Monday, 14 April 2008

Humanitarian Missionary Service

Elder & Sister Ireland with Nastya, our interpreter
When we first came to Moscow, we were doing humanitarian projects with organizations serving the poor and needy. We have enjoyed this service and knowing we can be part of the process of providing the less fortunate with things that will help to make their lives a little better. We still are involved with humanitarian service, but much of our time since the middle of February has been supporting the work from the office in the Service Center for the 16 countries in this area of Eastern Europe. Currently, there are 20 humanitarian couples in the area.

In the office, Sam’s main responsibilities involve receiving requests for humanitarian projects and deciding whether to recommend the project for approval. One of my duties is to process expense reports related to administering the projects and other various reports. We answer e-mails and phone calls dealing with questions and concerns the humanitarian missionaries have and are involved with training new missionaries.

Regulations in Russia limit the type of projects we can do, so most of our projects are what we call Area Initiatives that usually cost between $2000 and $5000. We do some projects locally costing more than $5000, but we can do more projects when we keep the cost at the lower level. The high import duty Russia charges makes it cost prohibitive to bring in containers with wheelchairs, clothing, medical supplies, etc. However, there still is much good that the Church can do by helping with the smaller projects in Russia, such as providing equipment for a hospital, computers for a school for invalids, or kitchen equipment for an orphanage. In contrast, Sam has currently been involved with a project providing clean water for thirteen villages in Armenia (wells, piping, etc.) and with a wheelchair project in Turkey (25 containers). Each container holds 250 wheelchairs.

Before coming to Russia, we had no idea of the scope of the humanitarian work our Church does. We knew about the emergency relief in disaster areas worldwide, but we didn’t realize the millions of dollars donated by very generous people and how much good they do in helping the very poor lift themselves to a better life.

We aren’t learning the Russian language very fast, but we get together once a week with some other senior missionaries trying to learn a few more words and phrases. Occasionally, we meet together with other senior couples on a Saturday and visit historical sights and places of interest in Moscow. We have even been to the circus, the ballet, and the opera.

As of November 1, all foreigners have to leave Russia every 90 days to renew their visas. Even though our visa was originally issued to be good for one year, we had to leave February 13 and go to Tallinn in Estonia and get a three-month visa. In May, we will have to go again.

The 22nd of April we will be flying to Sofia, Bulgaria, for an Area Humanitarian Conference meeting with the other humanitarian missionaries from Eastern Europe. From there we will go to Kazakhstan to help a missionary couple as they are new to humanitarian service.

Saturday, 12 April 2008

Spring Weather is Welcome

In just a few short days, the trees went from winter brown to spring green. We have put aside our winter boots, hats, and gloves and are enjoying being able to go out without being so bundled up in winter gear. We have been in Russia almost five months now. The winter wasn't as bad as we had expected, although we did have some very cold days and learned to layer to keep warm. In future blogs, I will revisit some of the things we have experienced in the past five months, but the focus will be on what we are currently doing.

Yesterday (Saturday) we got quite a few miles of walking as we went to two renoks, which are small shops grouped together with open fronts and vendors encouraging you to come see what they have to sell. First, we got on the metro on the dark blue line and got off at Partizanskaya station. From there, we walked to Vernisazh and Izmajlovskij Park (typically called “Izmali Park” by Americans), a popular place for buying souvenirs. I was looking for "Pushkin's Fairy Tales" written in English with Palekh illustrations. I found it and a matching book with classic Russian folk tales. Bargaining is expected; and although I usually don't like doing that, I did get a good price for both books (275 rubles each). I had seen the same book for 500 rubles last Saturday when we visited Novodevichi Convent. One section of this market has paintings displayed by the original artists, and we enjoyed walking through and looking at these. We especially liked the work of one artist and asked the price of an oil painting with birch trees, a river, and blue sky. The quoted price was 7000 rubles (about $300). We admired it and left with our two books. As we were leaving, we noticed people taking pictures and discovered there were two bears tied up; so we took a photo, too.

Bears by Izmali Park

We decided to get on the metro and go to a second renok at Sportevnaya on the red line. When we got there, many of the little cubicles were already packing up to leave even though it was early afternoon. We did walk up and down many aisles and were amazed at the quantity of clothing items for sale. One whole section had shoes, and another had rows of purses, and another had ladies underwear, etc.

This morning we went to the train station to meet two senior missionary couples who had been to Finland to the temple after renewing their visas in Estonia and had plane reservations to Vladivostok at 6:30. They went with us to the Central Building where General Conference was being rebroadcast in both Russian and English. We had enjoyed getting conference last weekend via the Internet, but we enjoyed hearing the talks again today. We miss hearing from President Hinckley, but he has left us with many fond memories and good counsel. Of course, we love President Monson already and enjoy his talks and personal stories. It was good to see Elder Salinas at the broadcast, the young Elder we grew to love while being assigned to the Tver branch.

Last Wednesday, we took a city bus to visit the director of a hospital who would like the church to buy some medical equipment for doing arthroscopic surgery. He gave us a tour of the grounds of the hospital and clinic. Nastya interpreted for us, but Victor did know some English. We have contacted Dr. McCune to learn more about this equipment before proceeding with the project.

On Thursday, we went on the electrishka (electric train) to do a “Closing” for a project we had done at an orphanage. We were very pleased to see how appreciative they were to have the medical equipment the church had provided so that they could get their medical room licensed. The director of the orphanage is what we would call a “champion,” in that she has a very well run organization and sincerely cares about the children. We took photos of the children with the equipment and received the Nakladnaya (documenting receipt of merchandise) and a nice thank-you letter.

Nastya is finishing up her exams before leaving for Galveston, Texas, where she has summer employment at a water park from June to the end of September. She has been such a joy to work with, and we will miss her. We love her and feel she is part of our family now. We wish her the best and will look forward to keeping in touch and seeing her when she returns to Moscow next fall. We appreciate Nastya finding us another college student who will be our interpreter now. Her name is Anna, and we will enjoy working with her.