Odessa, Ukraine

September 29, 2008

There were 3 ministry teams that were assigned to three different locations: Berezhna Volya, a tiny village, Odessa, a big international city, and Koziatyn, something in between. I was put in the Odessa team, Steve was on the Koziatyn team, and Simone was on the Berezhna Volya team.

I was wondering about the different personalities of my teammates but we all seem to get along great. There were 3 of us from California, Donabel, Kaitlyn, and I; one girl from Oregon, Ree; 3 kids from Kiev, Ukraine, Sasha, Anya, and Andrey; one guy from India, Amitava, and Tim from Ireland.

I really enjoyed everyone on my team. A key factor for me is being able to open up and laugh a lot. With this team we all feel comfortable joking with each other, which I think breaks down barriers easier than anything else. Maybe this is just my opinion though. The 12 hr. train ride was insane do to the heat of the train and the cramped space and limited sleep. When we got off the train at 6am were sweaty and miserable.

Not too long after we met our host, Natalia, she informed Tim, our leader, that he would be speaking at church that afternoon. Judging by the expression on Tim’s face he was unaware of this. We all give Tim a look of sympathy. However, I had just learned from the bonding we did on the train ride, that Tim is the Eurasia Regional Nazarene Youth International President and our voice for the Global Nazarene Youth Council. So he was responsible for putting together the conference that we had just attended. I had no idea that he was behind it all. What surprised me even more is that he is only 23 years old. After knowing this, I was less worried about him having to do a short notice sermon than I would about me having to do it. After a couple more hours of sleep and some breakfast the sermon went smoothly.

After church, we took the rest of the day to go over the plans for the week. Then that night we took a night tour of Odessa. As we headed down to the pier, I was allured by some classical music being performed by a band on a dinner boat. As I sat to listen I thought wow, its moments like these that makes life so interesting. How did we end up listening to this music on a pier in Odessa, Ukraine? Life is unexplainable. That’s one thing I love about it. How did I go from working 2 jobs in Redding, Ca to a cinematographer for World Missions doing a job in Ukraine?

The next day we took a tour around the city and then a boat tour. Our hosts wanted to make sure that we were having a memorable time, which was fantastic, but the team and I were starting to feel a little guilty about not doing much mission work yet. I wondered what Simone and Steve were up to and if they were getting some good stories? I hoped I could get some good footage out of this trip. I had not been given a story to shoot, but instead I was looking for a story amongst my team and my mission. My specialty isn’t necessarily finding stories so I was a little nervous about finding something worth documenting. However, it can be quite frustrating investing so much time into something and having nothing come of it, but no matter what I had to try. I hope that my documentaries can make a difference some day. If it only motivates one person to help those in need then isn’t that enough?

When we went to the aids center I did my best to prepare myself for the people I would see. I did my best to smile and interact… well as much as I could because of the language barrier. I could have gone in and tried to sympathize and cry for them, but I did not think that is what they needed. If I were in their situation, I would not want sympathy, but a friendly smile and see that people care. It was afterward, when we started to pray with the priest, that I allowed the sadness to over take me. The priest, Alexander, anointed our heads with oil, and we left for home. We were not able to stay long because we were only allowed in each room for 10 minutes and also not everyone wanted visitors. I felt like we didn’t spend a lot of time doing mission work because everything we did was cut short. I wondered, are we wasting too much time? Is there some reason we are always in the house? Is there some need that we are not fulfilling?

Later that day, I was glad when I found out that we would split up to do other activities. One group went to the park to play around and hang out with other kids, but no kids joined in. Then one group went to a 93 year old lady’s apartment named Rita. I visited with her for a short while before I headed with Natalia to check in on the homeless boys that Natalia tries to looks after. One of her usual rides was able to take us. It was supposed to be a quick ride. Well a quick ride to death. Not only were his stops abrupt, but also he drove on the wrong side of the road. I could write a whole page about his awful driving but rather to the important things. I was doing my best to be friendly and not looked surprised when I arrived to see the homeless boys. When I saw small children living in an alleyway without any parents, proper clothes, and were totally filthy, it was hard to keep a smile on my face. One of the kids who didn’t look any older than 10 was high, most likely from sniffing glue. One of the kids looked at me with amazement. I wonder how does a homeless child find a way out of the street and into normal life? He can’t get a job. He can’t take out a loan. He can’t go on welfare. And, from what we were told, they hate the orphanages that the police try to put them in. They said that living on the street is 20 times better than staying with the group homes. I can’t even imagine how awful those places must be considering the trash and emptiness they are living in right now.

