UNICEF Executive Director Anthony Lake visits youth centres rebuilding lives in Kyrgyzstan
By Rob McBride
OSH, Kyrgyzstan, 29 June 2011 – In spite of the heat, the smiles on the faces of the children performing their dance of welcome were genuine. They betrayed no hint of the psychological scars they may still be suffering.
Rebuilding the community
But the damage to the walls of this centre for vulnerable children was evidence of what this community has been through. And in the streets surrounding it, the mounds of rubble and burned out shells of former homes, are reminders of the several days of civil strife that ripped apart whole neighbourhoods.
The children were putting on a special performance to welcome UNICEF Executive Director Anthony Lake, coming to the city of Osh one year after the violent clashes that grabbed the world’s headlines. Now returning to peace, the crisis in this part of southern Kyrgyzstan has largely dropped out of the news, but it is an uneasy one with the threat of a return to violence and with children among the most vulnerable.
“As we saw in the drive into this village, where so many houses have been so horribly destroyed, there is the fundamental political problem of bringing together two ethnic communities,” said Mr. Lake.
This centre, along with a number of other initiatives supported by UNICEF and its local partners, aims to do just that. Open to children from all communities, it provides a welcome break from troubles outside.
“We’re able to dance and sing,” said Dilnoza Islamova, 11, who was part of the welcoming choir. “This has been a great day.” Her home, like so many of her neighbours, was burned down, in what she says was a terrifying time.
For older teenagers in this part of Kyrgyzstan, the problems of forming friendships across ethnic divides are compounded by the added burdens of high youth unemployment in this depressed part of the country.
Sixteen new youth centres, recently opened across the country, aim to address both problems, by creating spaces where young people from all communities can mix freely. They can also undertake vocational training courses, such as language and computer classes, filling a gap in mainstream education.
Opening the latest one, Mr. Lake was invited to a forum for local teenagers, who were able to express openly their concerns for what will happen next in their country and their hopes of what centres like this might one day achieve.
“Of course, one of the reasons why UNICEF, the United Nations and so many people from the outside are contributing to centres like this,” he told the forum, “is not only to help with jobs, but to help prevent violence from recurring in the future.”
For Gulirano Saidova, 17, the centre provides the opportunity to go on to further education. “This centre is very good for us,” she said after the forum. “I’m of Uzbek ethnicity, but here we all study together, and I need this education to get into university.”
She was also excited at having been able to tell Mr. Lake as much, face to face. “I like Mr. Lake very much. He asked our opinions and he listened to what I had to say,” she said.
Talking and listening were also much in evidence at a meeting with doctors and nurses at the district hospital of Kara-Suu. In the middle of villages that were engulfed in the violence a year ago, staff found themselves dealing with the wounded from the fighting.
Shaping the future
Today, the staff at the hospital’s Maternity House, are able to concentrate their skills once more on maternal and newborn health. In doing so, they find themselves on a new front line. “The Secretary-General of the United Nations has made maternal and newborn health his number one priority, so you all are on the front lines of a global struggle,” Mr. Lake told them.
As well as supporting this priority, UNICEF Kyrgyzstan is beginning its most ambitious programme to date, continuing its work nationally while extending its reach at grassroots level to the most disadvantaged, the very people now being helped in places like Osh.