlights.
Detroit's active Ukrainian
diasporan community
The Ukrainian village women were only about half-way through their cultural exchange program, but one of the main lessons was already clear: "It's the human connections and relationships that mean the most," Natalia said when she returned to my place in Sylvania. "The people-to-people diplomacy.  This Open World project is providing that."

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