Always intrigued by a new language, I was struck by the phrase 'schimb valutar' as we walked for the first time along Stefan cel Mare, the main street of Moldova's capital, Chisinau. Every few yards it appeared on billboards and shop windows. I asked what it meant. 'Change money'-an invitation in kiosks, cafés, shops, banks, wherever.
The same root appeared in the masthead of a publication produced by friends of ours. 'Schimbarea "ncepe cu mine!'- 'change starts with me!' There could be no better maxim for what is needed at every level in the countries of Central and Eastern Europe-as well as in our own.
When the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, many in the West expected everything to change. We hoped that those who had so valiantly held out for political freedom in the former Soviet bloc would be able to show us in the more comfortable West how to use ours better - or, perhaps, how not to abuse it.
Instead we saw societies spring into being that seemed to have more in common with the Marxist caricature of capitalism than with the flawed but functioning world we knew at home. We started to hear the valid complaint that if the moral values on which democracy is built were neither expressed nor well understood in the West, we could hardly expect them to take immediate root in the East.
My husband and I were part of a group of West Europeans who wanted to respond to these needs, and were encouraged to do so by friends in Eastern and Central Europe. But how?
We agreed that the best investment was likely to be whatever we could contribute to the skills and understanding of young people - and that the values and inspiration needed must come from the best spiritual traditions of the region, rather than being imported from outside. But there the unanimity ended.
Some advocated bringing groups from Central and East Europe to Western countries to see what does and doesn't work in our democracies, and to examine the reasons why. Others felt that a new intellectual framework would be needed, into which people could fit the values they felt most important. Still others wanted to rely on more heart-to-heart contacts and the universal 'languages' of conviction and life experience.
These arguments were never concluded. The group agreed that each approach had its value, and set up Foundations for Freedom (F4F), linked to Initiatives of Change (IofC).
Over the last 10 years, the initiative has received an eager welcome in the countries of the former Soviet bloc and has run over 50 courses and seminars, the most recent last November for young politicians in the Ukraine. In each, participants are asked to select the values which they feel are most important for a democratic society - and the ones they come up with invariably lie at the heart of the great religions: for example, honesty, transparency, integrity, love, justice, respect, trust, responsibility for one's life and surroundings.
Many of the courses have led participants to take common action in their communities and to embark on an inner journey of spiritual discovery. Such groups now exist in Russia, Ukraine, Moldova and the Baltic States. My husband and I have been particularly involved in Moldova.
In Moldova, as in other countries where F4F has worked, it all began with an individual encounter. In 1994, Mircea Eladi, a post-graduate environmental student at Manchester University, attended a three-week 'international course' run by F4F in England. As we live in Manchester, we got to know him, and when he learned we would be in Ukraine the following year, he said, 'Come and meet my friends.'
A night train journey across the border took us into Moldova for the first time in May 1995, to Eladi's hometown of Balti and to Chisinau. Some months later he urged, 'These ideas are exactly what are needed in Moldova. Can you bring a course?' He selected a group of a dozen students from those who responded to a notice on the university board - and a three-day seminar took place in May 1997, with a 'faculty' brought by my husband.
For this and all courses the agreement was that we in the West would provide the visiting faculty, and cover fares, while those on the ground would find the venue and meet local costs. Eladi found a dilapidated Soviet conference centre some 30 kilometres outside the capital. Since the cost of hiring a caterer was prohibitive, he enlisted a friend who offered to cook, and his wife brought out supplies each day. On the first evening, just as everyone was about to introduce themselves, there was a power failure. A candle was passed from person to person, so that people could see who was speaking.
One of those who took part was Alexandra Tarasenco, who is now married with a small son. 'I caught a vision for my country,' she says. 'There is a special role I can play. I just need to uncover it. I have also been given the sense of belonging to a wider global family. I cannot think of F4F as just a programme.'
Ideas and energy flowed from person to person. The original group kept together, working out how to put their new discoveries of honesty and unselfishness into practice in one of the poorest countries in Europe. Their enthusiasm encouraged others to join them.
The average monthly wage for professionals in Moldova is $30. Day-to-day living is a constant struggle. Over 800,000 of a population of 4.3 million are reckoned to be working abroad, sending money home to support their families - one reason for the abundance of money-changers. With no natural fuel resources of its own, the country has on occasion gone short when Russia cut off supplies.
Agriculture represents 50 per cent of Moldova's GDP and gives work to 60 per cent of the population. On our most recent visit, last October, buckets of pears, apples and grapes were on sale everywhere, and every home proudly offered us a taste of this year's wine and juice. Despite the dry summer and gloomy predictions, the fruit and grape harvest had been a good one.
However, the average citizen finds life even harder under the present Communist government, voted back in 2001, than it was under the USSR. Those with power and influence would appear to benefit most from the change in government. And there is the continuing issue of the Transnistria region, one third of Moldova, where the Russian 14th Army is still entrenched and a semi-autonomous state exists.
Each time we visit Moldova we are impressed all over again by the generous hospitality in homes and the courtesy to older people on public transport, as well as by the army of sweepers who keep the streets cleared of falling leaves and rubbish.
In June 1998 the first full-length F4F visiting course in Moldova took place, following a pattern which had already proved of value elsewhere. Developed by a British architect, Erik Andren, these ten-day programmes on 'Man, Morality, Belief and Freedom' explore such questions as: What makes us human? Who am I? How do things change? What can I do? Each day starts with a time for Research and Development/Reflection and Decision when those taking part can share what they are learning.
At first it was difficult to get much feedback from participants, who had become accustomed under the Soviet system to accept what was presented and not to volunteer opinions of their own. But honest sharing from the faculty usually elicited some response. The courses allowed enough space for at least one day's outing, and recreational activities in the evening-music, games and even Scottish dancing.
