Posts tagged Taras

Visit to Almaty’s trafficking shelter

The following was written by a British person who has been actively involved in helping the trafficking shelters in Kazakhstan. He supplies different shelters with donated clothes, kitchen utensils and other things necessary for living in transition.  He has gained the trust of those in charge of places where trafficked victims either stay for a short duration or spend time getting rehabilitated.  For a peek in, this provides a good window into what is really going on:

“I was invited to visit the shelter in Almaty in the course of a recent visit to the city in the company of Aliya who is the national trafficking officer for the International Organisation for Migration  It is currently the only IOM shelter in the south of Kz though there are plans in motion to open another shelter closer to Taras, but as yet with no fixed calendar for its realization (victims rescued in the area are helped through cooperation with other NGOs on an ad hoc basis)

The shelter in Almaty is a small flat and Nurgul, the director, claims it is the smallest in Kazakhstan. But after I recently visited a new one in northern KZ, there is one that is actually smaller which seemed to disappoint Nurgul!  It is however quite airy and the little space available is used very efficiently – it has to be! There were only two residents when I visited though the number varies greatly (as in all the shelters) due to it also serving as a transit shelter for those rescued from other countries (e.g. Turkey).  I was told that over the last year the shelter has had as many victims as in Astana though they tend to stay for a shorter period.

The staff consists of two shifts of two people with another person who can be called on in case of holiday and/or illness; they are VERY strict about NO contact when off duty in order to avoid ‘burnout’!  Nurgul is both the Director and psychologist and the other staff are social workers. All staff are female as it is a center for women only (Astana usually has only women, but does accommodate men as well, e.g. some of the group of 11 Uzbeks from last year stayed there) Over the years Nurgul has built up good relations with the local police though police involvement in (particularly) sex trafficking is well known (a previous resident recognized one officer from a photo of a seminar group to increase awareness of the issue!)

There is a very much more open approach evident with an emphasis on rehabilitation & reintegration through engagement with the outside world. Keep in mind that the northern shelters are both located some way outside the city centre so travel to/from the centre is rather less straightforward. They take a LOT of photos which are displayed on the walls and kept on their computers and are evidence of their willingness to go out with/take out the young women in their care. They visit exhibitions as well as go to shopping centres and other amusement areas such as zoos, leisure parks, etc.

The victims in the shelter are also encouraged to undertake some form of vocational training to improve their employment opportunities (much needed in view of their generally low education level) as well as craft activities to identify any latent talents they may have. Detailed records are kept of anything they have done including a ‘mood diary’ where a resident uses different colours to indicate their mood on a given day; I was shown one where the only ‘bad’ day was when the young woman had contact with her mother!

One rather heart-warming example was that of a young woman who was a given a job through a friend of Nurgul’s who had her own business; the young woman is now a department head!  There are sadly rather more cases of people ‘slipping through the net’ after leaving the shelter and returning to their life as a trafficking victim (either through economic necessity or through a form of ‘Stockholm Syndrome’)

But, to finish on a more optimistic note one of the residents was a young woman who was rescued from potential labour trafficking through the prompt and effective action of a police officer after being alerted by the victim’s mother in Uzbekistan.  A further contrast with Astana is that Nurgul felt that labour trafficking had become more significant through her observation over the last few years.

My overall impression was very favourable; I was impressed by the sincerity and commitment shown by Nurgul and her staff and the organization of the shelter.  Of course, it does not all go smoothly when the residents are young women who want to go out and have fun, which has led to problems with late night ‘visitors.’ But in general, there seems to be a very good atmosphere in the shelter.  I certainly appreciated the opportunity to visit the shelter and see for myself how things operated and Nurgul was pleased to pass on her thanks to all those who had contributed clothes/bedding to the shelter.

Thanks are also due to Aliya for arranging everything and acting as interpreter the work, however, is never ending unfortunately so contributions are constantly needed therefore clothes and/or household items can always be donated through me.”

