Travel in Tajikistan, a Country of Miracles

Today, I delve into more my travels in Tajikistan, a place very different from anywhere I’ve been. At the same time, I begin to share the beautiful stories of courage and strength of the brave souls I encountered there. The human spirit and faith can overcome much; in Tajikistan, I met people who have done so in the bleakest of circumstances.

Niloufar wept as she recalled her mother’s suffering and the pain of her father “disappearing” several years after he left them and went to Russia. She had determined, however, not to let the circumstances of her growing-up years keep her from a better life.

Niloufar told me how she worked her way through college, unlike many of her friends whose parents could afford to support them. After graduating and marrying, she worked two jobs, one for a non-governmental organization (NGO) and the other selling underwear. She started a learning program to fill a need for her own children, which helped her develop personally as she had to study business, marketing, and customer service. At the same time, she has been able to give her children a better life.

Now, she loves her job with a different NGO. Her work, she told me, helps women to increase their skills, enjoy greater freedom, and have more opportunities. Today, she coordinates livelihood projects for village women, many of them emigrant widows[1] like her mother, and she has successfully started a school for people with learning disabilities, a rarity in Tajikistan.

[1] Emigrant widows are women who stay in their country of origin while their husband/significant other emigrates for labor purposes.

How did she manage to overcome the odds? How did she, as she described it, “see miracles?”

Her faith.

Let me tell you how I came to hear her story.

In my twenties, I went on numerous church mission trips to Latin American. Later, for several years, I worked with a non-profit that helps disadvantaged children in Central Asia. Although the two regions are different in many ways, I was struck by certain similarities. In both places, many men leave their countries of origin and go abroad to work, intending to send money back to their families and/or eventually bring their families to live with them. In reality, the women and children often have a harder life once the husband and father leave. Many lose contact with him. I decided to study the lives of these women, whom I term “emigrant widows” and research the circumstances surrounding their lives.

Now here I was, several years after beginning on this research project, finally able to visit Tajikistan.

In a previous post, you may remember, I told how I traveled to Tajikistan with my friend Nadia, who has family there. Our second morning in Tajikistan, I got up in a complete brain fog. Sleep had eluded me until nearly 4:00 AM. Light sleeper that I am, when Nadia awoke and began moving around the room, I woke up, too.

It was just after 8:00 AM.

The jet lag not only affected my sleep and left me with a sense of malaise but it had affected my stomach. Nadia had planned for us to spend the day with some friends, but we agreed that I would stay to rest at the hotel during the day. If I felt better later, she would pick me up to go to dinner at the house of one of my research contacts, Niloufar. As the day wore on, I did feel better. Nadia ended up sending a taxi for me to meet me at Niloufar’s home.

I have taken taxis in several countries, but this was a new experience. Once the driver picked me up at the hotel, he drove to the end of the block and stopped at a convenience store, leaving the car running with me in it.

He returned with his hands full, including two bottles. “Energy drink,” he said in English, handing one of the bottles over the seat to me. Allllll righty, then. I do not drink energy drinks. Even if I did, I wouldn’t have one that late in the day. Besides, I hadn’t said anything about being thirsty!

Unsure of the protocol, I thanked him and set the bottle next to me on the seat. “I’ll drink it later,” I told him.

He put the car in gear, and then proffered something else over the seatback. “Cigarette?” he asked.

“No thank you.”

Undeterred, he lit up.

Huh? Even for a less-developed country—and I’ve been in my share—that seemed a bit presumptuous. Later I learned that he probably assumed I was Russian. Apparently, many women from Russia smoke. While he was right about my Russian heritage (two generations back), I don’t smoke!

I rolled down my window, letting the damp, chill, November air swirl in. It diffused the smoke somewhat but not enough, so I grabbed my notebook and began vigorously waving it in front of my face, coughing. He seemed to get the point. He stubbed out the cigarette, then cranked the volume of his music up to a level my sensitive ears did not appreciate. Fortunately, I had earplugs in my pocket.

We arrived at a large apartment block, the kind that reminded me of pictures I’d seen of the former Soviet Union. (Tajikistan was part of the Soviet Union and of the Russian Empire before it.) Nadia and Niloufar were waiting on the sidewalk. I noticed here as elsewhere that the gutters are concrete ditches about two feet deep that sharply divide the streets or parking lots from the sidewalks. You have to step across them, and across some of the wider ones people have placed boards.

We ascended a short flight of chipped concrete steps, one of two sets leading to separate entrances, and entered a small, high-ceilinged foyer with a beat-up elevator. Niloufar pressed a key fob to a sensor and pressed the button. Ten floors up, we got out and crossed the square hall to a non-descript door.

Light and warmth spilled out of the doorway. In the entry hall, we took off our shoes and lined them on small racks, a practice I quickly learned is standard in the region. Beyond, in the guest room, large sheets of plastic like tablecloths with ornate designs were spread across most of the floor, bordered by cushioned seating mats against the walls. For anyone who has spent time in the Middle East or Central Asia, this style of dining will be familiar, but this trip was my first time experiencing it.

While Nadia, her driver, my translator, and I sat cross-legged or reclined on the cushions, Niloufar and several of her family members scurried in and out bringing the food. First, they bought pots of green tea, Tajikistan’s national drink, flavored with fresh lemon slices and sugar, large rounds of na’an bread, and plates piled high with green grapes and grapes. Everything is shared among two to four people. Small cups with no handles were passed around for the tea.

Words fail me to describe the fruit.

