Our Country, Tajikistan

Home in New Jersey, unofficial ambassador Rob Handerhan reflects on his summer in Tajikistan

Our Country, Tajikistan

Wataneman, Tajikistan
By Robert Handerhan

            During my final week in Dushanbe, one seemingly simple question worked its way into nearly every conversation I had with my Tajik friends, students, and co-workers: “What did you think of our Tajikistan?”I was asked to describe my opinions on everything from the country’s education system to its national foods.How did I feel while I was in Tajikistan? What did I think of the Tajik people? And when would I be coming back?

            As I sat on the other end of these friendly interrogation sessions, I fumbled for words to describe how special Tajikistan was to me; my six weeks there had been characterized by experiences of friendship and generosity, and I can confidently say that I will be coming back as soon as I can afford the plane ticket.Now that I have returned to New Jersey, I continue to be asked to summarize my experiences into a few simple words. Of course, many of the questions asked by my friends and family here in America are skewed in a much different direction: Did you ever feel threatened? How awful was the food? Was it safe? Thank goodness you’re home.

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Once again I find myself scrambling for words. I begin to explain how fortunate I feel to have served my local community in Dushanbe, and that by the end of my internship there, I really did feel at home. But how can I encapsulate a seemingly endless number of joyful and insightful interactions into a few simple statements?

            At this point in the conversation, I am reminded of a lesson that I did with my students regarding the effects of stereotypes on our perceptions of the world. Inspired by a similar lesson developed by my fellow Unofficial Ambassador Amaris Prince, I used Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s TED Talk “The Danger of a Single Story” as the foundation for our conversation. Adichie’s talk focuses on the dangers inherent in conflating a skewed or limited perception of a person (or an entire people) and using this as the basis for one’s understanding of that entity or idea. Shifting the focus of our discussion to something more personal, I asked my students if they ever felt that the perception of their country and of the Tajik people in general suffered from the propagation of harmful stereotypes.

My students responded by explaining that people in other countries may wrongly fear Tajikistan because of its Muslim majority; they powerfully asserted, “we are Muslim and we are peaceful. We are not terrorists and we are against all terrorism in the world.” I was moved by their responses and decided to widen the scope of the question even further: What would you like to share with the world about your country? Pushing stereotypes aside, what do you want the world to know about Tajikistan?

My class agreed that the world should know about Tajikistan’s physical beauty, and they began rattling off statistics that boasted of its incredible landscape: “Our Tajikistan is 93% mountains;” “Teacher, have you seen the beautiful lake, Iskanderkul?” “What about our rivers?” But they also wanted to assure the world that Tajikistan had a major urban center, and they expressed pride for Dushanbe’s continued growth and development. I commented on the fact that,without an accurate mental image of Tajikistan, my American friends will likely be surprised to know I was living in a very comfortable apartment in a beautiful, bustling city.

Most importantly, my students wanted the world to know about the kindness of the Tajik people and the importance of hospitality within Tajik culture. The tourism industry’s slogan is “Tajikistan: Feel the Friendship,” and my students emphasized their love for foreign guests and visitors. Connecting back to our discussion of Islam as a religion of peace, they spoke to me about the tolerance and acceptance that exists in Tajikistan and that all people are welcome. And now as I reflect on my time there, I can truly state that I felt incredibly welcome; these students who spoke to me about the kindness and generosity of the Tajik people are the same students who wanted to spend time with me outside of class, to invite me to their homes to meet their families, and to shower me with gifts on our last day together. I hope that I am able to maintain these friendships into the future, and I am looking forward to seeing everyone again when I return.

So I believe that my students have provided me with the best possible description of Tajikistan. What might I add? The people that I met were as hard working as they were hospitable. Due to economic hardships, parents may work two or even three jobs in order to provide for their families. My students were completely dedicated to their studies at the Bactria Cultural Center, and they strongly believed that by improving their language skills, they were working towards a future filled with limitless opportunities. Much like my students, I want to share the kindness and generosity that I experienced in Tajikistan with the world. And I suppose I would finally like to add that the bread there is really, really good.

Citizen Diplomacy in Dushanbe

By Sammi Falvey

Understanding the difference between what citizen diplomacy is and what the roles and responsibilities of citizen diplomats are can be difficult. On paper, citizen diplomacy is a grass roots interaction between a person from one country with a person from another. This interaction is the basis for or a contribution to both people’s understandings of each other’s country, life, traditions, religion, and other aspects of culture. These interactions are meaningful because they allow for a person-to-person exchange of ideas that can promote tolerance, understanding, and cultural awareness.

adsfAs nice and neat as this definition sounds it is important to point out that there are, generally speaking, no standard roles and responsibilities. For example, on a moral basis you should always tell the truth when talking to someone. So, ideally, when you come into contact with someone who is different from you, and you are having an informative conversation, you should be telling the truth. But in the end you will be telling your truth. And I will be telling mine.

