The collapse of the Soviet Union saw aspirations of independence realised across several Central Asian states.
Yet widespread poverty still endures across the region. Unemployment is high, wages are low and a post-Soviet mentality lingers, with people still looking to the state to provide for them, and sharing social problems associated with changes in society and loss of values.
Alcohol and drug abuse, sexually transmitted diseases, violence, crime, family breakdown and homelessness are all rising. The spread of HIV is increasing. Tearfund is working to address such issues with partners.
Here we report on progress, although due to security reasons we are not able to name specific areas, individuals or partners.
Aiday with her brothers. Photo: Joanna Watson/Tearfund
Family breakdowns can often leave children in crisis.
A Tearfund partner provides care and support where too often there is no other help available.
For 14 years, its leaders Artem and Asya have developed relationships at various levels within the community to protect the welfare of families and children.
The partner runs a fostering service, mobilising local church congregations to become foster parents, and work with local authority social workers to identify people who might be suitable. This partnership led to a system of safety checks being developed to ensure the placements are in the best interests of each child.
In addition, our partner runs a small crisis centre which offers shelter, food, clothing, education and medical care to youngsters awaiting foster care.
For children without birth certificates or other official documentation, the centre sorts out their paperwork so their identity is recognised.
Life skills are also taught in a happy and peaceful atmosphere to children such as 15-year-old Aiday.
When she arrived at the centre, she was unable to speak due to the traumas she had lived through, including the imprisonment of her father and death of her grandmother.
She has since been reunited with her father, who was taken in by a local church after being found on the streets as a homeless alcoholic following his release from jail. He’s going through rehab and with [our Tearfund partner]’s help is rebuilding his relationship with Aiday.
A visibly upbeat Aiday said, ‘The centre has really helped me. Now I go to school, I’ve found my voice again. I’m able to put the trauma behind me.’
The partner also employs social workers who help families living in poverty.
Often in freezing temperatures, they visit people like Elmira who lives in an unheated two-room home. Elmira’s husband left her with two children to raise, but she had no job or income.
Elmira survived, just, by begging for bread but her weight plummeted to 42kgs and she admits she contemplated suicide.
But with the help of a small monthly payment from our partner, Elmira began a business selling meals at a local market and saving a little of the income each month.
The enterprise is doing well and Elmira has loyal customers. When asked what difference the Tearfund partner has made to her life, she replies: ‘Everything. Before I was hopeless, I was destitute. I was giving up on life. Now I have a reason to live.’
Besides practical care, our partner is also representing the needs of children in the corridors of national government, making its voice heard in the drafting of new legislation governing foster care.
ALL THE WORLD'S A STAGE
Treading the boards is one of the more unusual ways of getting across poverty-reduction messages being used by a Tearfund partner in the Central Asian states.
An interactive theatre company stages productions which address issues ranging from protection of children, prevention of HIV, inter-ethnic harmony and the promotion of human rights.
Schools, prisons, hospitals, children’s homes, rehab centres, homes for the elderly, even military bases are venues for the company, which was founded by an actor and playwright (who cannot be named for security purposes) who has experience of working in TV and radio.
He has grown the theatre group into one which performs across the country, helping people to increase their understanding and knowledge of poverty reduction.
He says he often returns to villages months or years after a show, to be greeted by people who remember it and who tell him they share the messages that they heard through the show.
For example, he recalls one lady who heard about the stigma of people living with HIV and who had decided to go into schools in her town to share the message.
Although Tearfund’s grant to his’s theatre company is relatively small, he says he is grateful for it because the company could not exist without it.
‘What we get, we use to reach a really diverse audience,’ he adds. ‘We plant seeds. Only God can grow them and we simply pray that he does.’
An HIV awareness class for students. Photo: Joanna Watson/Tearfund
TACKLING HIV, HELPING MOTHERS AND REFUGEES
Dirty wooden floorboards, paint peeling off the walls and a pervasive smell of sweat and urine. As learning environments go, this doesn’t sound too promising.
But it is the neglected schooling reality for hundreds of poor children in the city of one Central Asian state where Tearfund works, where many families in poverty simply can’t afford to send their kids to good schools with better conditions and with well paid and more motivated teachers.
One particular classroom is full, with about 100 secondary age pupils. They have come to hear a lecturer, organised by a Tearfund partner, talk about HIV and AIDS.
