Helping Central Asia’s forgotten children

Published: 23 June 2004 0:00 CET

Eddy Posthuma de Boer

You see them working and begging on market places, hanging round railway stations, labouring in the harvest fields.

They should be in school but poverty, neglect or trouble at home has obliged them to fend for themselves. They are Central Asia’s forgotten children.

When more than half the population lives below the poverty line, when unemployment is astronomical, when drug and alcohol abuse are prevalent, when crime is rising, and going to school for many is unaffordable, the consequences for children are predictable.

Karakol, the capital of Issyk-Kul, Kyrgyzstan’s easternmost province, has all of those things and other worrying signs. Sometimes, reports the Red Crescent, youngsters are simply abandoned.

“What chance do they have without care and education?” asks Jypara Kadyralieva, the organization’s provincial chairlady.

Her Issyk-Kul branch runs a school for underprivileged children who would otherwise not attend one.

Part of a programme to develop community services supported by the Netherlands Red Cross, it was begun for Karakol’s street children but the need is such that its doors are now open to any child in trouble.

Sixteen-year-old Azamat Soronbaev is in trouble. So are his five brothers and sisters, Aigul, 18, Aida, 14, Nargiza, 12, Altynbek, 10, and five-year-old Almaz.

Their unemployed father has disappeared and their mother, an alcoholic, is serving a six-year prison sentence for stealing a saddle, apparently while she was drunk.

All but Almaz attended the Red Crescent school but as their poverty deepened the older children dropped out to earn the money they need to survive.

Nargiza and Altynbek stayed on but for the past few days they, too, have been missing from the classroom. Jypara Kadyralieva goes in search of them in a rundown apartment building in one of the rougher corners of town.

It is five past seven in the evening and Azamat has just come home. He is dirty and tired after a 12-hour day in a potato field that has earned him 50 soms, around a dollar and a quarter. It is seasonal work and he’s working every hour he can.

Nargiza and Altynbek sit next to him. They are quiet, closed children and Altynbek is known for aggressive outbursts at school. Nargiza has a wound on her leg from a fall but it isn’t the only reason for her absence.

The children have no winter clothes or a decent pair of shoes to put on and it has been too cold and wet to leave home.

Kadyralieva tells them to come tomorrow and bring their eldest sister with them. A doctor will see to Nargiza’s leg and they can select warm clothes from Red Crescent stocks to get all five through the winter.

“And what about you?” she asks Azamat. “Will we see you back in school?” The boy did attend for one full year and seemed to be doing well.

But no. He and the older girls must work. They need money for food and to pay something off their electricity bill. The power company is threatening to cut them off just as winter is starting.

Keeping children in school is an ongoing challenge for the Issyk-Kul Red Crescent. Sometimes the answer is obvious. Street children stay if there is something to eat because most of the time they are hungry. Other problems run much deeper.

The school occupies three rooms of a Red Crescent headquarters complex where, as well as free education, poor children can get medical care, use of a bathhouse and laundry, and, like Nargiza, second-hand clothing.

The syllabus is a basic one, approved by the Ministry of Education, and designed to lead children, if they wish, into the normal school system.

Aged from six to 16 at present, most of the children have had no previous schooling. The $20 or more a year that school costs can amount to elsewhere was beyond the reach of their parents. Lessons in reading, writing and arithmetic, and the life skills children need to progress, consequently move at a modest pace.

“They need more time than other children,” teacher Vika Harchenko, 25, explains, “What you might teach in one lesson you may need two or three for here. Every child is different and the approach must be individual.”

All children, however, have dreams. Elena, 15, who dropped out of the state school system, has more than made up for two lost years. She’s a bubbly little blonde with laughing eyes.

“I want to go to high school and university. I want to be a student,” she says. “I want …” She stops to think. “… to be a Russian and English interpreter, just like this lady here.”

Living a nightmare

Some children have dreams. Some children have nightmares.

In Bishkek, the Kyrgyz capital, 13-year-old Saira (not her real name) is coming to terms with a nightmare. As a street child she was sold into prostitution and trafficked to the United Arab Emirates.

