Tairbek Abdilashim uulu, 22, lives in a village in south Kyrgyzstan, a few hundred meters from the Tajikistan border. “It’s so close, but until a couple of years ago, we didn’t interact with our neighbors; we didn’t even say hello,” the 22-year-old recalls.
Things have changed since then. Tairbek has built his own network of people across the border, whom he can call, chat with – and work with. Because Tairbek has also become a business owner.
And it all started with a UNICEF youth center.
Tairbek’s village is located outside the small town of Kulundu, in Batken province. Batken borders on Tajikstan to the north, west, and south, and the porous border runs right through Kulundu. Large parts of the Kyrgyz-Tajik border have not been demarcated since the former Soviet republics became independent in 1991.
The province is partly located in the Fergana valley, a fertile and densely populated area stretching across Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan. Ethnic conflict erupted here briefly as in 1989, escalating tensions and distrust that have never completely disappeared.
In 2010, Kyrgyzstan saw a violent conflict between ethnic Kyrgyz and Uzbeks, with several hundred people killed and over 200,000 displaced. UNICEF provided immediate response to those affected by the crisis, and initiated a number of activities to reduce prejudice and increase interaction across ethnic lines.
One of UNICEF’s initiatives was to establish 23 youth centers in the three southern provinces, to provide youth from different ethnic communities with opportunities to interact and make their lives better.
The centers offer a range of learning opportunities – English and Russian language, computer literacy, leadership, communication, career planning, entrepreneurship, and chess and dance classes. The youth center has also held a series of events across ethnic and state boundaries, focusing on building peace and empowering youth.
The Kulundu center has earned the trust of local authorities, becoming, in short, the main channel for anybody wanting to reach the local youth.
“Now everybody is working with us,” says Nurali Paiziev, one of the leaders. “The police support us at voluntarily; health workers come to talk about HIV, religious leaders come to talk about radicalization, and so on.”
One of the opportunities offered through the UNICEF-supported business project is small grants for promising business ideas. That is what got Tairbek started when he got an idea: he would buy quality formworks – frames used to build house walls – to rent out.
Less than a year after he received the equipment, business is flourishing. So much, in fact, that Tairbek has his mind on setting up his own construction company in two or three years.
Tairbek is also building friendly connections across the border with mortar and bricks,
“We have been able to create conditions for Tajiks to come to Kyrgyzstan and work on constructions. The builders are happy to come work here with quality equipment,” Tairbek says. He also has customers on the other side of the border renting his equipment.
Alongside the youth center, Tairbek is now among the participants in a new, extensive cross-border project, funded by the UN Peacebuilding Fund and operated by UNICEF and other UN agencies in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan.
As we meet, the Kulundu youth center is preparing for the Nooruz festival – the ancient celebration of the end of winter – which the center every year marks with a big joint Kyrgyz-Tajik youth event.
The work done by the youth center, and Tairbek himself, pushes against the impact of several cross-border incidents in recent years: both residents and border guards have skirmished over access to land and water, leaving several people injured.
In spite of tensions, Kulundu locals are generally positive to the youth center’s outreach, says Nurali Paiziev: “We live here and will continue to live here, and people understand that we need peace.”
Sven G. Simonsen is a Communication Specialist working at UNICEF Kyrgyzstan