A Better Future for the Children of the Caucasus
“When I get older, I want to become a lawyer,” the boy adds, standing in the small building that serves as the community of Muzhichi’s village library, established with the help of the International Rescue Committee and the U.S. Agency for International Development as part of the Vmeste (Together) program.
The Vmeste program, which ended in September 2007 after two successful years, worked with communities in the Russian republics of Ingushetia and Chechnya which have suffered as a result of conflict in the region. Under the program, the IRC and its partners worked with communities to identify problems, then discussing what could be done to solve them. Committees were elected to manage the projects, bringing community, government and public service representatives together.
Magomed’s dream of becoming a lawyer would have seemed all but impossible a year ago. Located in the mountains of the republic of Ingushetia, part of the Russian Federation’s conflict-prone North Caucasus region, Magomed’s isolated rural community is comprised of ethnic Ingush and those who fled the violence in neighboring Chechnya. The village offers few opportunities for its young people, who study in an over-crowded school with hardly any resources. A shocking 90 percent of this community is unemployed. The head teacher of the school in Muzhichi, Tamara Basaeva, explains that the Ingush Ministry of Education has been unable to replace text books in schools in the republic since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.
“Most of the families cannot afford to buy text books for their children, so we can’t teach the up-to-date curriculum,” she says.
Higher education is free in Russia and there are two systems for entering university. Students can take individual exams for each university, requiring separate preparation and travel, unaffordable for the students in Muzhichi. Another opportunity is to study for the General State Exam, which allows students to take just one exam and with those results apply to universities. While a more feasible option, Tamara says that without the up-to-date school books her school could not teach the exam’s curriculum. As a result, university education has been out of reach for the young people of Muzhichi like Magomed.
This has all changed with Vmeste. Through the program, the community chose projects that centered on education. A school classroom has been established for the elementary class who previously had nowhere to study and those desperately needed new school textbooks have been purchased. The books are kept in the Vmeste-supported community library which also houses recent newspapers as well as a wide range of books available for the whole community to use.
The new text books have already made a dramatic difference to the community and are providing a brighter future for Muzhichi’s children. As well as teaching up-to-date curriculum in history, chemistry, mathematics and biology, the school has set up an after-school homework club to help students make the most of the new books and begin to catch up on all that they have missed. In addition, Tamara and her team can now prepare their older students for that vital General State Exam.
“In the first year alone, three students have been accepted into university, including one student who has gained a place in medical school,” Tamara says proudly. “This simply could not have happened without those books.”
It isn’t just the new text books and facilities that have made a difference in Muzhichi. Tamara explains that through Vmeste, the IRC worked with the community to help identify problems and, more importantly, what they could do to solve them. A member of the Community Recovery Committee – elected by the people of Muzhichi to oversee the projects – Tamara says she and fellow committee members learnt how to design community projects and find the resources they needed to complete them.
As part of Vmeste, the community in Muzhichi found ways to contribute towards their own recovery, with building materials, labour and additional funds for teacher salaries for the homework club. The community’s contributions have totaled over US$ 11,500 – some 35 percent of the total project costs in Muzhichi.
“Through Vmeste we understood that it was important for the community to do what it could to solve its problems, Tamara explains. “And by showing this to potential donors we could receive the extra support we needed to make a real difference.”
This has already led to major changes in Muzhichi, brought about by the community members themselves.
“We have applied to a program run by the government of Ingushetia and will now receive two computers for the library,” Tamara says.
The village librarian is receiving computer classes as part of the program and will teach community members how to use the computers. The school is also receiving support from a local businessman for vital building renovations.
“The community has become more active,” Tamara says. “When people saw that the Vmeste program was working, that there were results, they became involved.”
Tamara has also seen renewed commitment among her staff.
“They did not take their holiday,” she exclaims. “They worked all through the summer to make sure the school was ready for the students.”
Through Vmeste, with the support of USAID and Irish Aid, 49 projects in 15 communities were designed and managed by community members. These have included water systems, school repairs, health clinic equipment, playgrounds, computers for schools and sidewalks, benefiting almost 70,000 people.
Vmeste communities are now working together independently on initiatives that range from providing electricity to homes to establishing pre-schools.
True to its name, the legacy of Vmeste in Muzhichi is that it has brought the community together, Tamara says.
“The community is continuing to move forward, empowered and creating a better future for our children.”