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Edmond Grace SJ in Ukraine

The Irish-Jesuit-Ukraine connection

During the summer Edmond Grace SJ, Director of the PeopleTalk project, was in Ukraine at the invitation of the Fr Mykhaylo Melnyk, a Ukrainian Greek Catholic priest who is co-founder of Ukraine Social Academy. Edmond first met Mykhaylo through the Ukrainian Jesuits and this, his fourth visit to the country, was as a contributor to the Academy’s International Summer Leadership programme. Edmond reflected on the development of democracy and on his experience in dealing with organised crime in Dublin. He had some great conversations with the participants and found that the situation in Ireland and Ukraine, while quite different, are not that different – for both good and ill! Read his reflection on what transpired, below.

I Want to Go Back

The journey from Lviv, Ukraine’s second city, to Lake Svitiaz near the Polish-Bellarus border took five hours and, as we travelled, I noticed that the two best cared for buildings in each town was the church (always of domed traditional design) and the filling station (always ultra-modern). I was being driven by a couple whose twelve year old son was eager to tell me about his aquarium. They were friends of Mykhaylo, a Greek Catholic priest and the Director of the Ukrainian Social Academy which was founded in 2014. This was my third visit to Ukraine at his invitation which means that I have been able to watch the rapid development of his brain-child.

Previously my visits had been exclusively to Kiev and Lviv, but this programme took place a holiday colony on the shore of Ukraine’s largest lake; the colony was owned by a university and so was geared towards study as well as enjoyment. Not only could you have a swim and go fishing. There was also a beach bar where you could have a drink, but there were also class-rooms. Another group on the premises was studying German.

The Social Academy participants were young and most seemed to be just starting out but one woman had already built up a successful medical supplies business and wanted to engage more with social issues. Another man, still in his twenties, had just concluded a deal with Google Ukraine for an on-line project to be launched in fifteen countries. In the course of conversations, other topics emerged. The corruption of the medical profession was one; in Ukraine medical students can buy their exams. I also learnt that about the one in four of the participants on the programme were Russian speaking: ‘We are Ukrainian. We say it in Russian, but we are Ukrainian!’ They were very pleased with my response: ‘I’m Irish. I say it in English, but I’m Irish!’

Back in Lviv I was delighted to see Oleh waiting for me at the bus station. (His name is pronounced ‘Olech’ with a soft guttural ‘ch’.) Oleh and Mykhaylo are good friends and, whenever Mykhaylo cannot look after me, Oleh takes over; we have had some great conversations. Oleh, like Mykhaylo, is a Greek Catholic priest. He is married with a seven year old daughter and is pastor in a village near Lviv. He, like Mykhaylo, has studied in Rome. He has a cautious sense that things are slowly improving in Ukraine.

He also told me of an attempt to place a land fill near his village, which was defeated by an alliance of church-goers and a Facebook network; he was pleased and encouraged to see this kind of development. That evening we went to a restaurant where the customers were short fishing rod and invited to catch their own meal in a pool in the in the restaurant. My efforts were unsuccessful and I suspect the fish were fed up with all those hooks landing in on top of them. The waiter managed to get one and, when it landed on my plate it was very tasty!

You may be wondering about the war. Well, for much of my time in Ukraine, so was I. People were not talking about in the way they talked on my previous visits. In Lviv I had no sense of any war going on, until entered the old Jesuit Church and saw rows and rows of photos mostly of young men accompanied the paraphernalia of military life and a few empty shell cases. Later in my visit I would sense a growing weariness around the war in the Donetsk region; nothing is being achieved, but people are continuing to die. People are aware that the war suits the business interests of oligarch President Poroshenko and I was told that Poroshenko will be defeated at the next election.

As for impinging on daily life, it is worth remembering that Donetsk is at the far end of Europe’s second largest country – after Russia! – from Lviv. As for Lviv the city is beautiful, the prices are low and the food is good. Its definitely worth a visit! As for my own visit, the best thing I could tell you about it is that I hope Mykhaylo will invite me back!

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