Sunday, February 21, 2010

The Olympian

Andrey Drygin represents the best of the Olympic spirit. For the past three Winter Olympics, Drygin has been Tajikistan’s sole competitor, its lone shot at Olympic glory. It would be tempting to say that the hopes of an entire nation have rested on his shoulders for the past eight years. Tempting, but not very accurate, because Tajiks don't seem to expect Drygin to excel at the Olympics. And in each competition, he has lived down to those expectations. That’s what makes him special, at least in my estimation.

An alpine skier, Drygin began his Olympic quest in Salt Lake City in 2002. In each of the Giant Slalom and Super G events, he failed to finish the race. Four years later in Turin, he didn’t finish the Giant Slalom and finished 51st in both the Downhill and Super G. He came to Vancouver this year for what is likely his swan song in Olympic competition. Now well into his thirties, Drygin is past the prime age for competitors in his disciplines, making it unlikely that he will return for a fourth Olympics in 2014 (though the lure of competing in Russia may prove irresistible to someone from that part of the former Soviet empire). Realistically, then, Vancouver represents his last chance at bringing home a medal to his home country. At the end of this past week, half of the alpine events completed their runs and Drygin finished 44th in the Super-G and 59th in the Downhill, second from the bottom in his first race and dead last in his second. His only solace may come from actually completing his races, a feat that eluded some of his competitors.

It’s difficult to pinpoint exactly what drives an Olympic athlete like Drygin. Certainly, it’s not the overwhelming support of his home country. Surveying the city of Dushanbe this past week, it’s next to impossible to find evidence that the Olympics are on the radar of any Tajiks. Whether that’s the result of the (extremely) low number of competitors representing the country in the Games or a disinterest in sport in general is hard to say. It is true that other things tend to take priority for citizens of a country like Tajikistan. In the middle of a cold February, most people are focused on such needs as ensuring the basics are provided for their families. Games staged on the other side of the planet don’t take precedence over these interests, especially when there is little chance for Tajikistan to distinguish itself in the competition. As is usually the case, I met a number of people for the first time this week. Most asked which country I called home and when I said “Canada”, there was no reaction, no big smiles and declarations of “Olympics Number One!” or the like. I opened the weekly Tajik Times with the expectation of a feature story or two on Drygin and his participation in the Games. Instead, I found his name buried in an article on the Sports page that discussed all of the Central Asian countries taking part in the competition. Top spot on the page went to a Tajik chess player who had won a round of the Aeroflot Open in Moscow, an accomplishment, to be sure, but not exactly on par with the Olympics in terms of global recognition.

Of course, everyone loves a winner, so there is no doubt that a medal would ensure that Drygin would be welcomed home as a hero, his name enshrined forever more in the pantheon of Tajik legends. A tickertape parade down Rudaki Avenue would be assured, as would a stamp in his honour. Endorsements would follow, and while not as lucrative as those enjoyed by the sports celebrities in North America, he would surely receive enough to live comfortably for many years. But there are no parades or sponsorships for fourth place, let alone for fifty-ninth. And displaying one’s medal for participation is as unlikely to impress as a fifth grader’s certificate for perfect attendance. Drygin must know that securing his place in history would require a place on the podium. But at some point, his history of bottom finishes in international competitions must have voiced a serious concern in the back of his mind that the trend might never reverse itself. The most successful athletes are masters of the psychological as well as the physical, but those suffering more defeats than victories must often find themselves victimized by a nagging self-doubt that threatens their performance. So, it is unlikely that Drygin entered the Vancouver Games convinced that the third time would be the charm.

Nor was it ever a probability that Drygin would be fortunate to fall into the category of “lovable losers” and achieve a kind of notoriety by his ineptitude. To find this kind of fame requires a degree of incompetence on the level of Eddie “The Eagle” Edwards, the ski jumper who soared only in people’s hearts, or a uniqueness born of an unlikely marriage of country and sport, as memorably achieved by the Jamaican bobsled team. Drygin can claim neither. His last-place and nearly last-place finishes weren’t so far behind the rest of the pack to be endearing, just worthy of the faint praise that goes to those who manage to complete the course without falling down. And as a citizen of a country dominated by towering mountains, he can scarcely be said to be out of his element on the downhill slopes. It is doubtful, then, that Drygin will ever be commemorated in film or song in the years to come for his failure to demonstrate anything other than his willingness to compete.

