The director of Intercordia shares some stories from a recent visit to Ukraine where Intercordia is partnered with communities that support people with disabilities
I am in a meeting with about a hundred parents of children with disabilities in Lviv, western Ukraine. Some of the parents are in their seventies and eighties and lived through the communist era following WWII when life was very hard, especially for families living with children with disabilities. There were no government services and society shunned people with disabilities and their families forcing them to hide at home, which were often cramped, two room apartments, housing three generations. These parents are salt of the earth people, stolid and quiet, with big, generous hearts. Some of the other parents are younger and are raising their children in a free Ukraine that is struggling to claim democracy and build a more just and compassionate society.
The parents are sharing how difficult it is to both get services for their children and to gain full acceptance for them. “Life in Ukraine is still very hard,” says one parent, “Every day is a struggle.” Another parent says, “If we lived in Canada, everything would be perfect, because you have everything in Canada!” Everyone in the room nods and agrees, looking at me, ‘the fortunate one.’
It’s an awkward moment because life is so much easier in Canada but I am not comfortable letting the statement stand. I interject and tell them that Canada is a good country but it is not perfect! It’s true that people with disabilities have their legal rights and there are many government services to support them and their families but we have major challenges which are very different than the ones in Ukraine. They are surprised! One man says, “I will trade places with you!”
The difficulty with the discussion is that we are talking about two different realities. The Ukrainians are talking about the standard of living and because life is hard they are focused on goods and services and the constant challenge to gain a little more. I am talking about the lack of interdependence that is characterizing Canadian society and the “soulless” life that is developing as we become more affluent and self centered. Our realities are very different and therefore it is hard to really ‘be in one another’s shoes’ and appreciate each others perspectives. Many Ukrainians think that if they could immigrate to a more westernized country their life would be so much better. As a westerner I see so much beauty in these people whose lives are more old fashioned, less jaded and shaped by their struggle to triumph over adversity and reclaim their identity after many years of domination. Adversity engenders in them a passion, a commitment and most of all…..LIFE.
The danger for both of us is that we are comparing our realities and making an evaluation of which is better. Of course I wish for them a more compassionate society and an opportunity to have a good quality of life. To do otherwise would be cruel. But I know from my experience of living in an affluent society in which most opportunities can be realized with a little effort that we easily move towards self centeredness and an insatiable desire for more. What a paradox! When we have too much we don’t appreciate it; they have too little and are preoccupied with wanting more.
I have visited Ukraine eight times in the past eight years and every time I return to Canada rejuvenated and full of life. It always surprises me that I spend time in a land where life is hard and return filled with energy. There is a gift that I receive sharing time with people who are struggling so hard to create a better life from the ashes of the Soviet era. There is a freshness in the people because they do not take life or freedom for granted and that freshness inspires and challenges me. It is pleasantly puzzling for me that the Ukrainians, who live so much hardship, have an ability to be joyful, which awakens my joy for life. Their religious expression reminds me of my Catholic upbringing of the 1950’s which I have moved away from for a more “liberated” way but when I am there celebrating in their rite I see what was lost in the abandonment of tradition.
The best cross cultural experiences are when we can discover the gift of the other, (which can be camouflaged within the distress of their lives) and integrate it into our lives. In this way we show the utmost respect for the other and truly enrich our lives, trusting that the other will experience something similar when we honestly share our lives with them.
As I was leaving the meeting, one middle aged parent took me aside and told me that one of his children now lives in Canada. “At first he wrote to me every week,” he said, “but lately he is too busy! Imagine, being too busy to write your father! He tells me to come live with him but I don’t want to leave Ukraine!” I felt his loss, his faithfulness to his country, culture and his acceptance of the hardships that are part of his life. I responded, “Yes, that is hard. That is what can happen in Canada. We have everything and we can easily forget what is most important.”
“Ukraine is my home,” he said. “We have our problems but we are rich.”
I thought, “You are a fortunate one.”