The Real Heroes of Tajikistan

As you enter the city of Dushanbe from the north, you pass a cement factory, the outer walls of which are decorated with portraits of the Qahramoni Tojikiston, the “Heroes of Tajikistan.”  Here you will find the historical father of the Tajiks, 10th century king Ismoili Somoni; Persian classical poets such as Rudaki and Firdavsi; Soviet writer and pioneer of modern Tajik language Sadriddin Ayni; and, of course, Tajikistan’s current president. These heroes play an important role in the national consciousness of Tajikistan and in patriotic education, appearing on posters and in school textbooks throughout the country.

However, this semester I have had the privilege to work with a group of women who are the true heroes of Tajikistan, the staff and volunteers of the Kishti Center for disabled children.

The current landscape of social services available to at-risk children and families in Tajikistan, including orphans and adults and children with disabilities, reflects both the ideological legacy of Soviet social policy and Tajikistan’s economic struggles that continue 20 years after independence. During the Soviet period, social safety nets for at-risk groups were built around the principles of economies of scale and the paternalistic state. Experts believed that larger, specialized institutions could provide better care and services to vulnerable people than individual families. While these institutions did increase the access of orphans and disabled people to the most basic needs—food, shelter, medical care—they also isolated residents from family connections and community acceptance and depersonalized the care of the individual.

Today in Tajikistan, options for the families of children with disabilities are extremely limited. There are very few medical specialists trained in the diagnosis and care of individuals with disabilities, and travel abroad to clinics in other countries is prohibitively expensive for the majority of families. Many families in Tajikistan depend on the income of both parents to get by and on the care and support of adult children later in life; the necessity of lifelong, round-the-clock care for individuals with disabilities adds an additional layer of financial difficulty for these families. A general lack of knowledge about and attention to disabilities perpetuates social stigmas that leave many mothers feeling guilty, ashamed, and isolated.

The Kishti Center was founded four years ago by a group of women doctors, social workers, and physical and speech therapists, many of whom have children with disabilities. The Center is located at the entrance to the largest orphanage in Dushanbe and through its outreach activities has both prevented the abandonment of numerous children with disabilities and, in a few cases, reunited abandoned children with their families. In addition to providing mothers with rigorous medical, psychological, and legal education about caring for disabled children, the Center offers play and art therapy, vocational classes for mothers, and a crisis center to provide immediate essential services to mothers and children in distress. In its four years of existence, the Kishti staff’s work has had such a meaningful impact that a nearly-new building is already reaching capacity, a waiting list for consultations grows weekly, and a group of mothers has launched a successful satellite center for children with autism and their families. What was once an issue mentioned in whispers and kept hidden in the home is increasingly discussed openly and confidently by the Center’s clients and spreading through word of mouth to more and more parents. By far the most valuable service that the women who founded the Kishti center provide is fellowship and acceptance for mothers of children with disabilities.

Hopefully, as Tajikistan comes to better understand the needs of its most vulnerable citizens, the tireless and tirelessly optimistic work of these women will be recognized and their portraits will be found along with poets and statesmen among the Heroes of Tajikistan.

By: Margaret Sullivan

Program: Eurasian Regional Language Program

Term: Fall 2011

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