Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Kyrgyzstan: Education in the wake of conflict

Source: United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF)
By Aashild Helene Eliassen

OSH, KYRGYZSTAN, – The province of Osh is waking up. Smells of fresh bread emanate from the street vendors and piles of watermelons and maize bringing colour to the streets. Elderly women go about their mornings in long robes and scarves as students prepare for the start of the school year.

Nazbiyke, 17, is already attending Lomonosov School, although the school year has not yet officially begun. She and two other students are heading the student committee which is preparing for the school's first day. Nazbiyke has been indoors all summer since political strife rocked Osh, but now she is slowly beginning to leave her home in Furkat, one of the hardest hit areas in the province.

Effects of the crisis

Like many students, Nazbiyke is eagerly looking forward to the start of school and to seeing her classmates again. But she knows that some of them will not be there. Many children fled Osh with their families after the uprising in June.

One student who left Osh for Bishkek, in neighbouring Uzbekistan, is Nazbiyke's best friend, Jyldyz. Nazbiyke chats with her nearly every day on the telephone, trying to persuade her to return.

Nazbiyke also knows that she will have some new teachers, as 12 of the 74 instructors at Lomonosov School left after the June events. Some went abroad to Russia and Kazakhstan. The school's head teacher, Shakirova Alia Fanilievna, is working hard to replace those who left.

"It is important to have good teachers," said Ms. Fanilievna. "Their attitude is crucial. A teacher should be like a captain on a ship."

Peace education

Ms. Fanilievna added that Kyrgyzstan's schools are planning to include peace and tolerance education in response to the recent strife. The first month of school will be dedicated to Peace and Reconciliation, and UNICEF has cooperated with The Ministry of Education to finalize the peace-building lessons which will be integrated in the regular curriculum.

Posters with the words 'Peace, Friendship, Tolerance and Harmony,' designed for classroom walls, emphasize the point.

The lack of teachers is not the only challenge facing children in Osh. Another concern is safety for teachers and students, especially for those living far from school. To ensure safety, the government is providing guards and school buses for transportation. UNICEF plans to provide 24 school buses for Osh and Jalal Abad provinces.

Ms. Fanilievna says she is optimistic about the school year. The bad memories remain, but a sense of overall enthusiasm is helping the people of Osh to overcome fear. Ms. Fanilievna is convinced a large majority of Lomonosov's 1,800 students will return to school.

As the head teacher speaks, several female principals from other Osh schools come to the distribution point at Lomonosov to pick up their School-in-a-Box kits – bundles of basic education supplies designed for up to 80 students in an emergency setting – which were delivered by UNICEF to some 277 schools in Osh and Jalal Abad provinces.

Schools bring normalcy

For Nazbiyke, going to school is essential. This school year signifies the first step in her adult life.

"All the rest of my life depends on my education, and you find your best friends at school," she said. "Schools also have a great peace-building potential as they are uniting students from different backgrounds.

"For instance, at Lomonosov School we have 14 ethnicities," Nazbiyke added. "We communicate and stay friends. Our hope is that this, in turn, will influence our parents and the community."

Nazbiyke knows that her parents are aware of the major role schools play in bringing peace back to the communities. The vital effect of school starting, of teachers and students coming together, resounds through Osh. It is bringing a sense of normalcy to a province that desperately needs it.