As the delegation prepares for the upcoming trip to Belarus it is wonderful to be able to reflect on one of our many success stories. Today we have a guest blogger, Ross Anderson. Ross and Kate Anderson have a great story to tell about their involvement with CAC. Please read it through and enjoy the pictures.
Thoughts on a Trip to Belarus for Sasha’s Wedding
It has taken much too long for us to put together a little report on our trip to Belarus. We have been busy, but everybody is busy. If there is one thing that strikes us about our whole experience with CAC (Canadian Aid for Chernobyl), it is the amount of time and energy that is provided by selfless and caring individuals who sustain the effort. We had the privilege to visit Belarus, see the orphanage at Chaussy and all of the good works that have been accomplished there by the CAC, and be recipients of the good will that has come from that.
We had always sponsored children, matching the ages of our own children, through Foster Parents Plan. We continue to applaud the good work done by these organizations, but it is difficult to connect with the children and their circumstances and to understand the tangible benefits that are being provided. Soon after moving to Brockville in 1995 we became aware of CAC through the involvement of colleagues at work. It was in 1998, when we read an article in the Recorder & Times, by Deanna Clark, about the CAC Orphan Education Program that we were moved to become involved ourselves. CAC had provided much needed physical improvements to the Chaussy orphanage and organized respite visits to improve the health of the children. Arrangements have been made for some children to study and stay in Canada, but most have to make their lives in Belarus. These children were graduating from the orphanage and would need some financial support in order to continue in what would be the equivalent of our high schools. Sasha Makarenko was in the first group of these graduating students.
We really know surprisingly little detail about Sasha’s life. He doesn’t speak English and we don’t speak Russian. His parents were unable to care for their children and his mother left when Sasha was very young. The children were separated and sent to various institutions, and Sasha was raised at the Chaussy orphanage. We were given a photo of Sasha at age 12:
and corresponded with him through CAC. It was difficult to talk about much of consequence and would be insensitive to describe family trips or the latest acquisition. Besides, he was 12-years-old…we had trouble getting our own children to write thank you letters to their grandparents. We struck upon things of common experience; he was an avid chess player and a keen soccer player…soccer, hockey, track and field were common themes. Friends had hosted children from Chaussy and described how satisfying the experience was, so in 2004 we arranged for Sasha to stay with us for the summer. At 16, going on 26, he was the oldest first-time respite visitor, so there was some uncertainty all around about how it might work out.
Sasha adapted amazingly quickly and well. We worked on English with him and he taught us some Russian. Our children are wonderful and their behaviour and success is something of which we are very proud, but they were typical teenagers and the reality is that we probably had more ‘conversations’ with Sasha than with own children that summer. Sasha joined the Brockville Soccer program and enjoyed the vacations at family cottages. He was an integral part of our family and was ‘adopted’ by our extended family and friends.
At the time of his departure, Sasha was interviewed by Deanna Clarke.
He was trying to play it cool and wore dark glasses. When asked what was the best part of his experience he said, “I never knew what it was like to be part of a family.” There wasn’t a dry eye in the house.
In the next year Sasha moved on from the agricultural school and we supported his lessons for a truck driving licence. The arrangements for a respite visit in the summer of 2005 were much more difficult. He would be turning 18 and both the Belarussian and Canadian bureaucratic channels had to be convinced. Dave Shaw was instrumental in making it happen. Sasha had to go to Warsaw, Poland, to get his travel papers. Something was a little ‘off’ when he arrived. He had been living quite independently in Belarus. In spite of what we may perceive as an oppressive government in Belarus, there are a lot more personal behaviour ‘rules’ in Canada…wearing seatbelts, wearing bicycles helmets, no smoking, no drinking, evening curfews. These chafed at him more than the previous summer and he didn’t embrace being with us as he had before. The photo at Canada’s Wonderland is typical…he was with us, but not quite.
We didn’t have the common language to really understand what was happening, but as the summer played out we all got past our little piques and learned from each other. It also seems that there was a girl (Natasha) involved…back in Belarus.
The summer went well
but Sasha was going back to an uncertain future. Having finished school, he no longer had any home to go back to.
Sasha entered his military service. For Christmas 2006 we got a photo of him driving a tank
We continued to provide support through CAC and received news and photos periodically
There was mention about Natasha, and the funding for home heating went into the home of Natasha’s parents. We came to find out that Sasha had been posted near Babruisk and his relationship with Natasha had blossomed. He had been adopted into her family and lived with them following his military service.
