Friday, December 23, 2005

A city preparing for the New Year & A Good Charity

I left Bishkek today to head home for the holidays. I left a city in eager preparation for their biggest holiday of the year, New Years. Rows of stands appeared outside markets, filled with lit trees, holiday ornaments, tinsel and decorations. All kinds of businesses – from pharmacies to soap stands were adding holiday goods to their stocks.

Nigora and Shavkat invited me to come to Osh to spend the holidays with them. I would have liked to, had I been in Kyrgyzstan. Sven moved out of their home and into an apartment once his wife and child arrived. They didn’t like the idea of having to carry their small daughter outside every time she wanted to use the bathroom or wash. Nigora’s business is continuing, though her profit remains only about five dollars a day. She’s hoping it will improve in two to three months, when people get used to this new marketplace.

One day this week, I approached a run down taxi with cracked windows. It was obvious that the driver was an immigrant from a rural area – in this case, Naryn. When I came up to the door, two men jumped out to make room for me. It’s pretty common for one taxi driver to visit another while waiting for a customer, but I’d never seen such a group before. Then, when the driver turned off the small black and white TV he’d installed under the radio, I understood what attracted the crowd.

We clunked along down the Bishkek streets and stopped at a stoplight with a Mercedes kiddy-korner to us. The Mercedes driver washed his windows and the water spouted up so high that it rained on our car, several feet behind him. Such little unusual moments, which happen fairly often in Kyrgyzstan, are what I love about the country.

I recently found out about a charity in Bishkek that finds sponsors for elderly people, mostly without children, living on pensions of under $20 a month. Sponsors agree to donate $10 a month, which goes directly to the elderly recipient.

I thought this was a great idea and I adopted a babushka this week. Her name is Natalya Ivanova and she was born in 1927. She worked on a collective farm, then worked as a cleaner. After 35 years of work, she receives a pension of 563 som (less than $15). She is divorced and has no children and the description said she doesn’t have enough money for food or needed medicines.

The elderly were undoubtedly hit hardest by the social changes following Communism. Having contributed their entire working lives to the Communist future, they expected a socialist retirement, in which they’d be well taken care of. The reality is that they were left with nothing. Most of the beggars on the street are either elderly or Gypies. I give the elderly small change, but I liked the idea of a system in which the sponsors could keep the people from having to beg, to retain their dignity in their final years.

This week I visited their Spartan office to sign up for a year’s sponsorship. It’s a well-organized group. They gave me a contract, promising to give her $10 a month, gave me a short history of Natalya’s life, translated by their staff into English, and a photo of her.

I brought her some gifts for New Year’s and asked if they’d be sure to give them to her.

“Yes,” one of the staff members said. “And when we do, we’ll take a picture of her with the bags and email it to you.”

Since I’m hoping to be able to visit her beginning in January, I’ll be able to check that she receives everything that was promised. But it did seem like a committed, well-organized group, sponsored by the Swiss.

My babushka has been on the waiting list for over a year. They told me they’d contact her and tell her they’d found her a sponsor. She will receive her first $10 payment this month.

“She’ll probably have forgotten about this by now,” I said, thinking how sad it was to have to wait a year for $10 a month in assistance.

“No, she definitely won’t have forgotten,” two staff members said in unison. “They call us all the time,” one of them said, “asking when we’ll be able to help them.”

There are currently over 200 babushkas, in Bishkek and Batken, on the waiting list and 99% of sponsors are from overseas (mostly from Switzerland). If you’d like information on how to adopt a babushka, see

Crossing the border from Kyrgyzstan to Kazakhstan this evening, the transition was stark as usual. I crossed the border with a group of people that looked very unusual, as though they’d just descended from a remote mountain area. The women were all short, squat, and wore solid colored scarfs around their heads. The men wore embroidered caps, were dark-skinned, and many had beards. They spoke a different language and seemed to speak Russian poorly. They definitely didn’t look Kyrgyz, but when I asked one man where he was from he showed me a Kyrgyz passport and said Bishkek.

I didn’t believe it. I asked my driver if he knew where they were from. At first he guessed they were Tadjiks, then after waiting in line with them, he found out they were Dunguns, from a place outside Bishkek. They work in the fields in the summer and were going to Almaty to buy goods a market there that they could resell, possibly in China.

I’d seen Dungan architecture, especially in one area outside Bishkek, and I’d seen plenty of Dungan cafes. But I’d never seen so many Dungans in one place. They are one of the small ethnic minorities in Kyrgyzstan and I believe they originate from China. It looked like an interesting culture and I regretted that I didn’t have the opportunity to talk to them.

The road to Almaty is finished and the entire trip takes about 3.5 hours. Once the border is crossed, the roads are lighter, the buildings better lit, and holiday lights were strung above the road. I fell asleep and woke up at the airport, under the lights of a glittering giant New Year’s tree, and a glittering, modern airport. I felt like I was already in Europe, just a few hours from my Central Asian home.

In the lounge where I waited for my plane were quite a few Americans with small children. One of them, a man who weighed well over 300 pounds and was dressed in a black heavy metal t-shirt and baseball hat, caught my attention immediately. He didn’t look like the type of American who comes to Central Asia and I wondered what he was doing there. He held a tiny blond boy in his expansive arms.

Then I realized that most of the people around him also held small children. One woman with mousy brown hair, pale skin, and thick, dark glasses held a little Kazakh girl. A woman with loose baggy jeans and a red shirt, her hair pulled back in a ponytail, patiently pulled a darker skinned little boy up off the ground. An already aging, intellectual-looking couple, held a little blond boy with spots on his face.

It seemed like they were all taking babies home from Kazakhstan. Looking at the variety of parents there, I wondered about the children’s luck. Of course, having a family is usually much better than being raised in an orphanage. Would they be grateful for this plane ride to another country, that would determine the rest of their life, or would they regret that no one had stopped it? Did the women who had given birth to them, not so long ago, have any idea that their offspring were headed across the ocean? But would all of them really be better off? I hoped so.

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