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Mennonites thrived in Zaporizhzhia for generations, until Soviet persecution forced many to flee to Canada. Now, as Russian forces push deeper into the region, locals and the diaspora are helping those seeking safety

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A Mennonite school in Mykolay-Pole, a village near the city of Zaporizhzhia, is now home to a canteen for refugees. Mennonites, an Anabaptist sect of Christianity, have a long history in this part of Ukraine.Photography by Anton Skyba/The Globe and Mail

At around 6 a.m. on March 31, Iryna Lypka had just finished cooking breakfast for her 82-year-old mother when five officers from Russia’s security service rushed into her apartment waving guns. Ten more officers surrounded the building outside.

Ms. Lypka had been bracing for this moment ever since late February when the Russian army occupied the small town of Molochansk in southern Ukraine. As Molochansk’s mayor, she knew she’d be targeted. The FSB officers put a hood over her head, took her to the local police station and threw her in a cell.

She spent the next three weeks enduring questioning and threats before suddenly being released on April 23. She and her mother managed to leave town and head to western Ukraine.

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Iryna Lypka is the mayor-in-exile of Molochansk, now occupied by Russian troops.

Ms. Lypka has now returned to Zaporizhzhia, the closest unoccupied city to Molochansk, to serve as mayor in exile and organize car loads of humanitarian aid for the town’s roughly 6,000 residents. And she’s turned to some old friends for help; donors from Canada’s Mennonite community.

Molochansk and Zaporizhzhia hold special significance for Canadian Mennonites and Ms. Lypka has spent years working with a Winnipeg-based charity that supports a host of local programs. The charity operates the Mennonite Centre in Molochansk that funds a local medical clinic, educational programs and food services. It also built washrooms at the school and bought the town a garbage truck.

Even now that the town is under occupation, the centre has remained open and its eight staff provide daily meals to locals. The Winnipeg charity, called Friends of the Mennonite Centre in Ukraine (FOMCU), has managed to continue wiring money to the staff and it’s covering the cost of gas for Ms. Lypka’s car deliveries.

“They were always solving problems for everyone and, even now, the community doesn’t have any income and they are helping,” the mayor said.

Mennonite roots run deep in this part of Ukraine, and the impact of the Canadian community can be seen throughout the region, especially since Russia’s invasion.

In many respects, the war has revived some of the worst memories of Mennonite history here; the decades of Soviet oppression that eradicated almost all traces of Mennonites in this area. It’s only since Ukraine’s independence in 1991 that there has been some revival of this once-vibrant community. Canadian Mennonites have become intricately involved in bringing the culture back to life and offering support.

“That was one of the reasons we went back, to help those who need help,” said Louie Sawtzky, a project director at the Winnipeg-based Mennonite Benevolent Society (MBS), which operates the Mennonite Family Centre in Zaporizhzhia. “It’s a tribute to our ancestors and our forefathers.”

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Residents of a hospice at the Mennonite Family Centre in Zaporizhzhia, which is also home to a refugee group from eastern Ukraine.

Valman Castle, an old Mennonite building in Zaporizhzhia, is now home to local government offices.
Tatyana Tiuptina works in a laundry in the Shiroke region funded by Mennonite donations.

Mennonites first came to Zaporizhzhia in the 1780s, mainly from Prussia. They’d been invited by Catherine the Great, who wanted to populate stretches of empty land Russia had acquired through various wars.

The community thrived and families such as Koops, Remples and Niebuhrs built businesses and financed the construction of dozens of schools and churches. At one point, an estimated 150,000 Mennonites lived around Zaporizhzhia in more than two dozen towns and villages.

The community came under attack in the early 20th century; first during the Russian Revolution, when many backed the White Army over the Bolsheviks, and then during both world wars because of their German heritage.

The postwar Soviet era saw thousands of Mennonites killed or deported to Siberian prison camps, and their churches, schools and cemeteries were destroyed. Around 40,000 managed to flee to Canada.

The fall of communism brought renewed interest in Zaporizhzhia’s history, and Canadian Mennonites began visiting the city in the 1990s to hunt for traces of their ancestors.