As a young Muslim, Italian-American, Jersey-girl, I pull from my identity as a way to discuss important issues with the people I meet in other countries. My close friend Amaris is a young, Baptist, first-generation, Afro-Caribbean-American girl born and bred in New York who has lived in the south now for two years. If she and I were to talk to the same person, and answer the same question, there is a good possibility that we will have something different to say.

Holding a standard for roles and responsibilities with regard to citizen diplomacy is difficult because there are so many variables that come with each person-to-person interactions. Like with the standard of being honest, what if my truth or honest answer is totally different than someone else’s honest answer?  Or, what if our truths are not the norm? What impact will my truth have on my conversation partner? Will he or she take it as a fact, or as an opinion? Does this inform them about the whole of our country, or culture, or religion? So, as a field of study or practice, how can anyone regulate citizen diplomacy?

The reason I bring these questions up is because I have now been a citizen diplomat in Tajikistan for six weeks. So, although I will be boarding a plane back to ‘America the beautiful’ in just a few days (and will be relieved to enter the garden state again!) these ideas still weigh on my mind.

As a Muslim woman I wear hijab. In Tajikistan the hijab, or headscarf, has become more popular since the creation of the democratic country, but now the tradition is under some scrutiny by the government. It isn’t seen as a particularly ‘modern’ or ‘Tajik’ and so it has been prohibited in most professional settings—places like universities and government establishments. At the NGO where I worked for the last chunk of my time in Tajikistan, there is no prohibition and I wore my hijab freely.

My students, who are all Muslim, recently mustered the courage to ask me why I wear ‘the scarf on my head?’  I couldn’t help the huge smile and faint giggle that bubbled up as I answered rather incredulously ‘because I am a Muslim’. This remark was greeted with a lot of ‘mashAllahs’, then almost immediately the follow up question ‘where are you from?’. I laughed at this too, ‘America’, and then ‘Yes, my mother and father are American’, and then ‘My ancestors are a European mix’.

At this point we were all sitting around a long, wooden table in the middle of the classroom. I was getting some rather inquisitive looks while my students mumbled in Tajik to each other. After a minute or so, someone asked what the group must have decided was a good question. He said politely, ‘We had no idea that American Muslims existed, what are your people’s customs then?’

This is when all of the questions I have about citizen diplomacy came crashing down. These students wanted me to speak on the lives and experiences of every American Muslim. How could I talk about my customs, knowing full well that other people don’t do the same things? Not only did I feel unprepared for such a question, I also knew I was responsible for a real answer. What I said would inform these students about Muslim life in America; a topic totally alien to them. I knew there were bound to be people in the classroom that took away some sort of generalization or a conceptualization of America that is true for me, but possibly not for everyone else.

I was scared.

I started with the disclaimer ‘For me, being a Muslim on a daily basis is…”. It was the best I could do. This exchange was citizen diplomacy at its finest, but what was my role? What were my responsibilities? There is no standard response for this kind of question. I had to decide whether or not I would take-up the role of being one of the only channels of this kind of information for my students. I would also have to accept the responsibility of becoming possibly one of the only sources and experiences for my students. That is a crazy concept to me, that level of responsibility. But I accepted that responsibility when I got on the airplane and decided to become an Unofficial Ambassador.

The Confluence of Two Rivers

Today’s blog post comes from Chris Obermeyer, a teacher at Cardozo Educational Campus in Washington DC. Over the course of the year, Chris and his students have engaged in a virtual partnership with teachers and students at The Carter Academy in Bangladesh. Chris has spent the last week volunteering at TCA, teaching English and training teachers in using technology in the classroom and incorporating group work more effectively into their teaching practices.

The Confluence of Two Rivers

By Chris Obermeyer

It’s hard to believe that I’ve only been here for 6 days. I have very much enjoyed my time in Bangladesh and wish that it could continue for much longer.

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The people I’ve met are absolutely amazing and have made my stay here life changing. I was very nervous at first but all my worries were lifted the moment I stepped into the classroom with the students. Although they stood up when I walked in and they waited to be seated until I gave them permission, I very quickly realized that these students were just like mine in the United States. They have talents, skills, passions, fears, and aspirations. We have played games to improve their English and through lessons guided by the students learned how to introduce each other and utilize technology in their classrooms. During evening free time we have talked about music and movies and discussed world politics in addition to learning a few new terms common among US students like the use of “on fleek”.

The teachers are inspiring and we have spent a lot of time getting to know each other. We have discussed their methodology in the classroom and how to create more student focused activities that involve technology. Many of the teachers spent their day off taking me many kilometers away by taxi and boat to a place of natural beauty where the main rivers in Bangladesh meet.