Our partner is specifically targeting those who may already have HIV and those who are at risk of contracting it and this school is typical of those it visits.
Many of the students listen attentively as they are taught how the virus is spread, as for many of them this will be the first time they have heard such information. They also hear about how they can minimise their risk of contracting HIV and about the stigmatisation of those living with the condition.
Afterwards some come forward to ask for HIV tests, while others think hard about what they have heard and discuss it animatedly with their friends.
Thirteen-year-old Anna became sexually active at 12 and is worried about the implications of what she has heard.
Later, a worker from the Tearfund partner accompanies her to a clinic for an HIV test, which to Anna’s relief proves negative.
Our partner also runs social outreach to expectant mothers through its crisis centre. Here young women like Carina, who was abandoned by her father after she became pregnant, receive counselling.
Theresa is a social worker who has helped Carina weigh up her options. Ultimately she decided to keep her child and now has a year-old son called Alik of whom she is very proud.
Carina said, ‘I don’t know where I would be without the crisis centre. Teresa helped me so much. Alik is my world now.’
Carina is now getting help from her to find permanent accommodation.
Another family on Theresa’s casebook is led by Lydia, a grandmother and one of eight people living in a makeshift carriage, the size of a small static caravan, situated on scrubland.
They live out of the way down a muddy track near a polluted river. Outside there is a stinking toilet, covered with a tarpaulin sheet.
Lydia tells how she and her family had to flee their homeland and came to this Central Asian state illegally.
Theresa is offering a lifeline to this marginalised and forgotten family, visiting them regularly and even though they have no papers, she helps them get medical treatment.
She has also linked them up with one of our partner’s resource centres, which is teaching members of the family skills that could help them earn money.
The resource centres have a 95 per cent success rate of people going on to get jobs or creating their own small business, offering them options ranging from hairdressing and sewing to IT skills.
‘Tearfund’s support is absolutely vital,’ says Svetlana, our partner’s director. ‘Without the grant we get from Tearfund, we wouldn’t be able to operate. It’s as simple as that.’
BRINGING HOPE TO THE PRISONERS
One of the legacies of the Soviet era in Central Asia is the stripping away of prisoners’ rights.
Inmates see their ID documents and passports destroyed when they go inside which means when they are eventually freed they have little hope of rebuilding a decent life.
No ID means they find it almost impossible to find work or accommodation, open a bank account, get medical treatment or access education. They are regarded as outcasts, forgotten and disregarded.
One Tearfund partner is meeting the needs of such marginalised people, many of whom are also struggling with drug and alcohol addictions.
Besides developing relationships with the police and justice authorities to help former inmates get their ID documents back, our partner provides practical help to re-establish them as members of the community.
A rehab centre, based away from the temptations of city life, offers a nine-month programme where ex-prisoners undergo a 12-step course to escape addiction.
The men live in clean and simple dormitory-style accommodation that they have built themselves with Tearfund financial help and also work three hectares of land to produce food.
The rehab centre is linked with a large city-based church where men can learn livelihood skills, such as carpentry and joinery. The church also offers half-way housing and works with the men to enable them to become self-sufficient.
The effectiveness of our partner’s project comes across when speaking to some of the participants.
Roslan, who is in his 30s, tells how his alcoholism led to him being disfigured. One night while drunk, he fell and no one helped him. As the temperature dropped, he got frostbite and had to have all his fingers and toes amputated.
Now disabled, with no one to help him, he ended up in prison where he encountered the work of Tearfund’s partner.
Roslan said, ‘They took me in when I was at my most vulnerable. I was at the bottom of the pile. They gave me hope. They accepted me for who I was and that meant everything to me.’
The rehab programme has helped him overcome his drink problem: ‘I sleep with peace now. I used to have terrible nightmares.’
Sergei is 20 and spent his childhood years as a runaway from family strife living on the streets.
He got into drugs and alcohol and then started stealing to make ends meet, which landed him in prison. There he heard about Tearfund’s partner who he contacted upon release.
The 12-step programme sorted his addiction and he is now learning to be a carpenter, with hopes of getting married and starting a family.
Sergei said, ‘I’m a changed man. From the bottom of my heart I thank Tearfund for supporting this work. Without it I would be back in prison or worse.’