The country of Ukraine is half a world away. However, for Jerry and Violetta Strait, it is close in thought.
After all, it is Violetta's homeland and the country in which they met and married in 1999.
Although Ukraine's opening to the west allowed them to meet, the Straits today admit that Ukraine's freedom has come with a price. As with many free nations once under the heavy yoke of the former Soviet Union, Ukraine struggles today to shrug off the burden of its communist past and shape a more prosperous future. Nevertheless, the Straits today see hope through the clouds of coal dust that permeate the air of Violetta's former home.
Mission work brought the Straits together, but their story predates their first meeting.
Jerry has worked a seasonal job with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game since 1984. In recent years, he spent his off months pursuing his first love -- mission work. In 1992, he spent five weeks in India, and in 1998 he spent several months in New Zealand.
When he returned to the United States after his sojourn to New Zealand, he visited his parents in Missouri before returning home to Alaska. The church he attends in Missouri has sponsored missionaries in Donetsk, a city of 1.1 million people in southeastern Ukraine, since 1994.
"They asked if I was interested in their work in Ukraine," Jerry said. "Well, it was more like, 'we want you to be interested.' They highly encouraged my interest in Ukraine."
Joining the mission work in Ukraine wasn't an easy decision, but he felt it was the right one. And, though marriage was the last thing on his mind, church friends from Missouri already were playing matchmaker for the longtime bachelor.
Violetta and Jerry Strait
"I actually first heard about Violetta, whom they called Violet, in 1994," he said. "They (the friends) told me about this beautiful Ukrainian woman whose specialty was teaching Ukrainian language."
Jerry worked in Alaska as usual the summer of 1998, planning to travel to Ukraine in January. In December, he visited the church in Missouri before leaving for the trip. His church friends there showed him clips from a weekly television program produced by the church in Donetsk. One of the clips was a Bible object lesson for children, produced by Violetta.
"I saw her running toward the camera with all these little children. I thought, 'If this is that Violet I've heard about, I'm dead.' All the way there I was thinking about her, though I tried not to," he said.
Violetta first met Jerry at the train station in Donetsk. Jerry was immediately impressed.
"I wanted to say her name in Ukrainian, but I froze. All I could say was 'Hi Violet.'"
Her first impression of him?
"Not very good," she said. "He was wearing this huge down parka, and he had a beard. I hate beards. Not very many Ukrainian men have them."
When Violetta told him that she hated beards, Jerry shaved his.
The old Russian Orthodox church stands out amid newer city buildings in the city of Kharkov, Ukraine.
Photo courtesy of Jerry and Violetta Strait
"After that," she said, "I liked him!"
Two days after their meeting, they went on a mission trip to an outlying community. Jerry preached, and Violetta helped to translate afterward.
"I managed to sit next to her on the Jeep ride there and at the church," Jerry said.
A whirlwind courtship ensued. Five weeks later they were engaged, three weeks after that, married. Then came the difficult process of obtaining the appropriate paperwork necessary for Violetta to join Jerry in the United States.
Navigating the sometimes intractable Ukrainian bureaucracy proved problematic, and the Straits received final approval from the U.S. embassy just minutes before a fire broke out causing the embassy's closure.
"God has been with us," Jerry said.
After waiting for four months for the processing of her visa, Violetta joined Jerry in Alaska in August of 1999. This winter, they spent January, February and March back in her home country, continuing missionary efforts. Both show a deep and abiding concern for the difficult and sometimes desperate economic situation in the country.
Ukraine, with a population of 52 million was once referred to as "the breadbasket of the U.S.S.R." While the soil is indeed fertile, many people go hungry because they have no money to buy food.
"There is tremendous suffering," Jerry said. "The government, no, the whole country is incredibly inefficient."
Inflation, rampant substance abuse, advent of the "New Russian" mafia, high taxes and lack of understanding about a market economy have all contributed to a crippling economic recession. Last year, inflation increased 9 percent, while the economic growth rate dipped to 4 percent.
"Communism ruined the country," Jerry said. "No one has any initiative. The whole idea was to serve Mother Russia, but it (communism) failed miserably because they removed God from the system and from society."
Violetta echoes his observations, noting that the people who do work hard see little gain.
"Honest people (may) try to have a small business," she said. "After taxes, they only make enough to survive."
Government workers fare a little better. Mafia protectionism and government corruption siphon off much of the country's productive resources, leaving little money left to pay workers. Jerry said people interested in helping to ease the suffering in Ukraine always should donate to a cause they are familiar with.
"People may give $100 to the government for an orphanage, and it might receive $2," he said.
Communism left its imprint on Ukraine in a myriad of ways. One of the most damaging legacies has been the environmental degradation left by decades of irresponsible industrial development. The effects of the most famous environmental catastrophe in Ukraine, the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster, will span generations.
In southern Ukraine, near Donetsk, coal mining and coal burning present different, but no less severe problems.
"We have a joke," Violetta said. "What is soft, but not fur; flies, but has no wings; black, but is not coal? The answer is snow."
Poor air quality affects all the region's residents, but the thousands of coal miners are especially at risk for developing health problems.
Despite their economic and environmental problems, Ukrainians remain fiercely independent, well-educated and proud of their history and language. Violetta has the equivalent of at least a master's degree in Ukrainian language. She relates that during many years of communism, the U.S.S.R. subordinated Ukrainian culture and language to Russian culture and language, transplanting large numbers of ethnic Russians to Ukraine in an effort to encourage loyalty to Mother Russia.
Today, western Ukraine remains primarily ethnically Ukrainian, while eastern Ukraine is a mix of ethnically Ukrainian and Russian people.
Although the Straits acknowledge and lament the country's plight, they see hope, especially among the Christians they work with.
"The Christians are the only ones with hope," said Jerry. "They know that there's more to this life than what they're stuck with."
The Straits try to do what they can to help the physical needs of some of those hardest hit by the country's economic woes. Last year, they raised money to buy food for a children's hospital through their church, Kenai Fellowship Church of Christ.
"The hospital is supposed to provide food for the children," Violetta said, "but they don't have enough money to buy more than a few slices of bread a day."
Parents who can afford to bring their children food, but many of the young patients are orphans and have no resources. Though the Straits can't fill the tremendous need in Ukraine single-handedly, they do what they can to have a positive impact on the lives of the people they come into contact with. They believe that through their work, they can bring something precious to Ukraine: hope.
Becky Hultberg is a free-lance writer who graduated from Kenai Central High School and now lives in Kenai with her husband and daughter.
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