Bridging the Gaps in Women’s Hostel in Kyrgyzstan

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Leila and Sofia live in women hostel in Bishkek

Five-year-old Sofia is playing with her mother’s telephone. The girl is sitting on the floor and is listening to the music. She is switching between the songs, watching videos, and trying to find her favourite track. There are four beds in a small room. At some moment, the girl puts the phone away and asks: “Mom, what will Santa bring me?”

“What would you like, dear?” she hears from her mother, and the broad smile appears on her face. “I would like him to bring me a kitten. I will feed it with milk.”

When the girl is smiling, she has cute dimples on her cheeks. She brings a toy – plastic alphabet with the buttons. She presses the letters and repeats them. Sometimes she gets the letters wrong, and then the mother asks her to do it again.

TELLS ABOUT HIV TO NEW FRIENDS

Sofia and her forty-year-old mother Leila live in the hostel that operates in the centre of adaptation and socialization of women – injecting drug users in the public fund Asteria in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan. Leila was recently released from prison.

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Leila is teaching Sofia an alphabet

“I do not have any relatives; I was raised in the orphanage. I got to prison when I was pregnant, and my daughter was born there,” Leila tells. “Now I work in the kitchen or wash the floors. Recently I went to Turkey, and wanted to find a job there, but I do not know Turkish language, and that is why it did not happen. By education, I am a seamstress and a pastry chef, but it is hard to find a job because I am HIV-positive. I am being asked about my diagnosis all the time, and I always have to go through medical examinations. Now I have found a job as a nursemaid, but I do not have anyone to leave my daughter with. She has to go to kindergarten, but all of them here are not free of charge. I will have to spend almost whole salary to cover the pay for kindergarten… I am currently waiting for the cash advance to pay.”

Leila says that she tells her new friends about her diagnosis, even though she does not always want to do it.

“I think, people with my disease should talk about it, and warn others as well. Now I also bring other people to get tested. I am telling them they have to do it, and that it is free of charge,” Leila says. “Of course, people treat me different when I tell them about my diagnosis. Yes, it is unpleasant, but I am happy that in this way I do something nice to others. Everybody should know such things.”

PRAYING FOR ASTERIA

Leila is worried that the hostel in Asteria can be closed. In that case, the woman can end up on the street. She does not have anywhere to go to.

“I should not be complaining; we have everything here. The main thing is the roof over your head,” the woman smiles and hugs her daughter. “I am very comfortable here. We receive medical treatment, there is a place to sleep, to do laundry. Every Sunday we go to church. In the church I always pray for this house, for people who help us here, and ask God that the organization has donors.”

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The head of Asteria Iren Ermolaeva shows the rules of the hostel

Leila says that she would like to move from the hostel in the future, but she does not have such possibility yet. She dreams of her own home, family, and work. She also wishes that the hostel will never close. People who work in Asteria have the same desire.

“We indeed often have problems with financing. Every year we do not know what to expect in the next one,” the head of the public fund Asteria Iren Ermolaeva says. “Our public fund is working since 2007, and the hostel – since 2009. We would like to have the whole range of services, but there is not enough financing these days. We know how to find the approach to women, we know how to create friendly atmosphere so that a woman would want to change her life for better herself, and we would like to use this knowledge. We feel sorry for our clients, and we would like to help them more.”

DREAMING ABOUT OWN HOUSE

Workers of Asteria also dream about purchasing the house where they will place the centre of adaptation and socialization of women – injecting drug users and the hostel. They have already found funds for the future house renovation, but cannot find money for its purchase.

“Then we would be able to have social entrepreneurship, maybe some little farm. In that way, we could at least not depend on donors in food,” the coordinator of the social services of the fund Tatiana Musagalieva is saying. “Until now, we rented all three houses for our centre.”

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Asteria workers Iren Ermolaeva (on the right) and Tatiana Musagalieva say that their organisation often has problems with financing

Thanks to “Bridging the Gaps: Health and Rights for Key Populations” project from Public Foundation “AIDS Foundation East-West in the Kyrgyz Republic”, in 2016 Asteria could support four beds in the hostel. The project also helped with medicine and warm food.

“People often come to us to eat, to do laundry,” Iren Ermolaeva says. “Around 300 women come through our centre during one year. Leila, for instance, came here after she was released from prison. She has got all the necessary services, clothes, shoes, and got medical examinations. Leila was imprisoned for five years, and, now, due to the conditions that we have, she adapts and integrates into society. In this way, she becomes more confident in herself, can find a job and build her future.”

Irina Used Drugs and Became a Social Worker

irinaIrina Starkova started to use drugs in 1980’s in Osh city in Kyrgyzstan. She tried all the drugs that were available at that time starting with opium, ephedrine and finishing with heroin. She began to use drugs with her husband who was just released from prison.

In 1983, Irina gave birth to a son. “I was happy, but even that did not stop me from drug usage. I couldn’t imagine life without drugs, – Iryna says. – In 1990, I was imprisoned for the first time. After that, I was imprisoned for three times more. In total, I was in detention for almost 11 years, and it was all for the drug use.”

Thus, her son grew up mostly without his mother. Irina’s parents were raising him up. In 2000, she was visited by a specialist from the AIDS Center. He took her blood for HIV testing, and a week later Irina got to know that she was HIV positive. At that time, she had very little information about her diagnosis. “I didn’t know how to live and was afraid of people and relatives condemn, – she remembers. – But I began to shoot up even more drugs. I thought that I will die soon because of HIV…”

Nine years ago, when she was released from prison for the last time, her mom and son got to know that Irina was HIV positive. Their reaction was very unpleasant: Irina’s son said that he did not need a mother, and that she was his shame, and her mother was afraid to live with her in the same apartment. Therefore, Irina was forced to leave to Bishkek, the capital of Kyrgyzstan.

In Bishkek she also found heroin, and it all lasted until she went to rehabilitation in NGO “Ranar” where she got helped. “I don’t use drugs for 9 years already, – she says. – In 2009, I was tested for HIV one more time and I found out that I am healthy and I have no positive status. They explained me that this was an erroneous result. I did not know whether to laugh or cry, because all these years were a nightmare for me. What would have my life been if I knew that I was not sick…”

When Irina went back to Osh, she visited women center “Podruga” (“Girlfriend” in Russian) to receive their services. “Podruga” was established to combat HIV, AIDS and STIs in the Kyrgyz Republic among vulnerable groups. The organization is also is active in HIV/AIDS advocacy and human rights. Now, for three years already, Irina is working in the organization as a social worker. She helps women who use drugs.