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Blowin’ in the Astana Wind

Don’t have much to write because I am so very tired and it is only Wednesday.  The most notable news about today is that the wind was so wicked and fierce that I had to hold on to the poles at the two stoplights while walking to and from our flat to work.  The ice is also tricky where the wind was forceful enough to push you along on the ice if on a slant anywhere.  Having lived in Almaty for over two years where there was rarely any wind, this is a new wonder to get used to.  The temperatures are warming up but we are in the sloppy season now, sleet, pellets of snow, rain and back to hardened snow again.  No fun to x-country skiing, but who has time for that?

I’ll be flying out to Kostanai for another recruiting trip with a work colleague named Irina.  I think I will be learning about her Korean roots though she was born in Kazakhstan and considers herself a Kazakhstani.  It will be fun to meet the students, especially those who want to practice their English on me.  In any case, I’ll be home on Saturday and then I have one day with my hubby before I take off early, early Monday morning for Boston.  The Narooz season is starting up as early as this Friday with an office party, Ken will go in my place. But for the next five days starting on Friday there will be no work done, offices will be closed. Just as well that I am away to the U.S. for the TESOL conference.

I just hope and pray that all my flights go on without a hitch.  The attached photo is of Aigerim and me at the Taras airport when they cancelled the flight due to high winds. All the other 15 passengers were turned away until we finally left at 1:00 a.m instead of our scheduled flight of 7:00 p.m.  Fortunately they gave us candles to see by and I had my Dell computer on which gave a kind of comforting glow in the darkened terminal.

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Photos from Chymkent and Kazakh hospitality

To be invited to a Kazakh family’s home is a great treat and to meet Aigerim’s mother and friends was an added bonus.  Aigerim did a superb job with explaining in flawless Kazakh all the details to the students in Taras who attended our big presentation the next day.  But first we flew to Chymkent from Astana, ate her mother’s beshbarmak (five fingers dish better known as Kazakh lasagna)  and then took a 6 hour train ride to Taras. For a long time I have wanted to see this city, but because we were so busy with our scheduled meetings, I’ll have to see the sites on my own some other time.  We didn’t even have time to look through the big museum in the center of the city.  As you can see, Aigerim’s mother’s dog was licking his chops to eat the food she continued to ladle onto our plates.  Wonderful Kazakh  hospitality…

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Photos at Taras University

What fun to meet a seasoned school teacher from Taras, she introduced herself to me when we were packing up to leave after we had given our presentation to over 500 students at Taras University last week.  Marina wished she were many years younger so that she could be one of the fortunate students selected to go to the new university in Astana.  However, she made the comment that since Taras (closest Kazakh town to Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan)  is so far away from the northern capital of Astana and the tests the students are required to take in order to enter are scheduled in the bigger cities…Well, she said it might be difficult to get all the Taras students who want to attend this university of great opportunity to go through the arduous testing process.  This needs to be taken into consideration as we soldier on with answering all the students’ and parents’ questions about this great, new adventure.  I’ll be going to Kostanai in northern Kazakhstan this next week, we might be hearing the same concerns and questions from those students as well.  Stay tuned…

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Photos of School Administrators in Taras

How wonderful to be welcomed by the school administrators in Taras this past week. Also nice to see their cheery offices with all the green plants due to the longer growing season of warmth and sun.  Astana is such a new city that we don’t see as many BIG plants that are well established in office windows.  Prices of plants here in the northern capital are quite high.  To get these green things from the store to one’s home means putting them in a thick brown paper bag that is insulated.  These teachers really care about their young pupils. One woman principal turned down a higher paying job because she did not want to leave behind her 250 charges.  She said she was created for the job she currently has.

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Photos of students in Taras

Meeting all the students in Taras (over 500 of them) made our travel woes all worth it. Well, what an evening Aigerim experienced trying to leave Taras. Arriving had been no problem with flying into Chymkent and taking a 6 hour train ride to Taras.  However, our flight on SCAT was to leave at 7:00 p.m. and we were to arrive in Astana at 9:00 p.m. but there were very high winds and the aircraft from Astana did not arrive.  With the delay, we finally did leave six hours later after being rescued by Zhanna, our efficient scheduler and the driver Volodimir.  They brought us to a well-lit restaurant.  Otherwise we were the only ones at the airport with the electricity off. Our SCAT flight finally left at 1:00 a.m. and arrived at 3:00 a.m. with only 15 passengers on this small plane.  We left in sleet, snow and rain and arrived in fresh snow in Astana.  These Kazakh students are GREAT kids, the brightest and the best, full of questions, energy and hope!!!  Kazakhstan has a bright future ahead, look closely at their beautiful faces!