Natalia told the boys that we would be back tomorrow around 12 so they should bring their friends if they want any food or clothing. Natalia wanted me to film the boys and I think they won’t mind because they know that she is getting them food. If I were them I wouldn’t want to be filmed. However, as much as I hate it, it is my job. I am supposed to be documenting the troubles of the world in order to raise awareness to the needs that as Christians we should partake in helping. I cringed when I filmed them though. I just wanted to close my eyes and disappear. I learned that many people have filmed them and then used the footage for their own gain and profit, without doing anything to help them. It made me sick inside. How can children end up like this? I just don’t understand. Where are their parents? Where are their relatives? Where are the government agencies that are supposed to be taking care of these children? Who can be more important than children? They are helpless, and the worst is that it is not their fault…. And they can’t do anything to help themselves. What do you tell a 9-year-old living on the street to do in order to better his or her situation? Hmmm… I just realized that there were not any girls. Why aren’t their any girls? Maybe the girls prefer to be in the group homes… maybe the girls are taken as sex slaves so they are more at risk on the street? That’s another terrible thought I can’t add to my burdened brain right now. I recently learned from one of seminars during NYC that Ukraine is leading in numbers of human trafficking in Eastern Europe. Over 117, 000 Ukrainians each year are human trafficked. Below I have included a link to a human trafficking awareness video. We watched this video at NYC, but I must warn you it is disturbing and graphic.

Also, for more information visit this website

Okay that was a sidetrack, but something very important as well.

After we grabbed the boys some meals from Mc Donald’s we headed back to the house. The rest of the way back I was extremely depressed about the boys I had just met and very annoyed with this careless greedy driver that didn’t even take a second look at the boys as he asked for 20 more greivas for his ride… He looked, smelled, and drove like a greedy slimeball. Nonetheless, I keep fighting tears as I looked out the window to this broken city. I had never seen homeless children before and I didn’t know what to do with my feelings. I wanted to let the world know that these kids need help. Then there was this nagging cynicism that kept telling me, “I know you won’t do anything. You’ll just forget about these kids as soon as you get home.” I started to believe this voice. I’m just as selfish as our driver. I sunk further into depression. It was hard for me to hold it together throughout the night. I secretly wanted to tell someone but not sure who I could trust with my feelings and I don’t feel comfortable crying in front of anyone here. I still find crying to be a weakness and hate how it makes me feel. Like always, I kept it in. When Donabel asks how it went I just told her that it was tough and hugged her. I stayed pretty somber throughout the night.

When we visited the kids the next day it wasn’t as tough. I felt selfish and less human when I consciously forgot the nail clippers for the kids. I was totally thinking, I have such a nice set and they might get ruined. Why can’t I be different? It’s just stupid nail clippers. Luckily we had scissors if we really needed them, but it didn’t help how I felt. But I don’t think the kid with the bad nails showed up. Doesn’t matter though. I still felt awful. I’m going to work on that. It’s amazing how quickly you can become desensitized. We picked up most of the garbage surrounding their home. Most of it was Mc Donald’s wrappers and soda bottles. I don’t know if it was from food they have received or if its been taken out of the garbage, probably a little bit of both. Natalia wanted me to film instead of pick up trash. I got used to filming. I didn’t have to cringe as much and it helps that I can include my team in the shots.

How would I feel if someone was filming me? However, if they also brought food when I was starving I think I would care a lot less. So we fed the boys some sandwiches that our wonderful cook Luba had made and some less than par chocolate chip cookies slash cake that we made. Then the guys kicked the soccer ball around while I tossed the Frisbee around with a few people on the team. It felt good to be active and sweat. One of the homeless boys, Sergey, looked ill and said he felt very sick. Natalia and Peter, the local Nazarene pastor, took Sergey to the hospital. We later found out that he had pneumonia and could have died if he wasn’t brought in. He is only 17 years old.
The next day we visited Sergey in the hospital. He looked a lot better and said he felt tremendously better. He told us that this made him realize that he needs to get off the street and is planning on moving to his aunts but has to wait for a visa first, which can take months. He said that he wants to go to engineering school. I don’t know why this came as a surprise. I guess because I just thought that these kids don’t really have goals, but they do. These kids want to get out of their situation, but they just don’t have the means to do so. I’m glad that we were able to take this boy to the hospital and show him that we care. I have quite a bit of footage of the mission work we have been doing but nothing to tie it all together. Except for that night….

We stayed at the house of a woman named Natalia and in an hour I cried and laughed and felt a glimpse of her pain. I think I’ve found my story. Since I had arrived in her home she had been most hospitable, but quite forceful. She is obviously a strong woman and I feared to be on her bad side. She does not take any crap and demands respect, which I learned to give most willingly. What I learned is that she has endured a tough life and given up many luxuries to provide for her family and others. She has good stories and did not mind to sharing. Her personality and religious practices are very different from mine, which fascinated me. I told her that I work for the Eurasia regional office in the communication department and that I’m trying to find a story for World Mission and told her that I would like to interview her. She was willing, but said that she has nothing to do with her stories, when in fact the stories are nothing without her.

