The newly announced ‘Muslim-Ban’ has rocked not only the United States but the entire world. While the rhetoric and politics are still spewing, I will say that I have been gutted by the thought of the millions of people, many in extreme need and completely innocent, being excluded from any country.
As many of you know, I spent 18 months in Kyrgyzstan, a Muslim Majority country. Every person I worked with and socialized with identified as Muslim, and I could hear the neighbourhood mosque’s call to prayer from my bedroom window. My Kyrgyz family (Mom Dilbar, Dad Bazarbei, brothers Suban and Eldos, and sisters Anisa and Akmaral) were everything I could ask for in a host family. They were supportive, warm, welcoming, understanding and always so incredibly kind, even when I would be overwhelmed by my less than stellar language skills, and need to give myself a break in my room. In the evenings after dinner Akmaral and I danced like crazies, and I will always remember the experience of Eldos, Bazerbei and I working together to bring two very ill, abandoned puppies back to health. Dilbar’s uproarious laugh was something that would always bring a smile to my face as were her warm Mom hugs. The night before I left the country for the final time Dilbar hugged me as we cried together; she knew my heart was a little broken and she was there to start the mending.
For 18 months, I was welcomed, as a caucasian, female, Canadian-American into a community that was Central Asian, post-Soviet and Muslim. And while Kyrgyzstan is not among the countries that have been blacklisted by the White House, it is a Muslim Majority country that could be singled out at any time as a ‘security concern’. I know that fear of the ‘other’ does not occur in a vacuum but from ignorance of that ‘other’. People often just don’t know about another culture or religion, and therefore fear that ‘other’ and the people of that culture or religion, who thereby become the ‘other’, or even worse, the enemy.
Can a person to be blamed for what they don’t know? Maybe! But as social and emotional humans, we work from our own perspectives and experiences. Some of us try to see past our own biases as much as we can. But really, only love and awareness will increase compassion and empathy for the unknown, opening hearts and distilling fear.
In that spirit of love and awareness, I enlisted some of my most beloved friends from my time in Kyrgyzstan (many of whom also marched on Washington or other cities!) to share their stories of the wonderful folks who were their local people. People upon whom we all depended, not only for food (thanks Kyrgyz Moms!) but for emotional support, professional collaboration, heartwarming inspiration, or true friendship. All of these fine humans follow the Islamic faith, and all could be excluded from entering the United States under the rhetoric of the current executive administration. They all welcomed us into their country and their homes. Every person on this list is an active community member who works hard to further themselves and their country.
They are the ‘other’. Let us make them less unknown.
These are the people of Kyrgyzstan.
Learning English, Loving the USA – Nurislam
My host brother, Nurislam, is full of energy, has a big heart, and calls me sister. I still smile when I think of him bursting into my room yelling “Sister help me please!” with his homework, or the times he would bring his Kyrgyz-English dictionary to dinner and read out random words, trying so hard to get the pronunciation right. He had so many questions about life in the USA, and I left Kyrgyzstan with the goal of one day inviting him to come visit and see it all for himself.
-Dana Meehan, K-22, Osh City, Osh
One of the Family – Uch-Terek Village
My whole family in Kyrgyzstan is amazing. Early on when I started living with them in the small town of Uch-Terek, south of the Toktogul reservoir, my family took me to a 1st birthday party for relative. It was a large party and we went to a resort to celebrate the little one. At this time, I didn’t know much of the language, and I wasn’t sure if this was the right fit. However, when the head of the party began talking, he said “We are very lucky today because we have not one new daughter in our family today, but two,” and pointed to me. I have never felt so accepted in my life.
-Emma Hosman, K-22, Jalal-Abad Oblast
Value life, Value Family – Aida Apa
I lived in Kyrgyzstan for approximately 2 and a half years – it was one of the most incredible experiences of my life. I met so many people that taught me about valuing life as well as valuing the food that I eat, the property that I own, and the way I treat others. The person that truly touched my life, was a close friend of mine and host mother, Aida Apa – she is the epitome and peace and love. In this family, they would NEVER throw away food, always giving leftover food to the animals. We would pray about our food, saying “omen” after every meal – to give god thanks for what is keeping us alive. We would laugh every day and tell jokes to each other and would often hug each other – she would protect me like my own mother, making sure I was safe everywhere I went. She called me her daughter. I truly miss her. I miss my family and I think about them all every day.
