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Incredible journey: ReLeaf comes to Ukraine.

Amid the tumultuous events in the Soviet Union, AFA's international coordinator and her family found a warm welcome in a land her husband fled 47 years ago.

Have you ever been on a roller coaster? Last August I was on one for five da s. A roller coaster of emotions-anxiety, exhilaration, fear, and finally relief.

It all started August 19: I was in Vienna with my husband Russ and our 10-year-old daughter and eight-year-old son, waiting to leave for the last leg of a trip back to the land of our roots. We were going home to Ukraine, which my parents had left in 1940 and Russ and his parents had fled in 1944.

In addition to visiting family and sightseeing in Ukraine (not the Ukraine, please), I wished to explore possible international contacts for AFA's Global ReLeaf program. This objective took us to Austria, the Czech and Slovak Federal Republic [Czechoslovakia], Poland, and Ukraine to plant the seed of Global ReLeaf.

That day in August, we were scheduled to board a train in Vienna, but it was not to be. Instead, we sat glued to a television screen watching the troubling events on CNN as the world learned about the coup in the Soviet Union. Our plans were shattered! Frustrated, disappointed, and fearful for the relatives we had been looking forward to meeting, we were nevertheless thankful to be in Vienna and not in Ukraine.

Scrapping our original plans, we returned to Munich and planned to go back to the United States. But this, too, was not to be. On August 22, the world learned that the coup had failed.

Two days later, August 24, we were finally on our way to Lviv, capital of western Ukraine. When the train arrived, a relative greeted us at the station exclaiming: "Welcome home! Welcome to an independent Ukraine!" By sheer coincidence our family had arrived just in time to witness the birth of freedom. Not since 1918 had our native land experienced a day to compare with that one.

Our parents had emigrated to escape tyranny, forced deportations, concentration camps, and executions. My father was an agronomist, and he was seen as an enemy of the people because he opposed the forced implementation of collective farming. Russ's father was a professor of classics and so was less vulnerable. Even so, Russ's family left Ukraine four years after my parents fled.

Now we were seeing with our own eyes some of the changes that took place over the ensuing half century. At the Polish-Ukrainian border, where we switched trains, the scene was something out of Dr. Zhivago. The crowds, the filth, the crying children are not soon forgotten. Soviet citizens crowded on the train, returning from bartering trips to Poland. A three-day stint of trading can bring the equivalent of an annual salary in the Soviet Union. People sometimes sit on the border for as much as seven days without accommodations or basic necessities in order to help their families achieve a slightly more comfortable life.

The relative who met us at the train station in Lviv is Yuri Sonevytsky, a urological surgeon. Despite his occupation, he too feels compelled to make the pilgrimage to Poland several times a year since his monthly salary is 600 rubles (approximately $20), irrespective of the number of surgeries he performs. A pair of boots costs the equivalent of two months salary or more.

Yuri had not been expecting us, so while we waited for him to arrive, I purchased ice cream cones for our children, Maria and Marko. I had not realized what an accomplishment this was until close to 20 people approached to ask where I had bought them. I felt sad to have to tell them that I had purchased the last two. After eating, we wanted to quench our thirst. The only place was a machine that dispensed mineral water into a communal cup. The machine was designed so the cup was automatically rinsed-more or less-between each use. (Ecologically correct, but not very sanitary.) Being accustomed to American standards and having been told what to expect, I had some paper cups in my suitcase. When I pulled one out, I was again approached by people asking where I had gotten the disposable cup.

Yuri drove us through the city in his 1976 sedan. Both our families had lived in Lviv at one time, and Russ found he had vivid memories of this ancient and architecturally splendid city. We were struck by the obvious neglect of the streets, but Yuri seemed to know how to miss the potholes. The roads are pitch dark at night, and the highways are devoid of dividing lines or markings of any kind.

With Yuri as our guide, we traveled through parts of western Ukraine and saw the countryside, towns, villages, and people of that region. Relief was evident everywhere we traveled. The coup had failed, and hope was emerging that positive changes will begin.

Yuri and our other relatives told us that the coup's leaders-the putschists -had ordered 250,000 handcuffs to chain members of their opposition. The putschists had also attempted to bring the people to their knees by ordering railroad carloads of chickens and other food to be destroyed.

The relatives who told us these stories were my husband's cousins, whom he had not seen or communicated with since 1944. For many years it was undesirable to have a relative or friend in the West since that meant coming under suspicion of having a CIA connection.

Yuri drove us to a village where Russ had gone for vacations as a child. We arrived completely unannounced-a party of five-but were greeted with warmth and hospitality. Our newly rediscovered family insisted that we spend at least one night. As we visited, the wife slaughtered a chicken and fed us a scrumptious meal that came mostly from the small plot of land that sustains the family.