I couldn’t help but compare the two rivers meeting and beginning to blend together as the water moved down stream to my experience here. The people here represent one culture and I another. While we come from very different sources and bring different things as we meet, we must blend together as we continue downstream onto bigger futures. I’m very excited about the rest of my time here at the Carter Academy in Chandpur, Bangladesh and will miss everyone here deeply as I go back to Washington, DC.                                                                 

Dast-e Mohammad, Dost-e Mohammad

Mohammed’s Hand, Mohammed’s Friend

By Robert Handerhan

I leave my apartment early on Tuesday mornings to travel to IRODA, one of the leading centers for children with autism in Central Asia today. My morning commute brings me outside of Dushanbe’s center, and I enjoy watching people rush to work along the city’s bustling highways. After weaving through Dushanbe’s infamous traffic patterns, I arrive at Public School No. 72 to see children playing on the blacktop despite the morning heat.This summer marks IRODA’s first year in their new space at this elementary school; although their previous location was homey and accommodating, IRODA’s new location within the school is another major step towards achieving their goal of inclusion and mainstreaming within the public school system.

555Founded by a group of parents in 2008, IRODA has grown substantially over the past eight years and continues to provide invaluable resources and support to children with autism and their families. Their training sessions have changed the ways in which parents, doctors, educators, and other professionals interact with children with ASD, and their services have provided life-changing alternatives to the once-common practice of placing children with autism in government asylums. The organization also engages in advocacy initiatives, seeking official recognition for autism as a neurodevelopmental disorder rather than as a disease that can be cured with heavy medication and social isolation. IRODA remains a community of loving, committed parents at its core.

A large portion of my time at IRODA is spent behind my computer as I work on updating the organization’s website with additional photos and articles that provide illustrative examples of their incredible work. Last summer, two AUA interns created this site, and it has been an essential vehicle for increasing IRODA’s visibility and outreach on a global scale. Although the organization did not previously have an English-language website, IRODA’s site now receives multiple hits from the around the world each day.

On my first day at IRODA, the staff members greeted me warmly and offered me coffee, tea, and sweets, in waves, throughout the day. Lola Nasriddinova, IRODA’s loving matriarch, gave me hundreds of photos from the past eight years. Looking through these photos brought me to tears – they are a testament to the strength of this organization and to the commitment and compassion of the families it serves. I saw pictures of children playing in the park and laughing on a swing set, as well as images of families marching the streets of Dushanbe to advocate for equal rights for their children.

That Tuesday afternoon, the photographs come to life for me.

I entered IRODA’s adaptive classroom and was immediately approached by a bright-eyed boy named Mohammad. Smiling, Mohammad took my hand and led me to a table in the corner of the room; he motioned toward a stack of puzzles, and I pulled the top one toward us. The object of the game was to match a set of wooden vehicles with their respective places on the board. Mohammad shook the puzzle so that all of the pieces clattered to the table and thus the game began.

He pointed toward certain pieces and, thinking that I was following his lead, I handed them to him. I whispered things like “een — eenja,” trying to use my Persian to say simple phrases like “this piece – here.” But he didn’t seem pleased. Grabbing my hand once more, I realized that he wanted us to complete the puzzle together in the most literal way possible; Mohammad guided my hand across the board as we tried fitting each piece into each possible hole. When we found the space that fit the piece, I chanted, “Afareen, Mohammad, afareen!”to congratulate him. With my hand firmly in his, Mohammad completed the puzzle and we moved onto the next one; seven puzzles later, we had completed the entire pile.

Keeping hold of my hand, he led me across the classroom and pointed at a stack of notebooks. We sat down with a small book intended to teach children how to write the Cyrillic alphabet in cursive script. Mohammad continued to guide my hand across the pages as we traced the letters and phrases. I continued cooing, “Afareen! Mohammad pesar-e khubast,” telling him “Mohammad is a good boy” with the completion of every few words. And by working with Mohammad, I began to learn the Cyrillic alphabet as well. Mohammad and I were learning the letters together as we traced their shapes along the lines.

Mohammad’s focus was incredible, and as we worked our way through the book page by page, he motioned for me to take his hand in mine. After guiding my hands across countless puzzles and pages, Mohammed wanted me to lead his hand over the words, tracing the curves and loops of each letter.

We practiced writing for over two hours, but soon it was time for me to leave for my Persian lesson. Mohammad began pulling at my arm for me to stay, but he quickly shifted his attention back to the book in front of him. I left the school that day knowing that I had made an incredible connection with someone very special, and I am already looking forward to my return next Tuesday.

Bangladesh Bound

Check out Chris Obermeyer’s pre-departure video blog post below!

Chris is a middle and high school teacher at the international academy of the Cardozo Education Campus Washington DC. Over the course of this past year, his students have exchanged “pen pal” letters with students at The Carter Academy in rural Bangladesh as part of a unique English Language Learning program. Students in both schools are studying English as the Cardozo students are part of a special program for new immigrants to the United States. Chris will travel to The Carter Academy in two weeks to teach English, conduct TESOL trainings, and to train TCA teachers on developing community projects in their science classes.

He will also be training faculty in using the solar panels and battery packs that he will deliver to the school and that will help them deal with the challenges of power outages. Chris is still raising money for this donation to the school and you can contribute here: gofund.me/s2sobermeyer