But it is exactly this willingness to compete without hope of substantial success or gain that should be celebrated as a pure example of the Olympic spirit. For every Michael Phelps who dazzles in repeated gold-medal performances, there are dozens of athletes who come to the Games as unknowns and leave the same way. Their only rewards are the thrill of the competition and the pride that goes with representing their countries to the best of their abilities. This is likely the motivation that has compelled Drygin to return to three successive Olympics and endure finishes well off the podium each time. The Olympics would do better to promote competitors such as Drygin, rather than simply lauding those who best the others in their fields, and countries should embrace all of their athletes, not just those who bring home medals. Andrey Drygin will never be known as a great Olympic champion, but he is still an Olympian, and he gave Tajikistan a place on the world stage. If only for that, he deserves a measure of appreciation and congratulations.

Two events remain for Drygin in these Olympics – the Slalom and Giant Slalom. Though by birth I’m required to cheer for the Canadians in these races, there will still be a part of me that hopes that Drygin will be able to complete a miraculous run in one of the races to achieve a personal best. That would be enough to make this Olympics a success for both him and Tajikistan.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

The Girls' Support Service

More than one person has written to me in the past month to express an interest to learn more about what I’m doing in Tajikistan (beyond mastering the game of Charades and setting East-West relations back to the Cold War days with my mangling of the Russian language). Now that I’ve been here for a month or so, I’ve had the chance to work with the different components that make up the Girls’ Support Service (or GSS) and to start making contributions to the project. So, it seems as good a time as any to provide an introduction.

The GSS project was started in response to the dire situation that faces many girls in Tajikistan. With a population of just over seven million people, Tajikistan’s demographic skews very young, with close to fifty percent of its citizens being under the age of eighteen. Of those falling within this age bracket, two-thirds live below the poverty line, and this has exposed young people to a host of risks, including family breakdown, trafficking and institutionalization. Girls are particularly at danger of being trafficked in Tajikistan, being sent to the United Arab Emirates, Turkey and Russia for the purposes of sexual exploitation. The possibilities for girls within the country are further restricted by their limited access to education – only 20% of girls finish the full nine years of primary education due to pressures both within and outside of their families. With such an inadequate education, many girls are faced with bleak choices: some end up living and working on the streets as prostitutes while others agree to marry before the age of eighteen, often to a much older partner and possibly setting themselves up for many years of abuse. In addition, girls who have been exploited or abused often find themselves doubly victimized, as they sometimes are then shunned by their families and communities for being sexually active, without regard for the fact that the sex was forced upon them.

Though many aid agencies are currently operating in Tajikistan, a need was identified to set up a service that aims specifically to help girls between the ages of 10 and 18 who have been or are in danger of being abused, exploited or trafficked. To help address this need, the GSS was created through a partnership between the Children’s Legal Centre in the UK and the Child Rights Centre, an NGO that had been working in Tajikistan for a number of years. Four areas were identified as priorities for the service: the creation of a Support Centre where residential placements and day services could be provided to girls deemed in the most need; the development of Semi-Independent Living Units for older girls as a place to transition back into society; the establishment of a network among NGOs throughout the country to allow for girls nationwide to receive the support they need; and the creation of a Policy Development Team to work closely with the project’s government partner, the Committee on Women and Family Affairs, to develop the capacity of the Committee to continue the GSS once the project completes its term at the end of 2011. In addition to these components, the need for a Legal Services branch to work in conjunction with all aspects of the GSS to provide legal advice as needed and to effect prosecutions where warranted was also cited as a critical need.

Now one year in operation, the GSS has already enjoyed a significant amount of success in meeting many of its objectives in these areas. Chief among these has been the setup and development of the Girls’ Support Centre in Dushanbe, the first of its kind in Tajikistan. An enormous amount of effort was needed to convince the government of the need for such a centre and to enlist its support in providing a location for its operation. These discussions with the government revealed a disturbing oversight to that point in the management of girls deemed at risk. An existing facility in Dushanbe, known as the Special School, was the institution of choice for those looking to house the girls somewhere, but its selection often resulted in further abuse of the girls, as there was no division between boys and girls in the school. One of the early achievements of the Policy Development Team was to change the regulations of the Special School to close admissions for girls and to have the girls currently housed there moved to the newly established Girls’ Support Centre.