She had traveled a lot due to the fact her father was a Christian pastor and a Jew, therefore the victim of persecution. She did not talk much about her background, but instead she delved in to her greatest story, her daughter. She has 4 boys and 2 daughters. She lost a daughter 5 months ago in a car accident. Her daughter’s pictures are throughout the house as a reminder of her and her memories. Her wound is still so fresh that I cannot mention her name without tears welling up in her eyes. The thought of losing a sister is too unbearable to think about let alone experience and losing a daughter is more misery than I hope I’ll ever know. She told me her story and tears started to flow as she said that her daughter is her own best testimony. She started off her story by mentioning, that she has seen the Passion of the Christ 12 times. I’m not sure if she was exaggerating because it did not seem like her forte. After she watched the scene where both Mother Mary and Mary Magdalene cleaned up Jesus blood after He was crucified, Natalia prayed that she would know his pain, and that she could feel as he felt.

On March 15, Natalia had to take care of her mother-in-law and asked her daughter to go to a convention to speak in her place. Even though her daughter was ill and others advised her not to go, she wanted to fulfill her mother’s wishes, and went ahead to the convention. She made a lasting impact on those she talked with and met there, and it would be the last people she had contact with. On the way home from the convention everyone in the car including the driver fell asleep. The car crashed into an oncoming car and the driver and the other passenger survived with a few scrapes whereas her daughter was killed instantly. As she told her story this stern, fearless woman becomes a gentle hurt child asking for Jesus’ forgiveness for her foolish prayer. She feels sick, and to blame for the loss of her daughter. It was her that prayed to feel Jesus pain; it was her that asked her daughter to fill her place; it was her that was not there. It was her fault. How can I convince this woman that she is not to blame? Does any one else blame her? Would I blame her? But how could I blame her any more than I could blame the mother-in-law that she was aiding.

It was at this time that the strangest thing happened to me. I had started to feel light-headed and had to stop the interview because I thought that I was going to get sick. Luckily, I didn’t, but I was still sweating profusely, and I was cold, and pale. Natalia was worried, and so was I. This had never happened to me before. After 20 min the nausea subsided and I continued with the interview. I cannot explain what happened but I know it wasn’t going to prevent me from getting this interview. Back on track…

Natalia continued to describe her daughter as though she was talking about an angel. She was the type of person you would tell your deepest frightful secrets to. Someone who would meet you at your level, if you were a small child she would crawl on her knees or for an old woman she listen patiently to intrinsic stories. She loved everyone as though if she did not love them no one else would. She invested her life into others. So why? Why are they the ones that are taken?

I cannot help but to have a little cynicism enter into my brain. I know that when someone dies we can tend to glorify them. If we were to describe them while they were alive we might say, oh they are great and nice, but once they die they become angelic, wonderful, and like no other. I know that is horrible to say, but its true. I guess it’s just a way to honor them. There is no need to remember their faults, weaknesses, but are they really as amazing as described. If so, why is it that God always seems to take the best people? It is as if He sends us angels to give us a glimpse of Heaven, but then selfishly takes them away so we will never take them for granted. No matter what the reason is I still had tears in my eyes as she described her angel on earth who God took back to heaven.

How is it that it is the family who dedicates their life to serve God and others always seem to be the one that are “punished”? Why would anyone want to sign up for that? Believe in God and your life will have devastation and sorrow beyond belief. However, I am glad for people like Natalia.

When the week was over I was sad to leave. I had grown so close to everyone and had a special place for Ukraine in my heart. At that point I had spent more time in Ukraine than I had in any other country including my new home in Switzerland. In Ukraine, I learned some of the history of the country, understood the people better, could find my way around Kiev and Odessa, two of the biggest cities, and spoke more Russian than German. I couldn’t look forward to going home cause Ukraine was my new home. Nonetheless, our journey was over and we took the steamy train back to Kiev to have a debriefing before we all parted our ways. As we all shared our thoughts and feelings it was amazing how everyone took something different and unique from our trip.

On the plane ride home I was going over the past few weeks and the incredible experience I had. However, then I also thought of the homeless boys that I had left behind. Its not fare that I can just hop on plane and head home while they are living in an alley scrounging for food. I don’t want to just forget about them like most people do once they get to the airport. Yet I am conflicted… what can I do? It’s nice and thoughtful to feed them for a day, but then what? When I am at home several countries away, what can I do?

What can we do?….

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1 Comment

  • firtukloimutrzas April 11, 2019 at 4:58 am

    Wow that was strange. I just wrote an incredibly long comment but after I clicked submit my comment didn’t show up. Grrrr… well I’m not writing all that over again. Anyways, just wanted to say great blog!

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