Natasha’s brother-in-law is in the police service, an excellent career in Belarus. Through Sasha’s hard work and some connections, Sasha had been accepted as a candidate for the Babruisk police service following his military service. Though Sasha had never experienced any of the benefits of his own nuclear family, his police candidacy was tragically withdrawn because of the drug-related arrest of a brother whom he barely knew.
In the summer of 2008, we received a letter from Sasha saying that he would be marrying Natasha and asking if we could come to Belarus to share the event with him. Although we were honoured, we were not sure whether our presence would distract from their special event and we wondered whether it would be better for them to provide the cash that we would have otherwise spent on the trip. Dave Shaw described the boost in confidence and esteem that our presence at the ceremony would provide, so we made arrangements to visit Belarus in October for the wedding.
Andrei Simanev met us in Minsk and was with us for the entire visit. We stayed in Babruisk with Sasha, Natasha, and her parents. Sasha had installed a modern washroom with some of the support we had provided
The family clearly took much pride in their house and it was very well maintained compared to many houses in the neighbourhood
Sasha had put an enormous amount of work into the house in preparation for the wedding and our arrival. Natasha’s step-father had retained his bachelor apartment, and after the wedding, Natasha’s mother and father were to move to the apartment and leave Sasha as ‘master of the house.’ Not only had Sasha been adopted into Natasha’s family, we had been adopted as his Canadian parents. We have never been made to feel more welcome.
On the day before the wedding we were assured that everything was in hand, and Sasha would only be in the way had we all stayed at the house. We had not expected to be able to visit Chaussy, but we were able to take Sasha there for the first time since he had left the orphanage. We were treated like special guests and given a full tour of the orphanage. The physical improvements to the facilities are extraordinary.
Sasha was absolutely blown away by it. We saw the dormitory room in which he had grown up. The windows have all been replaced recently and the children can actually be warm in the winter. There are new beds and furniture throughout, providing comfort to the children and funding to another orphanage where they were built. Many of Sasha’s former teachers are still at the orphanage and it was wonderful to see the pride and affection they had for him.
A concert presentation was hastily arranged and we were made to feel like royalty. We recognized some of the children from their Brockville respite visits.
The highlight was when Sasha got up on the stage to address the students.
He described his time in the orphanage and his visits to Brockville. He described his military service, finding a job, and finding the love of his life. We took a video of Sasha’s speech, and although it is difficult to hear, his word’s brought hope to the students, and tears to the eyes of his teachers, and later…Natasha, his parents-in-law, and many newlyfound aunts.
That night, on the eve of the wedding, we had a wonderful traditional meal and a family sing-song, with Andrei playing guitar
We found out that they knew the melody to most Beatles songs and Andrei knew the words to ‘Yesterday.’ Natasha’s mother has a wonderful singing voice. She was effervescent, generous, and incredibly loving. Natasha’s father was warm and helpful. There was a wonderful family dynamic, built on mutual respect … a terrific environment for Sasha to learn from and be a part of. Also, there was some vodka for toasts, but little drinking … especially relative to what we understood we might expect. The family is active in the Russian Orthodox church and Sasha was recently baptized, with his godparents being Natasha’s father and older sister.
On the day of the wedding we went to the parent’s bachelor apartment, where Sasha had spent the night. The groom’s family met there, with more of the omnipresent ‘toasts’
An older brother, aunt, and cousin were able to come to Babruisk for the wedding. Also there were his groomsmen (friends from the agricultural school) and his proud Canadian ‘parents.’ We all went back to the house for ‘the Buying of the Bride,’ a traditional part of the Belarussian marriage process
The bride is hidden away and her attendants test the knowledge and cleverness of her suitor. It is like a combination of Jeopardy and The Newlywed Game. Correct answers get an opportunity for another question. Incorrect answers require a token payment. Although the groomsmen were supposed to be of assistance in answering the questions, their only contribution was emptying their pockets of rubles. Finally, Sasha demanded evidence that there was, in fact, a bride. A gartered leg was stuck out of the bedroom door, and after a few more questions we got to see a whole bride. There followed some Russian Orthodox ritual, with Natasha’s aunt (and godmother) leading them around a table three times, carrying an icon
There were some more ‘toasts’; then the bride- and groom-to-be led us outside, threw candies to the guests
and then off to the marriage registration office.