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Taras Impressions (Part II)

Why do A or A+ students always  feel the most anxious or nervous about taking tests or entrance exams?  That’s what we encountered on Thursday when three of us reps for the new university went to three different high schools to visit with the top students who were in attendance on Wednesday. We answered questions to about 110 of them, 45 in two schools and 22 students in the first school. They were all convinced they could NOT do this, too many hoops and they had not tried the first registration because they knew that the standards were so high. Also, I must keep in mind that this is not a quick decision they can make, many of them have to negotiate this with their family.  Many considerations to make that will impact them as well.  We WANT the best students.

We tried to encourage these bright Kazakh students. I think we will have a good turn out from Taras, at least I hope so. They looked earnest, intense and I would love to have them as my own students.  I told them a story about when I taught in China back in the mid-1980s.  I kept hearing my Chinese students say they were studying hard for their Motherland.  The officials kept talking about reform and change.  You look at China now and you can see they have come a long way from over 30 years ago.  The same can happen for Kazakhstan with their aim to be one of the top developed countries by the year 2030.

I told the young students that low aim is crime and that they must make their aim high enough for the love of their country.  Excellent students become the future professionals that Kazakhstan needs for the different industries that have to develop with fresh ideas.  I was impressed by one school where the teachers are required to take a test two times a year in order to be a part of the teaching staff.  They have to know their subject and if they don’t pass the test, it is competitive enough where there are other teachers waiting in line to take their place.

Also, the competition among the students to get placed in the top schools that we visited is very intense.  We heard in the one school 1,000 students apply for the 50 spots and so they have their rigorous admission policies in place.  One school admitted that they were number one in their brand name and let up recruiting students from the villages the last two years.  The teachers found that the level of students had dropped as a result.  So, they KNOW that they need to keep the competitive edge in order to get the top students for their limited slots.

This information is grist for the mill when we consider how our campaign to get Kazakhstan’s brightest and best students.  For now, we had to explain that we will have backup help for them, that they will be encouraged in their studies.  They are used to have 4 to 1 teacher/student ratio.  Our university will have 10/1 student ratio, that is what is needed for some who feel weak in the area of their English proficiency.  They may be brainy with their math or computer skills, they may have physics or chemistry as their discipline for now but they don’t have enough chance to practice their English.  That will all be worked out once they are in an environment where the students are all expected to listen to their English teacher who are native speakers of English.

I’m impressed with the students in Taras, I look forward to visiting with more students in other areas of Kazakhstan.  Maya, Aigerim and I were quite a team, we are very happy with the way things worked out with our scheduled visits. Thanks to Zhanna here in Taras and Zhanna back in Astana.  A team effort is required by all in this new endeavor.

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Impressions After Meeting 500 Kazakh students in Taras

Yesterday was a fun day with an auditorium packed with eager, inquisitive Kazakh students.  We had different slideshows prepared in Russian and Kazakh and I did the English version with Russian translation.  The students were at the edge of their seats listening intently to all the details they need to know in order to register, apply, take the qualifying tests and finally be accepted as first year students to this new university.

Fun to get the questions from the students on the one standing mike in the auditorium.  One asked in Kazakh, others in Russian but some of them wanted to ask me directly in English their questions.  As if to show off their expertise already and in being ready for this HUGE step to listen to English (British) and take notes in English and I emphasized that they would have to begin reading and writing a LOT in English!

