When I heard about the Peace Corps pulling out of Kazakhstan three weeks ago, I thought about a young girl. I don’t even know her name, but she stared out of a photo that we ran with a story about her class.
It was a story about hope, ambition, and hard work. Some of this girl’s classmates – maybe she was among them – were studying for a chance to participate in a student exchange program in the United States. After a year in the States, the experience could lead to placement in more prestigious universities or better jobs.
It had all the elements of the kind of story I’m a sucker for: young people trapped in a dispirited and economically depressed small town, nursing big dreams and working hard – with no one to pull strings for them.
But they had a secret weapon, and his name was Alex White. I don’t want to make a hero out of White (and he wouldn’t want that either), because I think this story is really about the kids. But White, a 24-year-old Peace Corps volunteer, was someone they needed, someone to believe in their dreams and just help them get from Point A to Point B. He drilled them every day for the FLEX student exchange exam, which requires English-language proficiency, and bought some new English textbooks to replace the woeful ones they had been using. He also started a fund to replace all of the school’s English-language textbooks.
True, none of them passed the exam this year, but they didn’t exactly have a head start, and failing before passing is apparently pretty common.
White and they were already looking ahead to next year’s exam when the news came about the pullout.
In an emotional Skype exchange, White told me he was given a week to travel from his village in the northwestern Aktobe province to Almaty before being flown home. He wrote a letter to his students, had it translated into Kazakh, and read it aloud to them.
“I knew they would be upset and confused, but I didn’t expect to see as many tears as I did,” he said. “Dozens of my students, especially my FLEX students, would come in [to his office] at a time, dozens of them, and just start crying.”
I asked who might take over this mission of getting his students into an exchange program. He said one younger teacher was best suited to it, but she, too, is likely to leave soon.
In the five days before he had to board a train to ride across the country, White described a scene of “madness,” filled with packing, paperwork, saying goodbye, but most of all, “trying to tell them all the different things they could do, trying to sign them up for email addresses and Facebook accounts, preparing handouts about TOEFL tests and Global UGRAD and every other possible study abroad program available to them.”
As for their options, White is trying to stay optimistic. He hopes that some of their parents will send them to study at schools in the provincial capital, about 15 kilometers away, but that involves relatively expensive and infrequent bus travel six days a week, in addition, most likely, to having to bribe admissions officials.
In a blog post, White, who is no longer in the Peace Corps, disputed the organization’s claim that security concerns, including what the government says are increasing terrorist attacks, were behind the move. He noted that volunteers stayed in southern Kyrgyzstan during the more perilous ethnic violence there last year. Instead, he writes, “Influential members of the Kazakhstani government A) find Peace Corps’ programs and volunteers’ work irrelevant and unnecessary due to level of development that can be found B) don’t trust us, dislike us, and want us gone or C) both.”
White himself experienced some of that mistrust in October, when the provincial paper wrote a screed suggesting that the volunteers were spies. On his blog, White quotes the part of the article about him: “Moreover, many misdirected volunteers do not have philological education…. They were brought up on the ideas of American hegemony which suppresses everyone and everything. Alexander White from Kyzylzhar school is a film director. Is he, by any case, directing Velvet Revolution?”
Now this spy, whom, as he notes, “people still don’t understand .. when I ask where the bathroom is” has gone home, and it’s altogether uncertain what will happen to those big dreams of his students.
As for White, he’s hoping to go back to Kazakhstan working for a foundation to produce videos advocating for equal access to justice.
One sad footnote: White was $700 away from his goal of raising $3,500 to replace the textbooks when he got his pullout notice. He was forced to refund all the donors their money and the project has been abandoned.
Now for some housekeeping: The deadline for TOL’s annual photo competition is December 15. We’ve had a good response, but could always use more submissions. The first prize is 200 euros. For more information, please click here.
Photos by Dariya Tsyrenzhapova