It didn’t have the scrubbed, bruise-free, brightness that I’m used to in America, but the flavor! It was at the perfect ripeness, plump, juicy, bursting sweetness into my mouth with every bite. I had already noticed at the hotel that the tomatoes and fresh fruit were of a far better caliber than those in the US.

In the meantime, steaming platters of rice with vegetables and chunks meat came out, a pilau/pilaf style. Here it is called plov. (Say it with a Russian accent, and you’ve got the pronunciation!) Small plates of sweets, garnishes of carrots in a tasty garlic marinade, and two-liter bottles of cola were distributed with individual bowls and glasses for us to help ourselves to whatever we wanted.

I could not stop eating. It seemed I had been transported to one of those feasts you read about in a fairy tale! It felt luxurious, decadent.

As we ate, I started talking with Niloufar via the translator.

That Niloufar was a striking woman, I could tell over the Zoom calls we’d had. In person, she was even more so. Tall and regal, her silky hair was cut just past her jawline, framing intense dark eyes and well-defined cheekbones. Still, her smile transformed her face, and I had the opportunity to see her in her element over the next few days, helping indigent refugees, playing with disabled children.

Both of her parents, she told me, had had post-secondary education. Her mother was an accountant and her father, a graduate of a technical college, worked as a foreman for a construction firm.

Yet in the chaos of the early nineties, like many of the newly-independent countries formed when the Soviet Union dissolved, Tajikistan suffered from a dearth of jobs. Civil war reigned for several years as competing factions tried to take over the government. In the midst of the upheaval, Niloufar’s father decided he could better provide for his family if he went to Russia to work and send money home.

In those early days, Niloufar said, financial institutions were not as established in the country as they are now. Her father could only send money with people traveling back to Tajikistan, and most of the time, the money didn’t make it to Niloufar’s family.

As we spoke, tears welled up in Niloufar’s eyes. “Life always seemed like a dream,” she said, “like your father has to come back some time.” Married women and their children traditionally live with their in-laws, but Niloufar’s grandparents were dead, so that was not an option. They lived in an apartment in a small village. Niloufar’s mother, an educated professional, could only find work as a farm laborer.

“She lost everything,” said Niloufar, “and she became very sick. At that time, I didn’t understand why, but now I do. She was stressed. She had depression.”

By this time, both Niloufar and my translator were in tears. They both apologized until I pointed out that I was crying, too. I asked Niloufar for more insight into her mother’s depression.

“We didn’t have enough money for food, for stuff,” she said. “Most of the time we were eating bread made from corn.” She explained that in the United States she had the opportunity to eat good corn bread, but “ours was so disgusting. It was like a rock. I remember one day we had the opportunity to buy flour. We were so happy! It was like a celebration. We knew our mom was going to make something delicious.”

During this time, the family lost contact with Niloufar’s father. Communication ceased. To this day, Niloufar and her family don’t know where he was or what happened to him. Naturally, her father’s departure and subsequent abandonment affected not only Niloufar’s mother but Niloufar herself. Niloufar attempted suicide three times.

Rose, Tajikistan Park

Someone in her village, however, made a difference. The poverty of Niloufar’s family was the norm in her village, yet one lady stood out. “Though she was poor, I saw love. She was so loving and so warm, and I saw her actions, and I was like, ‘I want to trust this God. I want to follow your God.’”

I asked what God that was.

“She was a Christian,” Niloufar replied. “The first time I met Jesus [was] through this lady. I saw Jesus in her.”

Niloufar related that without her father, it was really hard to live, and “I tried to kill myself three times. God and my faith gave me hope that the situation could be changed. My faith helped me not to give up. I heard always [a] voice inside which said, ‘don’t give up.’”

Faith not only allowed Niloufar to survive; it became her rock when dreams seemed out of reach. It gave her courage when obstacles arose. Determined not to live the rest of her life in poverty, she fixated on study. “I was always praying, ‘God, please give [me] the opportunity to study.’” Working to put herself through school, she could not attend the university she wanted, but she did find another, cheaper one. She married soon after graduating.

Still, she felt driven to do more and better. Her first job at an NGO working on a livelihood project for teenagers was not enough. She would come home from work, make her husband dinner, clean house, and go to her second job selling underwear.

Niloufar told me that she believed that having a business would help her to develop and study to help her children have a better life. She opened a school for disabled children, one of the first in Tajikistan.

It started when, unable to find a good kindergarten for her own kids, she opened one in her own home. Her reputation for working with children grew, and people she knew began asking to send their kids to her. Soon, attendance grew from five (besides her own two) to thirty! From there it became a business. Niloufar said, “Then I started studying about inclusive classes, how to improve my business, marketing, how to work with customers. Yeah, I didn’t start it very fast, but step by step as God guided me.”

She reminisced, “God and my faith give me hope that the situation can be changed . . . I have friends [who] get everything easily, and I was always wondering why for them is easy, but for me it’s so hard. For example, when I studied, I had to work to pay for my study. My friends were just studying, they didn’t [worry] about the payment. When I started my business, I went through pain . . . I was thinking about money and everything, but my friends, when they started their business? Their parents afforded another international organization to help them. And my faith, it always said to me, ‘Yes . . . you might not have some rich relatives, but you have your God.’ And yes, I saw miracles in my life.”

We had all shed tears by the time Niloufar’s story was over. We wrapped up dinner soon after and said goodbyes before Nadia’s driver took us back to the hotel.

My trip to Tajikistan to that point had not been a fun, exhilarating vacation. But I felt I was getting something far better.

I was seeing miracles.

To be continued . . .

For more on my Tajikistan trip, check out my previous post:

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