Monday, August 18, 2014

Saturday IDPs and the Blues in & around Kyiv

Saturday was a PACKED day. And worth sharing with you.

For lunch, my hosts made an unbelievably good, simple pasta dish seasoned with parmesan cheese, sun dried tomatoes and some caesar salad dressing. It was just what I needed to get through the day ahead. They are spoiling me. There's a shop here called Good Wines - yes, in English - and they are keeping us well-stocked in the very best cheese, bread and, yes, wine.

My friend and I headed out at 1 p.m. and did a long walk, first through the picturesque, peaceful grounds of the military hospital near her house, then through the old ramparts of the center of the long-gone old city that used to be fully walled. Then we came to the current city center - which I don't really like. I like Maidan square, but the city center is a sea of restaurants (there's even a TGI Fridays), bars, people that want to be seen… it's not the Kyiv I've fallen in love with. We then turned off the main drag and walked up a lovely, picturesque street - Liuteranska. I was utterly charmed.

We were headed to meet up with friends at the German Evangelical Lutheran Church, but just before we got there, we saw police had blocked off the road to cars, though they seemed to be letting pedestrians through. I kept quiet - I didn't want them to be alarmed by my foreign accent. A uniformed man asked my host where we were going and she said to the church. He nodded and we went through the opening. Then she turned and said, "What's going on?" And he said, "We're defending the West!" She laughed - and then translated all this for me when we were near the church.

(The street was blocked off because the Finnish President was visiting - fresh from Moscow. Oh to be a fly on the wall... and to speak Russian.)

At the church, we met up with friends that had organized some clothing donations for a camp outside of Kyiv for internally-displaced persons (IDPs) - that's the official term, rather than refugees, because refugees flee to other countries. And then I joined them for a ride out to Kotsiubinske (or Kotsiubynsky - spelling varies in Latin letters), a suburb of Kyiv, where an Orthodox religious center built to house 40 people for religious retreats now houses about 180 IDPs who have fled from the East.

The town is sad - the kind of place my husband and I call "crapistan": big ugly Soviet style apartment buildings, many of them looking like they are crumbling, trash everywhere, weeds everywhere, and so many stray dogs as to completely break your heart. The religious retreat center is behind one of the big ugly buildings. The entire village is surrounded by a young forest (and trash).

Conditions in the retreat center are good, for the most part, but cramped; there are entire families living together in rooms the size of my dorm room in college, and others are sleeping in large rooms filled with row after row of beds. Women are in both of the kitchens all day, cooking. There are just two or three washing machines. The bathrooms were in surprisingly good shape. People seem to have enough food and clothes, and beds, but it must be SO hard to get any sleep at all.

The heating system is not at all adequate, and this is a concern, as they are anticipating more arrivals as the winter draws near (more people are coming weekly). I have no idea how they are going to handle schooling for the children. They also are having trouble meeting the medical needs of the IDPs - they have a person with diabetes that needs medication, someone with asthma that needs medication, and several women about to give birth.

Many of these people have been able to find some work in the area -  they are just like you, whomever you are, that is reading this blog now, with skills and experience as secretaries or teachers or car mechanics or whatever. Many drove here, and were able to bring clothes and valuables, but some fled with just the clothes on their back. Many don't know if they have houses or jobs to go home to when the fighting ends. In many cases, they've fled as their towns were being bombed, and there's no water, electricity or food there anymore - and won't be for a long while, even after the conflict subsides. Many don't want to go back - ever - to Donetsk or wherever they are from in the East.

Some of the local people of the village of Kotsiubinske are starting to get angry about the IDPs being there - the center staff have hired people to build a wall around the center grounds, which I think was always in the planning, long before the IDPs showed up, but the local people have started to get angry about the wall and, at one point, they showed up and tore some of the wall down. The town of Kotsiubinske has a big group of drug and alcohol abusers, many of whom are homeless, and they are throwing needles and bottles over the wall, which the IDP children sometimes find. Apparently, there is a journalist that lives nearby and she is publishing stories to create local anger against the camp. I have no idea if her concerns are legitimate.

The IDPs are native Russians-speakers, and they had been warned by Russia supporters back East that no one in Kyiv speaks Russian - of course EVERYONE in Kyiv speaks Russian - I've heard far more Russian here than Ukrainian. They have been shocked to find that so much of the many negative things they were told about people in "the west" has turned out not to be true.

On the other side, one of the people I went with, a native of Kyiv, said she expected to find all the men drunk and laying about - that's her stereotype of people from the East. She was shocked to find "they are just like any normal people."