-Erica Piazza, K-22, Naryn Oblast
A Kindred Spirit – Liliya
A force to be reckoned with. A chocolate lover, an aikido enthusiast and a carefree adventurer. A genuinely kind-hearted individual whose laugh is contagious. A young, career-oriented woman who works at the First MicroCredit Company providing microfinance loans to small-holder farmers and entrepreneurs. A caring daughter who helps her mother with the family beekeeping business outside of Osh. An aunt who adores her niece and nephew more than anything in the world. A kindred-spirit who represents a little piece of good and light in this chaotic world. A human. Just like you and me. Liliya Isambaeva.
-Sophia Sunderji, Aga Khan Fellow, Osh City, Osh
Peaceful Flower – Gulmira
Gulmira is an exceptional woman. A widowed mother of five, she not only runs the Women’s Health Committee in her village, but she also has a seat on the village council (the only woman to hold that position). During the time that we worked together, I always saw her struggling under the weight of her responsibilities and often wondered why she didn’t lighten her load; after all, many of the projects that she committed to were voluntary. It took a while for me to see just how impressive her strength truly was.
She worked when no one else did, called for change when no one else bothered to speak up, and bravely stood by me as the awkward foreign outsider, protecting me from suspicion and speaking on my behalf when my language failed me. She may not be highly educated or from a rich family, but she is a beautiful example of how successful a woman (a person) can be when they strive for it. She is the change that she wants to see in the world and by having had the honour of knowing her, I am forever changed.
-Anna Young, K-22, Talas
Girl Power – Meerjan and Akylai
Meerjan and Akylai are two young women who take girl power very seriously. During my time in Kyrgyzstan I spent a lot of time working with young women in my community. I could not have done so without the help of these two young women. They helped me teach the girls in their community that girls can be tough, girls can set future goals besides getting married and having kids, and girls can have an impact on the world. They didn’t shy away from talking about things like safe sex and domestic abuse even though it is taboo to do so in Kyrgyzstan. They are Muslim and they are two of the most wonderful women I have ever met and I am happy to call them my friends.
-Ronnie Rarick, K-22, Naryn oblast
A Love of Community – Kuljakul
When I arrived in my village, I was welcomed with open arms, surrounded by locals who were patient enough to teach me their language and eager to share their culture and traditions. My host family and co-workers were proud individuals who loved their heritage but were also excited and curious to learn about my experiences as an American. I spent a lot of quality time with my counterpart, Kuljakul, who was president of our Village Health Committee.
My counterpart and I didn’t always see eye to eye, but during our time together, I came to respect her love and dedication to our community. Everything that she did was to make our village a better and more sustainable place to live in. From spearheading the construction of the local clinic so that community members could have access to quality medical care to applying for a Peace Corps volunteer, Kuljakul was passionately working to make a positive difference in our community. There are a lot of things that I admire about my counterpart; the fact that she holds a leadership position in the local government (a traditionally male-dominated group), how she is the matriarch of her family — always putting the needs of her children and grandchildren before herself, and how despite the great deal of responsibilities that she has (from taking care of livestock to tending to her farm), she still made time to educate community members on pertinent health issues facing Kyrgyz citizens.
A mutual love of our community is what got us through any obstacles that we faced. The unspoken truth was that at the end of my service, I would go back to America. Until that point, Kuljakul made sure that I was safe, that I learned about Kyrgyz culture so that I could share it with others in America, and that we would work together to make a positive impact in our community.
-Amanda Antono, K-22, Chui/Naryn
Developing Kyrgyz Agriculture – Sagyndyk
I just saw a Facebook post from Sagyndyk showing him making a presentation to a class at the University of Reading in England. Why is Sagyndyk there? He wants to get that training that will make a difference to the farm community in Kyrgyzstan because that’s where he grew up. That’s what he loves. He knows Kyrgyzstan’s challenges and he WILL be a part of its future. Stories like this are common in Kyrgyzstan.
Sagyndyk is a kind, thoughtful, smart man. Sagyndyk is my friend. Sagyndyk is Muslim.
-Tim Dutton, K-22, lived in Osh City, Osh
A Kyrgyz Family – Nasipa and Akel
These were my Kyrgyz host parents, Nasipa and Akel, who I lived with for nearly two years. I joined the Peace Corps without anticipating that my host parents would be one of my strongest support systems in country and especially what a personal champion my host mom would be for me. When I had problems at my site with people bailing on me, disappointing me, or disrespecting me, my host mom Nasipa was there to support me (while vocalizing how incompetent she thought some of these people were #nastywoman!). She was a constant source of positive reinforcement. She’d take pictures of me with my clubs, post them to Facebook, and brag about her “American daughter” whenever she had the chance. She was an advocate for a woman’s right to education in our small village, and helped me prepare lessons to bridge the gap between their religious upbringing and the education they so desperately needed.