Afterwards, I talked to some of the students and I got my picture taken with four of them. Especially touching is that they know the Peace Corps volunteer Jamie who was in a near fatal car accident about 2-3 months ago.  The others in the car were killed but she narrowly escaped because another PCV was trying to call to see if she made it home safe and the cell phone was answered by someone in Russian.  He told whoever answered her phone that she was an American and maybe things moved quickly from then on.  She was medi-vacced to Germany and then to family in northern California.  She was in a coma this whole time, but now I learned from those students yesterday after our recruitment meeting that she is doing much better, she is up and talking.  They sent her a big card.  It was if they wanted to talk to me, a connection to a young woman I have never met but have prayed about.  Jamie, know that you are loved by those you left behind in Taras.  I’ll have photos of these four students in tomorrow’s post.

I also met a young teacher named Marina who felt jealous that the students have this great opportunity to go to a brand new university.  She has taught many years but she knows an American friend of mine and her English was very good.  I told her that we are planning to have some seminars and workshops for teachers such as herself and she was brimming with smiles.  I think we will have other teachers like Marina who want a chance to improve themselves but it is a question of getting up to Astana to see the facilities with their own eyes.  That will sell the campus and the concept of this new university.

All in all, it has been a very pleasurable visit in Taras, known by some as the Big Village.  It really is, even someone said that it was a “laidback” city, perhaps “laidback village” is more like it.  I will have another presentation to do this morning and then flying back to Astana.  More photos to come…

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“Vis Medicatrix Naturae” and Dr. “Eye-Bottoms” Daughter

Thankfully I’m feeling much better from last week’s episode with high blood pressure scare. I have since found out that many people on this side of the Tian Shan mountains are plagued with this ailment. Perhaps that is why Type A personalities need to be duly warned about not taking on more than they can handle, we need to be more relaxed like the native Kazakhs have learned to be in order to survive. The following is a short quote from C.S. Lewis about healing and medicine. Then I will write about Leila, the daughter of the “Eye-Bottoms” doctor or opthalmologist I met last week.

“There is a sense in which no doctor ever heals. The doctors themselves would be the first to admit this. The magic is not in the medicine but in the patient’s body – in the vis medicatrix naturae, the recuperative or self-corrective energy of Nature. What the treatment does is to stimulate Natural functions or to remove what hinders them. We speak for convenience of the doctor, or the dressing, healing a cut. But in another sense every cut heals itself; no cut can be healed in a corpse. That same mysterious force which we call gravitational when it steers the planets and biochemical when it heals a live body, is the efficient cause of all recoveries.” By C.S. Lewis, from Miracles, ch. 15

I met the 40 year old daughter of the kind doctor who I met last week when I went to the three clinics to check my high blood pressure. (See earlier blog) The good doctor had given me his daughter’s phone number at their home. Leila had just recently returned from the U.S. as of four months ago, last December after studying three years at community colleges and universities in Nevada and California. Her father is 72 years old and her mother is 71, Leila is an only child and she is single. She admitted that many of her friends are now divorced raising children on their own, so she feels fortunate. But she also feels a responsibility to take care of her aging parents once they are retired. There is no one else but her to do this duty.

I asked her about her father’s background and how he got involved with ophthalmology; she gave me an answer later after telling about his family and his growing up years. He was the youngest child in his family being born in 1936. His father, Leila’s grandfather, left the collective where he worked to fight in the Great Patriotic War in 1941; he was badly injured there and returned home to Aktobe only to die shortly thereafter. He had fought in western Russia or Ukraine somewhere but Leila was not sure where. She explained that her father didn’t talk much about his family or early childhood. He had older brothers and sister but some of them had died in their younger years, not from starvation but other childhood diseases. One of his older brothers had become an oncologist and perhaps there was a personal motivation on both brothers’ part to help those who are ailing, that’s why they became doctors.