The Mennonite Centre was established in 2002 in Molochansk and FOMCU donors contribute up to $500,000 annually. The MBS set up the Family Centre around the same time and it receives roughly $225,000 in annual donations to fund programs for 113 seniors and around 140 children.

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A monument in Zaporizhzhia honours Mennonites driven away in Stalinist times.

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Mennonite tombstones, once stripped for stone to build a barn, have been restored with donations from Canada.

Zaporizhzhia’s council has renamed five streets in honour of Mennonite settlers, and in 2018 the city twinned with Steinbach, Man. Canadian donors also helped erect a memorial to commemorate Mennonites persecuted by Stalin. And in 2021, Canadians covered much of the costs of excavating around 120 Mennonite tomb stones that had been used to build the foundation of a barn. More than a dozen headstones have been refurbished and placed in a small park on Khortytsia island, the site of the first Mennonite colony.

“We couldn’t make it without them,” said Denys Korotenko, the mayor of the Shiroke region, which consists of 35 settlements outside Zaporizhzhia including eight that were Mennonite colonies. The FOMCU has funded a variety of projects in the region, ranging from sourcing new lab equipment for the hospital to buying three washing machines for the community centre in one village. Canadian donors are also helping refurbish Valman Castle, a former Mennonite kindergarten that now houses the regional offices.

“Our organization is small but it is very flexible,” said Olga Rubel, the FOMCU’s co-ordinator in Zaporizhzhia who meets regularly with Shiroke officials to assess their need. Ms. Rubel has been in Latvia since the war started but she hopes to return to Ukraine soon.

The invasion has brought a renewed commitment from abroad. Donations to the FOMCU have soared to $1.8-million this year and much of that money is helping thousands of people who have taken refuge in Zaporizhzhia from parts of eastern Ukraine where fighting is fierce.

In the village of Mykolay-Pole, FOMCU is providing financial aid to ten people and helps fund a meal program that feeds around 50 people a day. The program is run out of the local school, which was built by Mennonites.

On Saturday, Ivan Pedina, 19, enjoyed a pasta lunch at the school with his 13-year old cousin, Andryi Kizilov. They left the village of Polohy, about 100 kilometres from Zaporizhzhia, in early April shortly after the Russians took over. “My parents wanted me to go,” said Mr. Pedina. He’s not sure what he’ll do now but he’s hoping to resume his training to become a seaman on commercial ships.

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A woman prepares food at the canteen in Mykolay-Pole, which feeds about 50 people daily thanks to funding from the Winnipeg-based Friends of the Mennonite Centre in Ukraine.

‘Commit your ways to the Lord; trust in him, and he will act,’ reads a biblical quote in German at the Family Centre.
Boris Letkeman, local director of the Family Centre, was born in Siberia after his father was sent to a prison camp there.

The Mennonite Family Centre is also offering support to a group of refugees from eastern parts of the country. “It’s more for them to understand that we love them, and that we care,” said Boris Letkeman, the centre’s local director.

Mr. Letkeman, 73, is one of the few Mennonites left in Zaporizhzhia. His father grew up in the area but was deported to a Siberian prison camp in the 1930s. His mother tried to leave for Germany with Mr. Letkeman’s three older siblings but American soldiers handed her over to the Russians and they ended up in the same Siberian camp.

Mr. Letkeman was born in Siberia and he eventually made his way back to Ukraine. But he faced constant ridicule for being Mennonite. “For much of my life, I was a second-class man,” he recalled.

It was only after Ukraine’s independence that Mr. Letkeman felt like a full member of society. He got married, had a family and enjoyed a career as an engineer. He also got involved with the Family Centre and manages the operations, which are based in two units of an apartment building. One is used as a hospice for six patients and the other serves as a meeting area.

As the Russians move closer to Zaporizhzhia, Mr. Ledkman has had offers to go to Germany or Canada, but he won’t leave. “God and Ukraine above everything,” he said. Then he smiled and added: “I’m happy with my life. I’m probably the happiest man in Ukraine.”

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