America's Unofficial Ambassadors

We work at the grassroots level throughout the Muslim World to counter violent extremism before it takes hold, to promote tolerance and understanding, and to foster better relations with the United States.

Life in a Winter Wonderland

The following is a post from AUA Administrative Assistant and Contributing Blogger Olga Kent. Olga has just returned from her home country of Kazakhstan, where she was working with local NGOs.

I was born in the Soviet Union and raised in a country with a Muslim majority population that formed after the Soviet collapse, Kazakhstan.  It is interesting to hear what people say about different stereotypes and I am glad I can say that I am a Russian Kazakh, now living and working in Washington, DC with AUA. I have had a chance here to open up to new perspectives on the world that I never considered or was never exposed to in Kazakhstan.  Now, I am starting to appreciate all the experience I gained working with grassroots organizations while I was there, living in Karaganda. I can see how friendly and open the people there are, with no limits for hospitality; how talented the young people are, many with great ideas but a lack of knowledge and opportunity to implement them; how lots of borders and “don’ts” can kill creativity and the desire to take action, but people still never lose hope. There is nothing in the world that can change the human desire to have a full life, and there will always be people who want to bring change.

In the early 1990s, I remember not having electricity for weeks at a time in the winter.  When my mom was able to buy a soup bone at the local market to make bullion during this time, it was cause for a celebration.  We would live on borsch, shi and other soups and stews she would make from that one bone for weeks.  We would share with our neighbors, making a fire on our little balconies so we could cook and keep warm.

I remember almost having my first Snickers candy bar when I was five. This was a rare treat, and something you couldn’t find in the local shops, and no one had money even when they did become available.  One of my dad’s friends brought it from a business trip for us, and we divided it between everyone in the family, so each person will have a little bite.  I chose to save my piece for later, but then my dog, Lucy, ate it, and I cried for weeks.  It was another year before I had a chance to try a Snickers again.  It is odd to think of that now, when I walk into the little shops in my neighborhood in Karaganda, and there are now endless choices, and that simple candy bar no longer holds the same value to me.

Today Kazakhstan is one of the most developed countries in Central Asia. The majority of the population is Kazakh, but you can also see a lot of Russians, Ukrainians, Germans, Koreans, Uzbeks and other nationalities living there; all a part of the melting pot created by Stalin in the expansion south to tame the steppe, with work camps throughout Kazakhstan, where prisoners were sent as punishment and a mix of other groups went to find their fortunes working in the mines or make a fresh start.   Recent world changes such as the Arab Spring have had a dramatic influence on the region, creating tension and fear among Kazakhstanis over the growing unrest within their diverse communities.  Many people fear the country too is at risk of going down the same road of conflict and dramatic change, when most people just want peace and stability.

I am glad to see that youth in Kazakhstan are now trying to get more involved in building a stronger civil society and fighting old Soviet stereotypes to build a better future.  Volunteerism was never big in Kazakhstan before, but there have been recent increases in the last few years, as more and more youth and young adults are eager to participate and have a voice, and see positive change happening peacefully, and that they are a part of it.  In the last ten years several NGOs started to provide support in building civil society, but while there is a desire and eagerness to act, there is a lack of experience and understanding in how to keep the small NGOs afloat.  Only 8% of NGOs in Kazakhstan can sustain their operations due to a lack of funding, and most stay dormant or live from grant to grant, providing them little opportunity to support the change they long for.

I truly admire the deep-rooted sense of civic responsibility fostered by non-profits, churches and other voluntary groups across the United States. I believe the U.S. experience can be used to improve the quality of life and help alleviate social problems in Kazakhstan.

Through cooperation with grassroots NGOs, building partnerships and discussing practical ways to help Kazakhstan to achieve a more forward-looking civil society there are many opportunities for travelers to have an adventure and even gain professional experience. Kazakhstan is a truly unique and beautiful country.

Here are a few grassroots NGOs from Kazakhstan that I was honored to come across.

AVALON: an education effort to increase public knowledge and awareness of geography and history. AVALON also works to popularize Kazakhstan and Central Asia abroad for tourism, to protect the environment, and to preserve the historical and cultural heritage of the region.

Focus:  Avalon is working on bold new plans for promoting environmental protection in Kazakhstan, including the development of ecotourism and alternative means of transportation.

EcoMuseumThis museum was created to teach the community and visitors about the fragile ecology of Central Kazakhstan and to enhance the role of the public in solving urgent environmental problems, as well as to further the development of democracy in the country.

Focus:Nuclear test sites, clean rivers, biogas, clean cities, the space launch center, populations in industrial areas, environmental protection, informing the public about environmental issues, ecological design, and museum activities.

KOMANDA: This project is a center for volunteer work. They are organized and led by young people, and are a member of the League of Youth Initiatives in Kazakhstan.

Focus: Working with the disabled, seniors, WWII veterans and hospice efforts.

School. Volunteers run this project from different universities to provide a better educational environment for kids who are in need in local schools, as well as, language education, environmental studies programs, sporting activities and programs to promote healthy lifestyles.

Focus: Youth education, health, sports and the environment.

 Velocity: This project is run by local enviromental NGOs that seeks a cleaner enviroment and clean cities.

Focus: Building trails for bicycles, promoting healthy vehicles for youth, organizing races and competitions to raise money for city cleaning projects.

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