The bride and groom are sent to separate ‘staging’ rooms. After a time, the wedding guests are shown into a ‘chapel’ … although it is a civil ceremony. The bride and groom and attendants enter and an official conducts the ceremony. After the signing of the registry, the bride and groom dance and then we were escorted to another room for ‘toasts.’
The wedding photographer then took pictures of the various family groups. It was an honour for us to be asked to represent the groom’s parents
One telling event was when it came time for a picture of the groom’s family. The true family was pretty sparse, so after a short awkward moment one of Natasha’s cousins announced that she was a member of Sasha’s family …and soon the photo was crowded. The registry office is a busy place on Saturdays. There were 35 weddings that day, and the staging…from room to room…was intricately choreographed.
Between the wedding and reception is the photo tour. Following the photo on the steps of the registry office, the first stop was the Babruisk town square and the photo op in front of the Russian tank. We then went to a couple of WWII memorials, where wedding flowers were left.
It is important to know that most armies throughout European history have marched through the place that is now Poland and Belarus. One-third of the population of Belarus died in WWII, and in the north it was one-half of the population. In addition, 80% of the buildings were destroyed. Everybody was affected and those sacrifices are remembered as part of the wedding process. A final stop was made at a Russian Orthodox chapel
The reception started at about 2 o’clock. Another telling event occurred just after we arrived at the reception hall. The bride and groom drink a toast following a Russian Orthodox invocation. Sasha tossed his glass over his shoulder after the toast. It seemed appropriate to us, but there was a tiny gasp from some of the guests. Natasha hesitated only for a moment, and then tossed her glass too, not wanting there to be any embarrassment for Sasha. There were fifty guests, so…of course…there were fifty ‘toasts.’ There was a non-stop flow of food dishes out of the kitchen. A master-of-ceremonies kept things hopping with a rotation of ‘toasts’, singing, dancing, reminiscences and talent-show (with associated ‘toasts’), more ‘toasts’, more singing (and ‘toasts’), more dancing, and more ‘toasts.’
It was exhausting, and we found ourselves sneaking a glance at our watches at the very same time…it was only 5 o’clock, and we were told that it would go on at least until 2 a.m.
We were barely allowed to sit down, but then everybody was always up on the dance floor. We had been seated where the groom’s parents would be, and at the end of the table and across from us were the two groomsmen. They kept the ‘toasting’ shotglasses full, but never forced the issue if we only sipped. They, of course, didn’t necessarily limit themselves to the toasting opportunities. We were given the respect accorded to the parent’s of the groom, and people expressed their appreciation for our contribution towards getting Sasha to the point in his life that they could take over. When we got up with Andrei to sing Yesterday for the bride and groom and guests, we were made to feel as though we ‘really belonged.’ We made it to 2 a.m.; still standing.
It is a good thing that we had not been aware that the whole reception event was to be repeated on the next day. This was October and the trip had not been planned for, so we only had a limited number of days to be there. We left the next morning, but not before Sasha and Natasha walked several kilometres in the rain back from the place that they had stayed the night. We had given them our wedding presents on the eve of the wedding. Our parents, siblings, and friends who had come to know Sasha had also given us presents to take to Sasha and Natasha. They weren’t opened at the time and we weren’t entirely sure if they knew what was being given and by whom. Before we got in the car, Sasha thanked us for coming in his best English and thanked each of the people who had sent a wedding gift. There were teary goodbyes, and an absolute bond to Natasha and her parents. The whole experience had been somewhat like ‘following through a rabbit hole’, but in spite of the desperate conditions in much of the country and the hardships they all face…it was like falling into Wonderland. We felt wonderful that Sasha has a job with the potential for advancement, a loving family, a beautiful bride, and a hopeful future.
We rarely stop to analyze why we do what we do. When we were interviewed by Deanna Clark for the Recorder & Times article, it was an opportunity to try to put our thoughts into words. It reinforced that we have received much more through our involvement with Canadian Aid for Chernobyl and Sasha than we will ever be able to contribute. The world is a very small place and it does not take much to make a difference when there is desperate need. Our activities in CAC have included our extended families, and especially our children. They are generous, thoughtful, and sensitive, and will be excellent citizens of the world. Deanna asked us, “How do you respond to people who say that they would prefer to direct their charitable effort to children in Canada?” We replied, “That’s great, helping children wherever is never a mistake.” There continues to be a desperate need in Belarus, but the work of the CAC and the people of Brockville have brought incredible improvement to the quality of life through the region and have brought hope to many children in Belarus. It is something to be extraordinarily proud of.
Ross and Kate Anderson