From the outside, the GSC building doesn’t look like a great environment for girls, or anyone else, for that matter. An imposing and unfriendly concrete behemoth designed with little care for aesthetics, it screams “institution” at anyone who approaches it. But inside, the atmosphere is a much different one. The staff of the GSC has done much to make it as welcoming and warm as possible. On my first visit to the Centre, I was greeted by the girls as I walked down the hallway – they were friendly and curious about me being there, as well as understandably wary of who I was. With those who live and work with them, they displayed no such suspicion, welcoming them with hugs and broad smiles, eager to show them their rooms and their latest projects. Currently, there are eight girls living at the Centre. They attend school six days per week (the practice here is for students to attend school for only half of the day) and their remaining time is spent at the Centre, doing assigned chores or receiving classes in cooking and other skills. A dance class has also proved popular, as have outings to theatres, museums and a circus. Beyond the activities, social workers at the Centre have developed individual care plans for the girls with an eye to keeping their time at the Centre as short as possible, though the reality of many of their situations dictates an extended stay of a number of months before they will be ready to return to their families or move on to a new life for themselves.

Entering its second year, the GSS now has the foundation in place for all of its major components and is looking to expand its reach. As mentioned, eight girls are in residence at the GSC. This is obviously only a small fraction of the girls in the country who would benefit from such accommodation. To increase the available access, a Helpline has been set up that would permit girls to be referred to the services provided by the GSS. The Helpline is not meant as a counselling service; rather, its function is solely to provide an initial contact point that may ultimately result in a girl receiving help through the GSC, Semi-Independent Living Units or other aspect of the GSS. Calls to the Helpline have been infrequent to this point, because knowledge of its existence has been limited to those with exposure to the GSS. To address this, a National Awareness Campaign has now been started that will advertise the GSS and its Helpline while also seeking to raise awareness of the rights of girls and the criminality of the abuse suffered by them. The use of brochures and other publications will be supplemented by announcements on television, radio and newspapers. In addition, the network of NGOs that is being created by the Satellite Support Services branch of the GSS will be used to promote the GSS throughout the country, as will a nationwide tour by members of the GSS later in the year.

As part of the Policy Development Team, I work with two other individuals, a Legal Officer and a Policy Officer, to develop the capacity of the Committee on Women and Family Affairs, among other things. In order to better develop the relationship with the Committee, the PDT has been seconded to the Government building where their offices are located. Over the past year, the Legal Officer and Policy Officer have had a number of successes through working with the Committee, the government body assigned the responsibility for looking after the rights of children in the country. However, much work remains to be done to improve the policy and legal framework supporting the rights of children and girls in particular. Certain laws in the country were drafted with little regard for the rights of the victims, and these will need to be examined with an eye to their revision. In addition, the capacity of the members of the Committee will need to be assessed to allow for the development of a training plan to address the gaps in their skills and knowledge. The PDT has also been asked to take the lead on coordinating the National Awareness Campaign - I have already chaired a pair of meetings for a Working Group dedicated to the Campaign,and I can confirm there are a number of passionate opinions provided on the direction of the Campaign, often expressed in Russian and English at the same time! My hair is getting greyer by the day.

Unfortunately, my arrival in Tajikistan coincided with the departure of the Head of the Committee on Women and Family Affairs (I have tried not to take this personally), leaving the Committee at a standstill until her replacement is named. The loss of the Committee Head is a bit of a blow to the fortunes of the PDT, and by extension, the GSS, as it means the loss of a relationship that has been carefully cultivated over the past year and the need to start the process over again with her replacement. The building of such a relationship obviously takes time, but the hope is that this won’t drastically delay the initiatives identified as key for the GSS. A national election has been called for the end of the month, and our hope is that the new Committee Head will be named before that time, so that initial meetings can take place within the next week or so.

Hopefully, this provides some insight into the project and its plans for the future. I’ll provide updates during the course of the year as to how things are progressing. The need to maintain the confidentiality of the identities of the girls being assisted mandates that their stories and pictures won’t be a part of the blog (at least not in an unaltered form), but I still hope to be able to provide some interesting updates on the project in addition to reporting on my misadventures living here in Tajikistan.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

Everybody Hates Canada Post

This headline dominated the last page of the latest edition of The Tajik Times, the local weekly paper, proving that Canada Post's reputation for service is known all over the world.