The Doezal Centre in Grozny: January - August 2008
By way of introduction I would just like to again reiterate for the umpteenth year that what we do in Chechnya is not humanitarian aid. For eight years now we have been working to the benefit of and together with the women of a city that was almost completely levelled those eight years ago. Together we come up with ideas and bring them to fruition to help these women and others find lost balance and tackle the difficulties of a life marked by disaster.
The self-help aspect of the project was fulfilled almost without exception during the first six months of work on the project, which was assigned funding from the development programme of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Czech Republic. In spite of the difficulties caused by a delay of more than six months in the actual allocation of funding and despite the situation in the Caucasus region worsening again, the women of Grozny kept the faith and were able to maintain the running of the Community Centre at the rhythm and format of the previous year and even begin new practical courses. The renown of the Doezal Centre in Grozny continues to grow and has resulted in a number of acts of support from local state administration, directed either towards the group at the Centre or towards the individual families that are the Centre's clients. Other major pluses are the fact that communication continues to improve between us and the consistent atmosphere of compactness of the local team.
How are our friends from Doezal today (or how are the women from the Regionalnyj Obščestvennyj Fond Semja society)?
Their so-called socio-economic situation reached a critical stage during the first half of the year. The strong initial feature of the project drew on the basic concept of training in self-help business for socially weaker women from the families worst affected by the war and the continuing high level of unemployment. In spite of the fact that helping others became a universally appreciated surplus value of our programme in Grozny, it is not possible to expect these women to be able to fund their activity. The catch-22 situation caused by major debts in spring could only be retrieved by a loan from sponsorship donations for individual families. This situation is experience for the entire team and something that we must continue to work on. As for improvements to the socio-economic situations of our clients, the effects of work at the Centre are certainly quite clear in this regard. Several trainees from courses found work and a number of them got married having picked up the required housekeeping skills from their training. Middle-aged people instead of young people began attending computer courses, a result of the far more active approach shown by people of working age than, for example, a couple of years ago.
- The self-help centre strengthened the identity which corresponds to its name - the Family. It is genuinely a place where people go not solely to sustain and help only themselves; work is done here with the whole family through the individual.
- The range of existing courses was mainly broadened to include two that had been previously planned - a course in cooking, confectionery and baking and a course in English. Both courses were filled immediately, with double or triple the capacity trying to sign up, making it all the harder to choose between the applicants. The main criterion for selection was again family situation, with motherless girls being given precedence on the cooking course. English was available at two levels - beginners and advanced. The criteria for selection here were the personal study and professional plans of the applicants.
- The self-help dressmaking workshop now has a number of regular customers and also continues to operate as a place where young women from other courses can mend, alter or sew their own clothes. The new cooking course has led to efforts to carry through a plan to open a shop with homemade produce. Only one thing is preventing its opening; the permission of the local public health officer.
- The heads of all existing courses, together with social workers and our newly-hired psychologist, are in regular consultation with the adult participants of courses regarding their options and ability to find a place on the ever-problematic labour market in Grozny. The presence of the psychologist is also useful to our team of women in Grozny, acting as she does as a mediator who is able to comprehensively judge the situation of the individual and the group at a distance.
Everyone who is subsequently able to find even temporary work comes to share this success with the others in the community.
Advances, improvements, changes and their impact
- One improvement is certainly the option of supervising the young children of sole bread-winning mothers at times when the mother is attending a course, meaning that women who would not normally have the opportunity to attend such courses are now able to. The renown of an organisation which provides quality instruction with no charges or backhanders attracted many middle-aged people, people who can for the first time in their lives learn about working with computers, something that is so essential on the labour market. One innovation is the decision of the centre to award the most successful students certificates, which thanks to the renown of the centre are beginning to carry a certain weight and act as effective PR at local administration level.
- The Centre's own produce has almost become a necessity. The sewing workshops have broadened their range of products and in addition to skirts and dresses the women now make t-shirts, coats, bags and bed clothes. There are cooking courses to run alongside independent production and surpluses of fruit and vegetable production and domestic breeding have been used in the kitchen for the past two months. The girls that learn how to cook regularly organise group lunches for the old people from the programme for senior citizens. The Centre is ready to open its own shop selling produce, with the team currently trying to sort out administrative permits from the local public health officer.
- The launch of our cooking courses became an instant hit in Grozny. A total of 24 girls were accepted. However, this is not simply a training course, but an entirely new and very popular type of social service for young girls to have grown up without mother or father. These courses are mainly valued for the fact that they help girls acquire the skills needed to run a kitchen, household and garden. Most of the girls also automatically take courses in first aid and proper diet and are encouraged to be able to pass on the knowledge they obtain to their brothers and sisters. The mothers at the centre thus became teachers for other mothers and teachers. The effect of strengthening the family is multiplied by the regular presence of the older generation - respect and the obligation to help old people is a traditional value in Chechnya, but also one that has been seriously damaged by the current situation in society. The newly-opened English course is divided in two parallel-running parts - one for beginners and the other for advanced students. One advantage here is the possibility of downloading teaching material from the Internet - students have the opportunity to learn about the life and institutions in English-speaking countries.
