Altering attitudes to preserve families
The institution - more properly referred to as a boarding school - is located in the Gafurov district of northern Tajikistan. It is named after the Tajik hero, Urunkhujaev. As opposed to the many others, this boarding school is well maintained and has resources to provide the basics, but it is still an institution. The bedrooms are dormitories, and the dining facilities are large halls accommodating hundreds of children in a single sitting. Efforts are made to give the place a home-like feel by putting colourful plastic flowers in the windows, but, with no pictures on the walls and no means of personalizing the rooms, it is hard to see the room as anything but sterile.
Living in this institution is Amir, a sensitive young boy with sparkling eyes. Amir is on the cusp of adolescence. He is a long-time resident and copes with the added hardship of being an amputee. Neither he, nor the institutional authorities know his actual age or how he lost his hand. Neither do they know his true family name. He appears to have come from a divorced household. His father's whereabouts are unknown, and his mother is reported to have died in Moscow. Amir has memories of living with relatives, including a grandmother, until he was placed in Urunkhujaev. But is this fantasy on the part of a lonely child or genuine recollection? Authorities have not been able to trace any relatives. The chances are that, if relatives could be found, they would assume the posture that it is better for Amir to remain in the boarding school because he has access to education, food, friends and supervision by teachers and caregivers.
Amir has no possessions except for the clothes on his back: a pair of shorts, a tee shirt and a well-worn pair of old Soviet-style shoes. Until recently, he did not even have a birth certificate, a common circumstance among parents who cannot afford to register their children or who are illiterate and do not comprehend the importance of birth registration. Without that certificate, Amir's adult life would have been severely restricted. Now, he can travel freely within Tajikistan and take advantage of any existing or future social benefits.
Amir's story is full of pathos, but it is not unique. There are thousands of children in such institutions throughout Tajikistan.
It is hoped that some day Amir's father or other relatives will come forward and reunite with this resilient young man.
"I would be happy to see my brother and my father and hope that my teachers and social workers will help me to return to my home," says Amir, who also wants to contribute and therefore adds, "Even if my father is not capable of finding a job, I will join him in Russia and help him survive."
It cannot be said with any certainty that Amir's dream will come true.
Adapted from "Tajikistan", a publication of the UNICEF Tajikistan country office.