Participants are usually selected by those who have attended earlier programmes - although there have been exceptions. One course took place in a resort. Liliana Botnaru, sent there by her parents for a holiday, noticed the course taking place in another part of the building, enquired what was going on and ended up taking part. Since then she has been one of the most enthusiastic members of the group and is now in India on an IofC programme.
The pool for the faculty, in addition to Andren, includes a number of full-time workers with Initiatives of Change, a doctoral graduate and two management consultants from the UK; and a retired naval officer from the Netherlands and his wife, an ordained minister.
Until now those presenting the training have mostly been English-speaking Westerners, so participants have been limited to those with a good command of the language. This has begun to change, as young men and women from across the area have become competent in delivering the courses in their own tongue-the aim from the outset.
The courses and seminars stress the importance of change in the individual which leads on to change in society. Participants vary in their response to this. Some see the urgency of social change and get involved in meeting obvious local needs - working with old people, school children, orphans or the mentally handicapped, for instance. Others want to tackle shortcomings in the political and economic fields. A three-day programme is just being launched for training in ethical and moral leadership.
The group in Chisinau soon realized the need to be sustainable. They set up an NGO, Civilizatia Noua (new civilization), to give legal and financial status. This has just celebrated its third birthday. They instigated regular meetings, often weekly, when practical and spiritual matters could be addressed.
Common action has also helped to strengthen the group. Not long after the first full course, for instance, the Moldovans offered at short notice to stage the annual 'regional meeting', which brings together the F4F network from around Eastern and Central Europe. 'If it had not been for working together on this event,' says Slava Balan, another who took part in the original seminar, 'I do not think we would have stuck together as a team.'
For the last five years, they have also worked together outside Moldova, joining young people from other countries in helping to run IofC's international conference centre in Caux, Switzerland. This has not only given them a deeper understanding of the world but has also enabled them to develop leadership skills and strengthen friendships across national boundaries. For the last three years a group, linked by email, has planned the first of the summer's conferences, on 'service, responsibility and leadership'. In 2003 more than 50 people from Central and Eastern Europe attended.
Stela Artemi, a Moldovan Economics student, says that her visit to Caux last summer 'totally changed' her. 'It influenced my thinking and the way I looked at people. I have learnt that each of us can give something to the other. I needed to understand that ordinary people can do something about life. This is what it is all about - changes in my life, in yours and in the entire world. You have a whole world beside you, a world waiting for better changes.'
The courses represent only a small part of the work of F4F. There have been countless follow-up visits to each group and region, as well as frequent email communications.
A young man from Britain, Bhavesh Patel, spent two winters in Moldova offering support and comradeship to the group in Chisinau - learning Romanian and the joys of the local market stalls in the process. 'Life in a country as poor as this one makes you put everything into perspective,' he says. The gritty determination of the young Moldovans in the face of poverty and corruption was an inspiration to him. The main lesson, he says, was that life is difficult. 'But the saints got on with it and we have to, too.'
Six Moldovans, along with 'graduates' from F4F courses in other countries, are taking part in IofC initiatives overseas. Christina Cojocaru, in Australia for nine months, writes of 'finding a higher purpose in life than my own ego and a much broader awareness of what is happening in the world - a sense of care for people and nations around me. I have an understanding that whatever I and each of us do matters and is part of a bigger picture. It is a great support for my spiritual search.'
Others, who have studied or worked abroad, are now returning to Moldova. Andrei Tarasenco, Alexandra's brother-in-law, spent two years working as a baker in Sweden. On his return, he became the project manager for a day centre for old people in Straseni, just outside Chisinau. The centre, funded mainly by a Dutch NGO, was created out of a derelict school and Civilizatia Noua have provided much practical help. 'I have been offered ten times the salary by other companies,' he says, 'but this is the kind of work I want to do for my country.'
Igor Ene completed a Masters degree in business studies in Germany, after working with a company in Chisinau. 'Meeting the F4F ideas back in 1998 marked my whole life and guided me on a journey,' he says. 'After being confronted with the four principles of honesty, purity, unselfishness and love [advocated by IofC], little by little many things started to change in me and in my life. I've grown spiritually and intellectually and become more aware of my thoughts, values and deeds. I improved my relationships with my family and with my friends. I follow the guiding advice that comes from my inner self. I developed a kind of personal relationship with God and keep the hope that he is guiding my life. This spiritual link proved of enormous support during my last two years in Germany.
'The F4F courses are very good at placing the first spark in the hearts and minds of people who participate. An increased number of these or similar courses, delivered for all kinds of people at all levels of our society, could be a good starting point in turning the situation around.'
More senior figures - including the parents and professors of Civilizatia Noua's activists - are starting to become intrigued. The group consulted Serghei Ostaf, Executive Director of the Resource Centre for the Development of Organizations, about a project to 'inspire initiatives and build partnerships' between NGOs in Moldova. CN was different from others, commented Ostaf, because they 'are not only thinking of bottom-line results'.
F4F's mission statement says: 'F4F aims to inspire purpose and vision in individuals and teams grounded in the values that underlie a truly free and just society and to nurture and support them in the process of transforming their own lives and societies.' The last ten years have been a learning experience for all concerned. They have called for courage and vision and persistence, as well as the constant readiness to accept changes in our own attitudes and behaviour.
The hope and promise is that this change will be infectious in countries hungry for a new spirit. Everyone, of whatever age and background, can have a part. Change does indeed start with me!
A power point presentation is available from Foundations for Freedom, 24 Greencoat Place, London SW1P 1RD.