Leila’s father attended medical school in Almaty and later went to Moscow for more training in ophthalmology. She remembers going up to Moscow with her folks as a young child in the mid 1970s and people seemed kind then. Many nationalities from different parts of the former USSR have left Moscow; it is mostly comprised of Russians. Her father was a good eye surgeon and went twice to China to do eye surgeries because the Chinese have many eye problems. About 12 years ago her father went to Xian (place of terra cotta soldiers) for one year and the second time, his wife, Leila’s mother went with him to another city in China. She loved it in China. [this is unusual because most Kazakhs try to keep a healthy distance from anything Chinese]

Leila admitted that while she was growing up she never heard that collectivization was a bad thing; all Kazakhs would agree the Great Patriotic War or WWII was very bad. However, it was only when she started reading from history books while studying at Kazakh State University in Almaty and later by reading Russian media that she found out there was another side to what Stalin brought to Kazakhstan with collectivization.

From Leila’s mother’s side of the family she was from the city and perhaps from a fairly wealthy part of society. She would have been unaware of what life was like in the countryside and what collectivization did to some Kazakh families back in the 1930s and 1940s. Collectivization was considered a “social experiment” and in some cases it benefited some people while it didn’t help others. Leila’s mother had a more tragic life where her mother had died before her father went off to fight in the Great Patriotic War. She was orphaned at a young age with only an older sister because her father, Leila’s grandfather died in the Great Patriotic War. The two girls were taken in by their grandparents who were already pensioners. Her mother is a chemist and Leila’s father and she were married when she was 24 in 1961. They have been married 48 years.

Leila has traveled widely and recommended that I should travel to Uzbekistan to see old artifacts of a life from antiquities. Almaty doesn’t show much of historical life from the Kazakh past, perhaps the city of Taras would be the best place or Turkistan. She also told me that Mongolia has had a lot of influence on the Kazakhs. She acknowledged that she doesn’t know her own Kazakh language very well.

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No TRUE Kazakh wants to be a “Shala Kazakh”

I learned from Aigerim about the term of “Shala Kazakh” which is true of her husband’s family who are from the north of Kazakhstan Shala means that you are “poor in your own Kazakh culture” because you don’t know the language or many of the Kazakh traditions.

Aigerim’s parents, on the other hand, are from the rural areas of Kazakhstan and hung on to their Kazakh language.  However, during the Soviet past they met with problems in not knowing Russian.  Aigerim’s parents wanted to reverse that trend so they made sure their children did well in Russian but now they have become Shala Kazakh. Aigerim woefully admits to being a Shala Kazakh but she will make sure her son is not. Most Kazakhs now believe it is shameful not to know your own country’s language.  I was told that you will find better speakers of Kazakh among those people from the south of Kazakhstan like Taras, Kryzlorda and Shymkent and also to the east close to China

It seems that during the Soviet purges in the 1930s and 1940 there were those Kazakhs who fled to China. Now some of the children and grandchildren have returned to Kazakhstan to become citizens.  Their Kazakh language is very good but they have problems filling out forms at banks and other official documents which are still in Russian.  Not knowing the Russian language but only Kazakh (and Chinese), they are at a disadvantage.  Their documents and passports say they are Kazakh yet they need their children to help them translate from Russian to Kazakh. 

Of course now, the employers throughout Kazakhstan are trying to attract Kazakh speakers who know the Kazakh language (also Russian AND English).  Dilyara claimed she watched a movie of Americans who were speaking the Kazakh language fluently.  She said she would show it to me because  I’m convinced it is probably excellent dubbing of voices going on. I know that in China, Chinese dubbing voices are famous for speaking in Chinese to go along with the lip movements of the actors in American Hollywood films. 


For those Russians who remain living and working in Kazakhstan, they are supposedly shamed into learning Kazakh.  Especially true when those foreigners, such as Japanese or Americans come to Kazakhstan and learn Kazakh in a short time.  The question is asked: “What about the Russians who have always lived in Kazakhstan?”  They have a wide assortment of many Kazakhs to help them practice speaking Kazakh.  Aigerim pointed out that when she wants to practice her English, she has a difficult time finding a native speaker of English except when I’m available for her to talk to.  I’m hoping to get her connected with a researcher from Sweden so she can further practice her English speaking skills next fall when she arrives to Almaty.


Fun day learning more from Dilyara and Aigerim about their Kazakh culture while I’m supposedly helping them improve their English skills.



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