Almost half a century had passed since my husband's visits to the village, but the streets are still unpaved, the water is still drawn from a well with a bucket, and the cousins' house has no indoor plumbing. They do have electricity however, since until recently everyone was required to have a TV set to receive government propaganda.

It is ironic that when my parents and Russ's family arrived in the United States in 1950 after years in displaced persons' camps, they had literally $2 per family member. In the course of the ensuing 40 years, our families were able to raise our standard of living to that of the American middle class, even though our parents were unable to continue in their professional careers. The relatives who remained in Ukraine did not have to go through years of culture shock, language barriers, and complete loss of material possessions, yet today their standard of living is probably below that of the worst of Appalachia.

Ukraine's topsoil, or chornozem, is rich and dark. Originally, it was feet, not inches, deep-the reason the Nazis transported carloads of it to Germany. The countryside is gently rolling-a farmer's dream. And yet the fields stand barren, the corn is wilted and dwarfed. Occasionaly one sees an old mare and a dilapidated wooden wagon, a few workers, and perhaps an old woman tending goats or ducks. You also see big and often elaborate signs: "Collective Farm in Honor of So and So." And you begin to understand.

Our relatives told us other stories. Every Christmas Eve, they said, schoolteachers were required to spy on their students to make certain that they would not go caroling or attend a religious service. Most churches were closed or converted to warehouses. Since the advent of perestroika and glasnost, however, almost every village has begun to build or renovate a church. The new construction is a compelling symbol of hope.

I cannot help but share with you the story of our search for a new toothbrush for my daughter. In a city of 750,000, five hours of looking ended without success. I was also on the lookout for aspirin, but none was available-never mind Tylenol or an antibiotic such as Ampicillin. The shelves are empty-even in Kiev, the capital city.

In Kiev, we stayed with a friend whose acquaintance we had made in 1990 when he was visiting the United States. Our host picked us up with a chauffeur at the wheel. His apartment was much more spacious than any others we visited. Until August 20, he was a member of the Communist party and the Ukrainian Parliament and thus more or less equivalent to one of our legislators.

Even though our host's status changed after the coup, he is still living well-but not by American standards. He and his wife and son share a three-bedroom apartment with their daughter, son-in law, and a newborn baby. The grandchild had just arrived home from the hospital, and the grandmother asked whether I would send some items of apparel for the baby as he had only diapers and blankets.

In our travels, we noted that the trees and foliage are gray with dust, and the heavily polluted air is oppressive, even out in the countryside. Ukrainians are rightfully concerned, and they welcomed Global ReLeaf. The National Ecocentre of Ukraine, a newly formed environmental organization based in Kiev with over 15 chapters throughout Ukraine, has become our Global ReLeaf Partner. The center's director, Yaroslav Movchan, and his staff are currently working on planning their first tree planting for this spring.

For someone whose roots are deeply tied to Ukraine, I feel gratitude for the opportunity to take to the people of Ukraine a program that is simple to implement and offers every individual the opportunity to do something positive for the environment and make a difference.

Near the end of our stay, we went to the Ukrainian parliament on the opening day of its fall session. Thousands of people were gathered in the square, waving a sea of blue and yellow flags. They stood quietly, by their mere presence expressing the hope that the long-banned Ukrainian flag would be hoisted to the roof of the parliament building-a visual symbol of the independence won the day we arrived in Ukraine. Their dream came true two days later.

As we left Kiev with tears in our eyes, we said farewell to people who only a few days before had been strangers. Our 10-year-old daughter said it best: "These people have nothing in comparison to us in the States, but they have so much heart. When can we come back?"

The seeds planted in the summer of 1991 have taken root-AFA now has three new Global ReLeaf International partners:

Ukraine: The National Ecocentre of Ukraine, located in Kiev, is non-governmental organization established by scientists and citizen activists. It has over 15 branches in cities throughout Ukraine.

Austria: The Austrain League for Conservation of Nature, based in Saltzburg, is also an NGO, Organized in 1913, the league works to save endangered species arid for forest preservation.

Czech and Slovak Federal Republic: The Slovak Union of Nature and Landscape Proectors is a volunteer organization, located in Bratislava, organized in 1969. Activities include the protection of natural resources, reforestation, and environmental education.

In late January AFA's oldest international partner, the Independent Ecological Center, based in Budapest, Hungary, will host a training workshop for current and prospective partners. Invited will be representatives from the above nations plus Germany, Poland, Lithuania, Spain, and the United Kingdom.

For information on how you can help, watch future issues.
COPYRIGHT 1992 American Forests
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Copyright 1992, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Title Annotation:American Forestry Association's Global ReLeaf program
Author:Sonevytsky, Chrystia
Publication:American Forests
Date:Jan 1, 1992
Previous Article:Soft-hat management for southern forests.
Next Article:The pine & the jay.

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