Africa in the Heart of Europe?

In so many ways Ukraine seems like a land of contradictions, maybe it is one reason I fell in love with her. Examination of my own self often leaves me baffled at the apparent walking contradiction that I tend to be, so maybe in some ways I understand.

At the turn of the 20th century millions of Ukrainians left their homeland, emigrating to Canada and the US. Ivan Franko, a Ukrainian writer, said of his country that it was “Africa in the Heart of Europe”. I find that to be an interesting and striking statement.

It never ceases to amaze me really. The social divide here is glaringly obvious to me as I notice such posh brands as Bentley, Maserati, Hummer and Aston Martin (to name a few) parked along downtown streets right in the face of babushkas in multiple ragged layers trying to sell their wares to passersby. The wealthy become wealthier and the poor work, borrow, beg, steal and become poorer.

Like a butterfly emerging from a cocoon, Ukraine is both tenacious and fragile. The people of Ukraine have a history of being invaded and made captive to others and this year marks a mere twenty years of independence. As a people group they are amazingly resilient and strong, but history has left them wary, searching for hope and fairly cynical about the future.

Many of the students I work with look longingly on the thought of going to America or just another country because, let’s face it, the grass just seems much greener on the other side. Is it really though?

The American Dream seems to be a glamorous thing worldwide, this idea of freedom, prosperity and success for anyone, regardless of social status or ethnicity as long as you are willing to work hard. It is the whole “life, liberty and pursuit of happiness” deal. It is a great idea but I think we too often have a WRONG idea of what freedom, prosperity and success are. Too many people go after the dream and end up in a nightmare.

With that said, I love America. As Lee Greenwood would say, “And I’m proud to be an American…” I recognize how blessed I was to grow up there and know that many of the opportunities I have had just do not come to the majority of the world’s populations.

I also love Ukraine – this place where the old paradigms are meeting the modern world and in some odd way they are mingling and trying to function together.  I want the students I work with to see and know that what appears to be greener grass is sometimes a mass of brambles. I want them to see that “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” doesn’t just mean lots of money, amazing looks and being able to do whatever you want whenever you want.

I hope for  students to love Ukraine and to see the beauty that is here. I hope they will see that they are part of the answer to the injustices they are faced with daily. I want them to see that God cares about each of them and that ultimately to have hope and a future they have to follow Christ.

As Charles Habib Malik, former president of the UN General Assembly, said at the Pascal Lectures in 1981, “‘Change the university and you change the world.” Maybe in some ways Franko was right and Ukraine is an “Africa in the Heart of Europe,” but I don’t think it has to stay  that way.


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