- The sewing workshops are in permanent use all week. The programme here is divided into courses in sewing, design, clothing and cutting for beginners and advanced students, the work of the self-help Salon Chava and opening hours for all clients of other courses, who use the workshop for making their own clothes, consultation and mending clothing. Work with clothing was further enhanced by the idea of announcing a "Free jumble sale", whereby workers at the Centre published an advertisement for a collection of used clothes for the needy. A range of the most popular produce for the proposed shop is also slowly coming together in the kitchen and canteen where the women cook and dine. The garden around the building of the Centre is fully used to grow our own fruit and vegetables.
- The health service at the Centre also continues. After thinking last year of closing the first aid course, we eventually decided to keep it going due to the high demand and it has been expanded this year to take in instruction on general diet and personal development. The team at the centre, made up of a doctor, psychologist, social worker and the manager of the Centre, is able to work together on the cases of individual clients at the Centre at times when specialised medical intervention must be ensured at medical facilities, even those outwith the region. The team is able to come up with a diagnosis (the doctor), assess the possibilities open to the family (the social worker and psychologist) and arrange a solution (the manager) - this procedure is entirely impossible for normal people in Grozny without having to offer money.
- Cooperation with other non-governmental organisations is still somewhat difficult since they have tended to fluctuate greatly in recent years (they are subject to strict supervision by state administration and the FSB). Non-governmental organisations, both local and international, if they are able to survive in Chechnya at all, have enough problems of their own. Semja mainly cooperates with the Islamic Relief organisation based in Nalchik. By contrast, Semja works very well with state institutions and thanks to problem-free and frequent checks is considered to be transparent and useful. The team has received unexpected support from here in the space of the past six months; for example, the Ministry of Culture provided Semja with 50 free tickets for a concert by prominent music and dance groups, whilst the allocation of separate housing was negotiated for certain families from the Friend-to-Friend Aid Programme at Semja. The planned launch of a website has yet to come to fruition as our presence is required during training in installing articles and we have been unable to attend so far.
- Student Alichan Pashajev, who learned Czech here and became involved in the Czech activities at Berkat, returned to Chechnya at the end of June after a ten-month stay in the Czech Republic and we have agreed further cooperation with him on the realisation of Czech Days in Grozny and the Czechia Youth Culture Club in Grozny.
Both feet on the ground, but we do not stand in the way of dreams and aspirations. Is this perhaps an infection of benevolent and practical madness?
Services - social, medical and psychological services to families would not be possible without many years of work in the field ensured by the Friend-to-Friend Aid to Families programme, which is paid for by sponsorship donations from people in the Czech Republic. It has often been extremely difficult in recent post-war years to pull people out of a state of absolute scepticism and passiveness and so for a long time it became necessary to go to them and listen patiently. Even though we were forced to borrow from funds intended for these people to cover the debts caused by the late allocation of a subsidy, it was nonetheless proven what a fundamental and positive investment this work in the field had been in the past. People learned to go to the Centre. They trust it and are able to come for services themselves and tell us what they need. For many the Centre has literally become a second home. What is more, the clientele at the Centre does not require any major publicity since people come from various regions of the city and themselves tell other people in their circle about the services on offer. Each and every positive report on help with housing, medical assistance or new courses gets around very quickly. The children's play area and library are also very important in terms of improving services.
Education and requalification programme - we are continuing in our efforts to elevate the current set of courses to a level which would mean officially recognised special statute. People come to the Centre to learn something and we provide them with this opportunity. Courses are linked to each other and many students continue on to a second course after having finished a first. The idea thus came about of setting up the two-year training cycle of the Eva Practical Family Institute. The young women that leave courses are personally and socially more self-confident and themselves come up with ideas of which other knowledge and skills it would be good to have. This produces flexible feedback and inner energy for self-sufficient activities. The new workers at the Centre who take care of the library, children's play area and garden are from another generation. Common cooking and dining clearly brought a major dynamic.
Produce, production and workshops: The human potential is there, as are the experience, resources and a place for sales. The problem that is becoming more and more difficult to resolve is the existence of various local permits and regulations that nobody really knows but everyone refers to. It can all be resolved with bribes, but we are of the general consensus that bribes are absolutely taboo in our field. We believe that the unique and valued social aspect of the work at our workshops will help resolve even this problem in the future. The value of an industrious and happy society acts as a radical contrast to the purely corrupt atmosphere of contemporary Chechen society.
Relations with the Czech Republic - work on preparing the Czech Days event in Grozny is proceeding at a slower pace than we expected. Indeed the date of the event has been put back to next spring. There are a number of administrative problems that have to be overcome, including those linked to fears of the danger of instability in the region. Nonetheless we are strengthened by the knowledge that we already have two young Czech-speaking men in Grozny (dancers from the Marsho group that spent a longer period of time in the Czech Republic to see what it was like and gain some experience) that are willing and able to help arrange preparations.
We plan to arrange a small rehearsal in October, when we intend to travel to Grozny on a working visit - a Czech Day of pictures, tastes and song.