How a child ends up alone on the streets is always a shocking story but Saira’s reflects a growing threat from traffickers in human beings.

Saira’s mother was in prison – she was still inside at the time of writing – and the girl was in the care of her grandmother. When the grandmother became extremely ill Saira was forced to care for herself and very soon landed in trouble.

One day a woman approached her. She was kind and the girl, then 11, poured out her heart. The woman came up with a solution. Good jobs could be found in the Emirates, she said, by a girl with her intelligence, and in no time at all she could earn enough to come back and get her mother out of prison.

Suffice to say the next 12 months left the little girl traumatized and an inhuman trade, thought to be worth between US$5 and 7 billion a year to organized crime worldwide, claimed another victim.

She was eventually found in a UAE gaol by the International Organization for Migration, a leading player in the global response to trafficking, and is today in a Bishkek home for the rehabilitation of street children.

Other case stories from the state-run centre the Kyrgyz Red Crescent assists, tell of abandonment and of children running from domestic horror.

There are thought to be around 2,500 youngsters living on the streets of Bishkek, more than half from other parts of the country. As long as the socio-economic crisis prevails the numbers will go on climbing, warns the Red Crescent’s city chairlady, Natalya Bibikova.

Jypara Kadyralieva concurs. Back in Issyk-Kul she is looking for donors to support a street children crisis centre, a shelter providing food and a bed, and medical and psychological care.

Stigma of handicap

The evidence is anecdotal but across Central Asia a growing number of physically and mentally challenged children are also reported to be suffering. They are not on the streets.

Often they are prisoners in their own homes.

The authorities have schools and institutions specially for the handicapped. There are financial allowances for them. But these cash-strapped states are unable to provide enough.

Moreover, the number of youngsters is probably underestimated. The authorities argue that when financial support is available all parents will register handicapped children.

What that fails to acknowledge is the stigma surrounding handicaps, particularly mental ones, and the fear of discrimination.

In Shabat, a district of Khorezm province, western Uzbekistan, Red Crescent representative Shukhrat Hudoyarov tells how shame takes its toll. “People are afraid of gossip,” he says.

“If one child is mentally handicapped, the stigma may affect the others. It may mean they are less marriageable because if one child in a family has a handicap others may be suspected of having a problem as well. It is an appalling way for people to think but they do.”

The consequence is that some challenged children are kept quietly at home.

What also worries the Red Crescent is the inaccessibility of services. Take the town of Chirchik, 35 kilometres from Tashkent where poor handicapped youngsters are marginalized. Their parents cannot afford the state’s provincial care, and often it is far away.

The welfare of handicapped children is an Uzbek Red Crescent priority and it has a number of centres around the country.

Chirchik is the newest of them providing free day care, education and medical service. Part of a branch development programme supported by the Netherlands Red Cross, it helps vulnerable children who get no assistance elsewhere.

Twelve-year-old Kurba is mentally challenged and before the Red Crescent opened its doors had never been in a classroom. Conventional schools would not enrol her so her mother kept her at home.

Although her speech is slow and awkward, she is eager to learn, and absorbed by reading and writing lessons. But the important thing, say her teachers, is to bring her out of her isolation. What matters most in Kurba’s young life is the feeling she can participate, in a world which until now has rejected her.

Next to her sits Zukrat. He is five. He has problems with his heart and needs surgery. His mother has no money for it. Divorced and bringing up five children, she struggles to make ends meet and cannot afford a place for her son in a specialized kindergarten, either.

Like Kurba, if Zukrat wasn’t here he would be at home, confined within walls as much as if he were in prison.

Reports of handicapped children being shunned are also common. Other youngsters’ parents discourage contact and prevent them playing together. Breaking down such social walls always has been a goal of the Uzbek Red Crescent, says Prof Michael Kremkov, the organization’s vice chairman.

A Red Crescent centre for social and psychological rehabilitation at Yangiyul, near Tashkent, shows the way. Contact with non-challenged children is part of the programme and many handicapped youngsters are helped develop to the point where they can enter normal schools.

A forgotten child, Prof Kremkov argues, is a forgotten national asset.