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Azerbaijan: Tezegul's dream

© UNICEF/SWZK00302/Pirozzi
".... one day I'll have a family of my own, like that girl from a movie."

By Ayna Mollazade

SHEKI - Tezegul says the only moments when she feels happy during the day is from 8 to 9 p.m. This is the time when her favorite Brazilian soap opera is aired and all children living at the Sheki Boarding School gather around the TV.
Tezegul says her dreams take her away from the sad reality she lives in: “When I watch TV I imagine myself to be one of the characters in the movie…I am a beautiful girl who lives in a family where everybody loves her,” she says with a serious expression on her pale face. She looks much older than other children of her age.

"I am a beautiful girl who lives in a family where everybody loves her"
Tezegul Orudjeva, aged 14, lives at the boarding school for children without parental care in Sheki, 330 km northwest of the capital, Baku. This institution is also ‘home’ to about 150 children, many of whom share Tezegul's fate of being abandoned by their parents. Some families, though, reunite during summer, when parents or close relatives take the children back to spend some time at home.
When Tezegul’s mother died seven years ago, her father, as so many other Azerbaijani men, left for Russia in search of a job. As none of the relatives could afford to take charge of her, it was decided to place the 7-year-old in an institution.
Today there are between 18,000 and 20,000 children in institutions in Azerbaijan and more than half of them have parents.
Poverty, family break-up and disability are believed to be the main reasons for children ending up in institutions. “Most children in our school have one or both parents. But they are either unemployed or just do not have the money to feed them,” says Abid Yusifov, director of the boarding school.
However, a recent situation analysis suggests the reasons for institutionalization in the country are more complex than this.
“These children are in institutions because at the community level there is lack of adequate social support to help families facing difficult circumstances. Another reason is absence of gate-keeping mechanisms and alternative family-base social services,” says Dilara Babaeva, UNICEF Child Protection Officer.

© UNICEF/SWZK00301/Pirozzi
Tezegul and her friend at the boarding school in Sheki

Shy and non-talkative, Tezegul gets carried away when conversation turns to her favorite subject – movies. “I know one day I’ll have a family and a house of my own…like that girl in the movie and I won’t have to live here,” she says dreamily.
Tezegul says she wants to treat people who are ill. “I want to get an education and become a doctor. When my mother was sick, there was nobody to look after her because we didn’t have enough money…,” says this fragile girl with sad brown eyes.

But the chances of getting proper a education for her, as well as for thousands of other institutionalized children, are slim. In four years she will graduate from school and will have to face the harsh realities of life on her own without the necessary skills to cope with the challenges of the outside world. “Once they are out of the institution, they continue to be excluded from society,” says Babaeva. “Institutions are an unsatisfactory measure that do little for these children.”

Most institutions in the country are dilapidated and shabby and lack professionally-trained staff. It often becomes a real struggle for a child to live in such conditions.Sheki Boarding School is no different, being just another bleak house. There is a suffocating smell in the dormitory. You would not see any toys here in a conventional sense of the word. But you could find hand made rag dolls, laces and sweet wrappings that children fashion into imaginary toys…
Studies show that raising a child in an institution cannot provide the care that a healthy family environment provides. “No amount of donations or improvements of the institutions can compare to living under the care and protection of a family. Nothing can substitute for a family,” says Babaeva.

"Nothing can substitute for a family."  Dilara Babaeva, UNICEF Child Protection Officer.
Through its child protection programme UNICEF is promoting alternative solutions to institutional care in the country supporting de-institutionalization reform, such as improvement of “gatekeeping” mechanisms, advocating for legislative reform an development of a system of community based social workers who can work with vulnerable families to ensure they are supported and do not place their children in institutions.

UNICEF assists the caregivers at the Sheki boarding school to build their capacities in family-based services, as well as educating the parents who take their children home from time to time on child development.



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