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Supporting Citizens’ Organizations in the Former Soviet Union

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Kazakhstan Travelogue

2003 Travel Report


June 2003 Travel Report from Kazakhstan
Semipalatinsk June 14, 2003

Dear Family, Friends and Supporters,

We are making a strenuous trip around Kazakhstan that has been both rewarding and taxing. Taxing were Enid's two bouts of food poisoning, cold overnight train rides, bouncy potholed roads and a hotel robbery that depleted our cash supply. Rewarding were beautiful landscapes of prairies and mountains, a swim in a peaceful mountain-ringed lake, the company of our local partner Kaisha Atakhanova and especially the welcomes and stories from many women we have been working with over the last three years.

We are having heart warming visits with women who started non-profit organizations in ten cities of Kazakhstan and a number of rural villages after taking part in one or more of our training sessions for women's leadership. We are evaluating the impacts of our three year program here that consisted of three cycles of grants and six training sessions of five days each. The purpose has been to strengthen women who are forming organizations to address social, economic and environmental problems of their vast country. Our three grants from the Department of State for this purpose expire at the end of this month.

We are very impressed with the changes in self-confidence and organizational know-how that we witness at each stop. We are also struck by the mutual trust and help among women of collaborating organizations. We learned that, for many of them, our modest grants were the first they ever received and that they have leveraged them to receive support from many other foreign and international agencies. In the last year or so many of the city-based women have gone to villages in their regions "to activate rural women" and stimulate them to undertake self-help activities.

Women and children of two self-help organizations particularly moved us.

In Kostunai, near the Russian border in the north, mothers of handicapped children, who are not allowed to go to school, formed the "Rainbow" organization to support each other and to provide opportunities for their homebound kids. In a deserted kindergarten, which the mothers remodeled themselves with money from one of our grants, children now crowd around four computers for games and Internet exploration then limp into the big carpeted room for group activities. Many mothers gathered around a large table serving us tea and explaining the problems of raising such children. They said in many passionate voices that when they were able to speak and cry frankly with each other in their mothers group, "our communication with our children became much better."

In Ust-Kamenogorsk, near the Chinese border in the east, handicapped mothers organized a branch of a national organization called in literal translation "The Society of Women Invalids" or Babbi Anna. They started with eight women sharing their problems and hopes, especially regarding the raising of their children whom they could not pick up or take out walking. Now there are 256 members in the region of whom 46 are living in the city and earning money sewing gloves, sheets and other items purchased by local government agencies and businesses. They started with $800 from our program to buy materials and now their "business" has a $20,000 annual turnover. "We spread the work around among all of us who can work, at least at home, so that everyone benefits." They have been making trips to rural areas, with another grant from us, to contact disabled women in villages and encourage them to form groups for mutual support both moral and financial. We were touched to hear one of our former trainees say as she put her teacup down, "I don't feel like an invalid anymore."

We saw several grantees who had formed women's centers that became part of a national association of "Women's Crisis Centers" with 17 members. Women here have traditionally been afraid to report domestic violence to the authorities. Now they have hotlines, that are called "Telephone of Trust", and centers where experienced women listen to them and advise them on action they can take. Most centers have volunteer psychologists and lawyers on call. In some cities grantees want to establish shelters for women whose homes are unsafe. One of our grantees has created job opportunities for shelter residents who are now learning how to make traditional decorations for homes, hotels and yurts.

We also saw grantees who are engaged in environmental and political work. Tatyana created the "Cultural-Ecological Union - Boomerang". She is fighting government plans to cut a road through an important nature reserve in the mountains near her mining city of Leninogorsk. With one of our small grants, she organized a public hearing to inform the public and mobilize opposition to the construction project. To her surprise, ninety people showed up including the director of the reserve, officials of the city and region plus interested citizens who had a rare opportunity to ask officials questions and give them their opinions. The media gave good publicity. An official "protocol" was written that demands an environmental impact assessment as required by law. "This was the first public hearing in our area and people really liked the opportunity to learn the truth and to express themselves," said Tatyana.

In Semipalatinsk today we met with staff and volunteers of the Center for Supporting Civil Society. The city is famous for being on the edge of the giant nuclear testing site or "polygon" of the Soviet Union where radioactive contamination is widespread. With a grant from us, Gulmira organized a series of public hearings in villages that are only 18-24 kilometers from the border of the site. We learned from village women who came to our meeting that the incidence of cancer is many times above normal as illustrated by dreadful family stories of cancer deaths. The topic of the hearings was the government's proposed law to legalize the storage of radioactive waste from Russia and other countries on the contaminated test site. Many signatures were collected on a petition to prohibit the importation of radioactive waste. Villagers told us that "this was the first time anyone ever came to ask our opinion on nuclear waste, clean up of the test site, protection of children from radiation. Nobody has listened to us before. We have no contact with government; it just makes decisions without consulting us who live here."

This afternoon twenty-five women and men, including the rural women, came to the public library in town where Fran and our partner Kaisha lead a workshop for four hours on Deep Ecology. (Enid was too ill from her food poisoning to participate.) We did many exercises that had them on their feet and working pairs, gave them some principles of deep ecology, read them part of Chief Seattle's speech, invited them to imagine a beloved Kazakh historical figure and philosopher and tell him what has happened since he lived on the wide Kazakh plains. We concluded with the Elm Dance, which they quickly learned. "We have never seen a seminar like this before; I feel lighter and better understood than when I came in." said one woman teacher.

We have offered half day workshops in most cities to supporting networking among nonprofit activists and introduce the theories and practice we call here "glubynaya ekologiya".

We wish you could know these inspiring women!!!

Fran and Enid