My Journey by Rae Hussey – Chapter 3

Map of Belarus and surrounding region

By April 1999, I was sure that the Lord had a place for me in Belarus. It was a long process from my first visit to Belarus, to my visit to the Principal’s office to ask for a year’s leave without pay. I still did not think I had so much to offer the nation of Belarus that I would need to be there for longer than a year. I could see that I might help the church begin a Christian school, and I knew I could certainly train those who worked with children, but thought all of that would surely happen within twelve months: hence, the request for one year’s leave.

An invitation and a visa was always going to present a problem; something I had learned during my first two visits. There were two points in my favour. Firstly, my current passport was full, so needed renewal. That meant I would have a clean passport to offer to border control on my entry to Minsk. Secondly, as I had learned from the previous visit, the computer system of the Belarusian Immigration Department did not seem to be highly sophisticated, so my ‘priors’ would not be in evidence. The overriding factor of course, was that the Lord had called me, so I could expect Him to work on my behalf.

My friends in Minsk organised an invitation from one of their friends who headed a registered non-government organisation. It duly arrived, and invited me to help set up an orphanage in Belarus. I was beside myself with excitement. Later, as I settled in to Minsk, I began to realise how unrealistic that invitation was, but it was enough to get me into the country. I arrived at Minsk airport, with invitation, on January 16th, 2000 to begin my new life at the beginning of a new century. I was granted a three-month visa, so was aware that I would need to leave the country in April unless I had been able to extend that visa.

Belarus is a communist country, slightly smaller than our state of Victoria. The population is a little more than ten million, with most people living in the larger cities. Until 1991, at the fall of the Soviet Union, Belarus was a member state of the Union of Socialist Soviet Republics (USSR). In fact, Minsk played a major role in the formation of the Soviet Union. On December 28th, 1922, the leaders of four Soviet Republics met in Minsk and signed the Soviet Union into being. It was recognised by the rest of the world over the following two years, until the British Empire finally recognised it in 1924. Until 1991, fifteen states worked together under the leadership of the Communist Party of Moscow. Belarus was one of the centres of manufacturing for that Union, producing and selling heavy machinery to the other member states. That was the basis of the Belarusian economy, supplemented by agriculture. In 1986, when a nuclear reactor blew and Chernobyl became the centre of world attention, Belarus suffered devastation both in its peoples and its lands. The radioactive fallout blew north, ruining 25% of Belarusian arable land. Today, thousands of Belarusians still suffer from radiation related illnesses and deformities. Many sources within Belarus claim that at least half the Belarusian economy is now related to remedying the Chernobyl disaster.

When Belarus became independent again in 1991, a strong communist government was already ruling. Headed by Alexandr Lukashenko, the government does hold elections, however, these are not transparent, neither are they honest and fair, nor are they democratic. All Belarusians know the results of any election before it is even held. People are visited and intimidated by government officials, in many cases being forced to vote for the current government, even before Election Day. Opposition members are incarcerated, and journalists are oppressed. There is little freedom in the tiny nation.

Although it is a communist country, Belarus has an official religion. Russian Orthodoxy is the State religion. All other churches fight to exist; something I learned a lot about during my seven-year stay. Preaching Christianity is banned, particularly to those aged under 16. If parents want their children to attend a Sunday School, they must have permission forms from local authorities. Acquiring any permits from local authorities involves much time and many visits to many different offices, often in far-flung sections of the city. It is not possible to call on neighbours on a Sunday morning and invite their children to Sunday School. However, there seem to be two exceptions to the ‘no preaching to children’ rule. A child in hospital and a child in a sanatorium seem to be officially allowed to hear Christian stories. Is this written in the statutes? Of course not, but it seems to be the choice of the director of each establishment. This became a very welcome open door through which we moved many times and I’ll share more of those stories over the coming chapters.

Winter in Belarus

January is mid-winter in the northern hemisphere. Temperatures are down below freezing for months on end. I arrived with winter clothing from Melbourne, nowhere near warm enough to go out into the cold Minsk days. I had always imagined that missionaries arrived at their destinations, and immediately went to work, converting people, building churches and generally shining for the kingdom of God. How wrong I had been. Living takes a lot of time and energy in a new culture in a new country. I was blessed to have an interpreter whom I had employed to share my apartment, my job and my life. I am sure she had not realised how difficult a job that was going to be when she accepted my offer. Teaching me to live like a Belarusian took not only her efforts, but the efforts of many of her friends also.

First task was to find a warm coat and boots. So, on Day One we ventured out to the markets and the shoe stores. In Knox that had been easy where there were many stores and many items of clothing from which to choose. In Minsk the shopping spree involved many buses, much walking through snow and a great deal of haggling. Eventually I found a coat that fitted me, even though my short legs dragged the hem along the ground for the first winter. Boots were more difficult but some time late in the day I found those also – brown lace ups to match my new brown fur coat. I was equipped and Day One was over. Perhaps I would be able to begin work on Day Two.

Day Two very quickly became Week Two, and then before I knew it, Month Two. The Belarusians who had invited me did not really seem very interested in what I had to offer but perhaps, as I look back, they realised that I was not yet ready for anything that looked like work. I was still learning to live. Grocery shopping was a challenge; setting up the apartment was time-consuming and travelling around the city like being on another planet. I was very aware that this was not Australia.

It took me a while to learn that time in Belarus does not mean the same as it does in Australia. There seems to be no hurry. I was very conscious of the short time I had – a year was what I was expecting. My colleagues seemed to have no deadline, until the last minute. Then everything had to happen at once. My first official involvement was in a two-day fair, where non-government organisations were profiled. This was held in a very large, incomplete building. I was invited to participate about two days before the opening, and really had no idea what I was supposed to do. I was to join a Panel of Experts to look at each stall, evaluate their displays, question the participants and then, in conjunction with the rest of the small panel, award prizes to outstanding organisations. Of course I had to do all this through my interpreter. She was certainly learning a lot. I was struggling to keep up with her. Because I did not understand the language, it appeared to me that there was no organisation at this fair. Stalls seemed to be set up randomly. There were people everywhere, and no one seemed to know what was happening. At the end of the two days I was exhausted. I had met a lot of new people, most of whom were called Lena or Andrei. I had learned a lot about the workings of NGOs in Belarus, and was excitedly hoping that now we would begin to set up the orphanage to which I had been invited. I had not seen an orphanage in Minsk, but had heard that there were some. I had no idea how to find one, or how to get inside the front door, but I was determined to begin trying. I began by praying for the Lord to lead us to one, and He certainly did.

– Rae