My host parents, and almost everyone else in my village, were Muslims. I was the weird, young, white American girl. And I felt welcomed. In the winter, I could see the village mosque through the branches of trees in my backyard. The call to prayer still remains one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever heard. They knew I loved it too. And yes, we talked about religion. I asked them questions about Islam, and they asked me questions about religion in America. When I was with them, I never felt unsafe. We may have been brought up in different cultures following different religions, but they regarded me as one of their own. They took care of me, looked after me, and kept me safe like I was family. I can say with 100% certainty that I would not have had a successful service without these two.
-Stephanie Wolodkin, K-22, Issyk-kul oblast
A Warm and Kind Restaurateur
Close to the office there was a very small restaurant. After finding it by chance, I quickly became a regular. The food was great and the owner, a hijab-wearing woman in her 40’s, was a lovely person with a kind and joyful personality, close to laughter. One thing about her was that she treated everyone equal- in Kyrgyzstan there is quite a strict age hierarchy, but in her shop everyone got respect. School children longing for some samsa did not have to worry that the older gentleman coming in would take their place in the line – everyone was greeted with a familiarity and warmth that made one feel at home. (photo not available)
-Jessica Bragd, Novi Ritm fellow, Osh City, Osh
Tulip Lovers Unite – Zhuzumkhan
I met Zhuzumkhan at the American Corner in Bishkek while I was looking for someone to co-lead my women’s empowerment club. What started out as a professional relationship soon became a delightful sisterhood. Forming this bond was easy because not only is her English terrific, she has a wonderful sense of humor and a lot of questions about the world. We talked about boys, being the oldest sister, and about our hopes and dreams. We decided that one day we’d meet in Amsterdam because we joked that next to Kyrgyzstan, they probably have the second most beautiful tulips in the world.
-Phoebe O’Dell, K-22, Chui Oblast
Building a Better Community – Raziya
My counterpart, my best friend, the sister I’ve never had. It all comes down to one person: Raziya. From the great work she does with youth and community development, to the way she can light up a room and make everyone feel at home, she is one of the greatest souls I’ve ever known. We have quite literally laughed together and cried together. She motivates me to make an impact in my community the way she has for her own, and she knows no boundaries for what she can accomplish. I will always be grateful for her inspiration, compassion and dedication.
-Kelly Oberlin, K-23, Osh City, Osh
A Mother and a Friend – Ainuka
One of my closest relationships in Peace Corps was with my host mom, Ainuka Eshenaliev. She was a hardworking woman who welcomed me with open arms to her family. Among her many talents, she was a business woman and a teacher. One of her many business endeavors included making calendars with images of people or places in our village. We would sit together and spend hours at a time on my laptop editing photos. She always wanted to keep learning, to keep growing as an individual. I never felt like a stranger or a foreigner in her home. It had become OUR home. She always welcomed my questions about Kyrgyz culture and would excitedly teach me about anything I wanted to know. Her continuous acceptance towards me is something I will always remember and cherish.
-Rebekah Turnmire, K-22, Naryn Oblast
Little Sister, Huge Dreams! – Syrdash
My little host sister Syrdash Kudaiberdi Kyzy is a total power girl! I took her to America and she now studies English day and night at two different schools. She is motivated beyond belief to learn, and she will be one to watch as a future power woman of Kyrgyzstan!
The Future! – Students from Osh State University
My students at Osh State University were such amazing, switched-on kids. They meant the world to me and each had such a great story and such huge ambition. The next generation of Kyrgyzstan is a bright one!!!!!
-Erik Howell, K-21, Talas Oblast/Osh City, Osh
Lifelong Friendship – Asel
Asel was my best friend while living abroad in Kyrgyzstan. She helped everyone she could with a smile on her face. She made me feel safe and at home. She taught me life lessons only one can learn from a Kyrgyz woman. She is a wonderful wife, a loving mother, an amazing daughter, an intelligent English teacher, an eye opening mentor, a fantastic cook, and a devoted Muslim. I love her. Our friendship will last a lifetime.
Ariel Anaya, K-22, Naryn Oblast
If there is anything that we can take from this collection of amazing people (a lot of whom are empowered women I may add!) is that there is little to fear. The other is not so different, and if we truly want to make this world a better place, we need to build bridges, not walls. We must start with love, compassion, empathy, and a little bit of trust in the unknown.
You never know where, or to who, that unknown will take you.
May Peace Be Upon You