Celebrating Diversity in a Renovated School
On 21 May 2013, a seven-language chorus of greetings and a spectacular show were performed by children in a rich variety of national costumes in a small school surrounded by silent endless cotton fields, in Tajik-Abad village in southern Kyrgyzstan. Children and teachers welcomed guests from Japan, UNICEF, the media and community members to celebrate the end of the school year.
That day, Japanese Ambassador Mr. Koike visited several schools in Osh province to see the first results of a joint Japan-UNICEF project aimed at renovating 53 of the most dilapidated schools and kindergartens in southern Kyrgyzstan as well as to provide general education assistance. He saw newly repaired heating systems, roofs, classrooms with new furniture, new lavatories and hand-washing facilities. Teachers demonstrated lessons on hygiene promotion and disaster risk prevention. Community representatives who actively participated in the project discussed with him their achievements, impressions and challenges faced.
Tajik-Abad village was affected by June 2010 inter-ethnic violence during which two young men were killed and the community is now striving to support their wives and children. Since those tragic events, the school has acted as a focal point within the community to bring local people together rather than apart. The school introduced classes in the Kyrgyz and Russian languages while continuing the education of children in their native tongues. Multilingual education has become the guiding spirit of the school, has supported diversity and enriched lives.
The road to the school in Tajik-Abad village is not a good one, particularly after heavy rain. It is not much more than a dirt path, painted with the footprints of small children who have hurried to their lessons. Children were known to have become stuck in the quagmire with mud up to their knees. At the school itself however, it is a different story. One becomes bewildered by the contrast the school makes, like an oasis or magic kingdom.
The Japan-UNICEF project helped with the renovation and construction which included a new roof to replace the old leaking one, a year round reliable water supply, construction of a new lavatory and wash rooms complete with lighting, bright coloured tiles and heaters to keep the rooms warm during the long winters. In addition, new furniture was supplied for each classroom. All this work was completed within a year. Prior to this, the school had been all but abandoned in terms of support.
Despite the amazing change in the schools appearance, it is the introduction of multilingual education that has instilled a sense of pride to all, resulting in a growing interest in children learning different languages.
During the visit of the Japanese Ambassador, the children gave a small concert. Abdyhalil kyzy Shahodat, a young first year student, cited verses from the Manas Epic in the Kyrgyz language. Like ‘manaschi’ (traditional Kyrgyz tellers of the Epic), she seemed to temporarily depart reality to live through the battles and dramas of ancient times past. Stunned by the applause from the elated visitors, she modestly received congratulations from her peers and onlookers in Kyrgyz, Russian, Uzbek (her native language), Tajik as well as Japanese and English.
The Principal Ms. Nurzhan Isrilova stated “We are very thankful for the help. It is now hard to imagine the times when our children were freezing in cold classrooms with leaking roofs and were afraid to sit down on broken chairs. But we are even happier to have the pleasure to see all the guests here in our school. Not many people from other countries come to visit us and share our joy and concerns. It is also symbolic that your visit coincided with a workshop that our school is hosting for teachers from eight schools from neighbouring villages to prepare for the Festival of Friendship and summer camps on peace and tolerance.”
The children looked sincerely proud of their school. They thanked the Ambassador and strived to show that they could speak Japanese as well as Uzbek, Tajik, Kyrgyz and Russian. “It is fun to learn and pleasant to hear” commented one boy talking about his experience of learning a small verse in Japanese. The kids around him agreed, expressing their joy in various languages. Then, the children demonstrated their drawings which contained the motto “Different but Equal”.
After the conflict of 2010, UNICEF has been supporting peace by addressing the underlying causes – impoverished life conditions and lack of access to services through the generous support from the Government of Japan and other donors. While visiting the supported schools, UNICEF Representative Jonathan Veitch noted “It is amazing to see children speaking several languages without even noticing how they switch from one language to another. It is a real step towards strengthening peace and tolerance, and it is also the door for these children to brighter futures”. He and Mr. Koike who could not follow all the languages did not really need the translation. The happy eyes of confident and joyful children spoke out in the most beautiful language that all people can understand.