25/01/2012 – Before being deployed to Tajikistan in late October 2011 as part of the first pilot European Voluntary Humanitarian Aid Corps I have to admit that I couldn’t point it out on a map. All I knew is that it was somewhere among the barrage of ‘-stan’s in central Asia. Thankfully, the last three months, working as an Education Officer in the small south westerly city of Kurgan-Teppe, Tajikistan, has done a lot in changing my geographical knowledge of this country and its people.
Having just graduated from the NOHA Masters in Humanitarian Action earlier in 2011, I have to say the country of Tajikistan did not enter into any of our class debates, discussions or lecturers’ presentations regarding regions or countries that faced pressing humanitarian issues. However the reality is that Tajikistan is a country that faces many concurrent disasters and challenges. Tajikistan remains the poorest country from the former Soviet Bloc and as a result many migrate to Russia to seek work to send remittances home to their families. The country is seismically unstable and experiences more than 1,000 quakes and tremors per year. Erratic weather patterns have increased the prevalence of mudslides and other seasonal disasters, which destroy many settlements each year causing isolated, yet serious food insecurity among farmers and vulnerable communities. Children, and their education, are particularly vulnerable; when men migrate to seek work children are often taken out of school to carry-out household and farming chores in order to support the families left behind. The migration of young and skilled individuals results in a drain on trained and active community members, and hence a weakened emergency response capacity.
My experience with Save the Children so far has given me the opportunity to delve into the vast richness of the Tajik way of life. Based in one of the organizations field offices in Kurgan Teppe, I have managed to get a firsthand account of the conditions that our beneficiaries face on a daily basis. Working alongside a team of highly professional people, I have adapted my previous skills to the field office here where we work towards implementing a two year program that focuses on School Health and Nutrition (SHN) in six districts of Tajikistan targeted by Save the Children.
The SHN program aims to improve the knowledge and attitudes of school children in 100 schools in these districts with regard to good health, hygiene, nutrition and oral hygiene. The overall objective is to establish healthy lifelong behaviours. Through child to child trainings, workshops and by aiding communities in the developing and writing of small project proposals, school principals, pupils and community members are working together to identify the problems they face in their schools and communities and are actively working to change things for the better.
So far my experience has been a positive one. I have ample opportunities to visit the schools and see how the various projects are being run on the ground. I have found it difficult at times to explain to them that I am not Tajik and they often mistake me for one of the local community workers …until I open my mouth and then they quickly realise that I am a foreigner! It is not that I make an extra effort to assimilate, but with cold days and little access to water it is necessary to wear a head scarf when meeting people, which often leads them to believe I am a local.
So far the biggest challenge living here has been the communication barrier I face on a daily basis as I do not speak Tajik or Russian. However I am now almost two months into my Russian classes and ironically enough I appear to be picking up more Tajik than Russian! This is not hard though as the majority of the time I am being invited around to traditional Tajik family events, predominantly centred around food so although my general Tajik conversation is at beginner’s level my culinary vocabulary is already quite advanced!
Another major challenge has been the cold weather we have been getting. With figures well below 0 degrees, regularly frozen water pipes and sparse electricity, it has taken quite some time to adjust. Winter came unusually early this year and we experienced the first snow fall in November. The unexpected arrival of the severe, cold winter caught many Tajik farmers off guard. Many had not harvested all their crops and fruits before the snow arrived and in some mountainous areas people lost more than 30-40% of their harvest. The rushed harvest also meant that the crops may have been collected but were not stored appropriately. Consequently the heavy snow and fierce cold have led to increased prices of the country’s staple products.
Let’s hope the spring brings a more promising outlook for what to me seems an incredibly challenged nation and people, who despite all their hardship and woes remain positive, look to the future and continue to welcome me with open arms into their lives.
The Call for Proposals for the 2012 round of pilot projects was launched in January. The deadline for organisations to apply is 5 March 2012. The new pilots are expected to begin welcoming volunteers’ applications in May 2012, offering many more aspiring humanitarians across Europe the chance to engage as Humanitarian Aid Corps Volunteers.
Story and photos: ECHO-EVHAC Volunteer/Aine Lynch
European Commission’s Humanitarian Aid and Civil Protection department (ECHO)
- Quick description of the European Voluntary Humanitarian Aid Corps
- Video: The European Voluntary Humanitarian Aid Corps is beginning to take shape (3 minutes)
- Updated information on the different pilot projects and ECHO’s activities for the Voluntary Corps
- European Voluntary Humanitarian Aid Corps
- Being part of the first European Humanitarian Aid Voluntary Corps pilot – impressions from Tajikistan