Yesterday, TOL published a story about the launch of efforts to integrate disabled children into Moldova’s public schools. More specifically, it’s the story of Ion, a teenager with Down syndrome who was written off when very young but, with the right instruction and more attention, has accomplished things his mother had been told never to hope for. Things like reading, writing, articulating, greeting people.

It chimed with a couple of other items we’ve published lately – a news brief about how much better Romani children are performing in mainstream schools in the UK than they did in special schools in the Czech Republic, and a piece about teenagers in a depressed Kazakh village hoping to pass a tough exam to get into an exchange program and go to the United States.

It’s easy to read the umpteenth article (including in TOL) about rural children not being able to walk the miles to school, or not having the basics for education, and to forget what that really means. But these recent stories reminded me: it means the difference between a chance at a decent life and no chance at all. By the time you’re 15.

What would have happened to Ion, had he not been plucked from the special school where he had been warehoused? Or those Romani children, had their parents not moved to the UK (and, critically, brought them along)? And what might happen still to those ambitious students in Kazakhstan, who lost their English-language teacher when the Peace Corps pulled out of the country late last year? What a crying shame just to think of it.

As I was mulling this over, I remembered an email that was forwarded to me recently from an organization called Bilqa, which provides mentors and grants to girls in Central Asia so they can stay in school.

It’s a region where girls are often married off quite young, to become, as Bilqa notes, essentially servants for their in-laws, or sometimes second, unregistered wives in a polygamous union.

The goals of the girls whom Bilqa helps – to learn English, become a doctor – shouldn’t be unattainable. But consider the examples of two teenagers, profiled on the group’s website:

Tahmina, 12, and Nasiba, 15, are sisters. Nasiba says she likes reading and literature. Tahmina is into biology and drawing. But they spend their days helping their mother make traditional cushions, ko’rpachah. Selling the cushions is the sole source of family income, as their young father is disabled. The family lives on a diet of vegetables with very little protein. Nasiba and Tahmina sometimes miss school, because they have to make more cushions to support the family. They have no thought of staying in school beyond the 8th grade.

There are lots of organizations trying to help deprived young people, but this one caught my attention because it’s small and direct (read the blog post of the organizer who had to get a shipment of donated coats from New York to Tajikistan, via Uzbekistan).

I won’t mount an appeal for donations, but if you’re moved by stories about long-shot hopes and dreams, maybe you should check Bilqa out.

Barbara Frye

Barbara Frye is Transitions Online’s managing editor. Email:

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