To me, these two opposing view points get at what this article was trying to say, about how programmed people in conflict are to fear each other, and why reconciliation after conflict is so hard - and, yet, it MUST happen if there is to be peace. Truly, you HAVE to read this article. It gets you beyond thinking about whatever side you might take when looking at conflicts anywhere in the world, and helps you realize that you've GOT to be able to move beyond those "sides" at some point if there is ever to be peace in a region.

The people organizing this facility assured us that anyone can come there - they don't have to be religious. But I'm skeptical. I think most of these folks are believers - and that's fine, but I wish the people that were leading our tour said it up front. We heard from some of the residents that the arguments that have occurred among those staying in the retreat have been regarding religion. I asked the woman taking us around what Protestant denomination the priest had said there were so many people from. She kept saying the name in Russian, and it didn't translate. At one point, we'd decided it was Presbyterian, but then on Wikipedia, it said that most Presbyterians were in the West. We finally figured it out: they meant Pentecostals. Here's more about Protestantism in Ukraine.

I really admire this religious organization for taking in these people, and for all those that have helped them in any way. Without this kind of volunteer action, this would be a much bigger disaster. But I still have worries. My biggest, for this place and any IDP camp: it's dozens of strangers together in a tight space, and they aren't screened in any way. What if there is a pedophile (or more) among them? It's such easy access to children and young teens. There are people everywhere, in every room, but it only takes one empty bathroom or corner, one opportunistic evil person… I feel like the people at this center are assuming everyone is good because most are religious - that's never, ever a good assumption.

For the most part, for now, things are decent for these families at this center, probably better than many other camps. But for how long will they stay that way? People can't be patient even in these conditions forever. How long could YOU live like that? People can live only so long in such cramped conditions, with people they don't know, with not knowing what tomorrow will bring, with just donated food and donated clothes and donated toys for their kids.

If you want to know the name of the center, and to donate money, let me know - they have an American woman managing their efforts, and a web site that takes PayPal, and I'd be happy to hook you up. I didn't tell them I work for an aid agency - I didn't want to get their expectations up. But I've submitted a report to my employer, even though, officially, I wasn't there. Let's hope it leads to some much-needed assistance. Even just some guidance for those running this center would be helpful.

And lest you think people in the USA have a monopoly on volunteerism: Little Dzivnka, aged 7, brought all her toys to the local UNHCR office in Lviv to donate to children that have fled with their families from violence in the East. Well done, Ukraine!

We drove back to Kyiv, and my friend and I were dropped off downtown to meet two guys from work for drinks. It was my first expat social activity in Kyiv. We had beer and appetizers in the outdoor part of a cafe right on the main drag, then headed to a club and caught the tail end of a performance by "Ivan Blues" - Ivan Denisenko - a local institution. He plays really excellent covers of blues standards, with some rock thrown in here and there. Ya'll know how I love live music - it's why I moved to Austin and stayed there for four years. And you know I'm often not impressed with live bands. Ivan turned out to be the real deal. I don't believe in the whole negative "cultural appropriation" thing, especially when it comes to music - music is universal, and if something speaks to your heart, embrace it and run with it, whether you are a Ukrainian who likes to sing the blues or a Japanese guy that likes to sing bluegrass or an American that falls in love with Ukrainian folk music - if it's sincere, honest and GOOD, I'm down with it.
Here's Ivan's YouTube channel.
Here's some studio-quality covers (just audio).
And here's his Facebook group (how you know where he'll be playing)

And if you've stuck with me through this blog, here are my first photos. Please don't just look at the photos - click on the first one and then go through them so that you can read the descriptions. I'm not a photographer - I'm a story-teller - so if you just look at the photos, you miss the story I'm telling. And my HILARIOUS JOKES.


  1. When I heard "crapistan," I clearly saw pictures of part of east Berlin circa 2002. But I suspect you haven't used that to refer to Deutschland. And what I'm picturing is not nearly as desolate as what you've seen.

  2. I not only have said it about parts of Germany, I've said MUCH worse about Germany. Anyone whose read all of my blogs and travel notes - not just a few - knows my love-hate relationship with Germany. It's much like my love-hate relationship with various states I've lived - Kentucky, Texas, Oregon.... I'd say I have a love-hate relationship with Connecticut, where I lived for two years, but it's pretty much just hate.

    For me, an area earns the title when it has copious amounts of trash everywhere, lots of stray dogs and cats, streets that barely qualify as such (because of the potholes), and run down buildings and cars pretty much everywhere. Which could describe rural parts of Kentucky where I lived in the 1970s, actually....