Leaving to Return: From a Village to America and Back

Syrga Kanatbek Kyzy
[Personal Story] [Kyrgyzstan] [Access to Education] [Social Mobility] [Social Justice] [Public Service] [Public Health] [Overcoming Barriers]

Growing up outside of a small village on a self-sufficient farm in northern Kyrgyzstan, I was the eldest sister of seven girls and one boy. To get to school, I used to ride a donkey. Soon, at the age of 15, I started peeling potatoes, washing dishes for 14 hours a day in a Resort restaurant to provide for the whole family. Partially due to an alcoholic father. At the time, my situation was not unique.

Now, I am the Strategic Planning Coordination Intern at the Boston Network for International Development (BNID) and work as a United Nations Volunteer (UNV)/Programme Assistant at United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) in New York City. I am starting my second Master’s degree at the Heller School in Brandeis University.

And I am coming back to my village in Kyrgyzstan.


(My family having a dinner during my summer break 2019 in Kyrgyzstan)

My family is average in Kyrgyzstan: my father is a farmer and my mother is a housewife. Until the age of 15, I simply aimed to finish high school, go to the capital, get some vocational training for stable income. And get married -- the “ultimate life goal for a Kyrgyz woman” as my uncle likes to say. I even secretly wanted to be a bride kidnapped. Bride kidnapping in my community is not only a tradition but also a way of life, a deeply rooted mindset, and even a trendy way to get married. It would prove my worth as a good daughter, a desirable woman, and a responsible member of the village.

In high school, I first encountered different mindset and values (opinions). I got an opportunity to join an English club run by a Peace Corps worker. There, I not only learned a foreign language but also to openly express myself. For the first time, I was heard and not dismissed. And for the first time, I found the value in my own voice, my individuality, and the courage to question things around me. I started to ask “why?” to everything in the village.

(My two Peace Corps Workers [second and third from the left] and my two other classmates [second from the right])

One day, I asked my mom what she would do in case I was kidnapped to be a wife. Without blinking an eye, she said that she would not come to get me out. I would have to accept my fate and be a wife to my kidnapper! Why? Because escaping would potentially ruin my reputation and my family’s name, and that would damage my sisters success in finding a suitor.

I felt like a bucket of cold water was poured over me. Suddenly, I realized that the voice I have developed did not matter at the end of the day. The people that would not have to share a bed with a kidnapper their entire lives had more say in my life trajectory than I did. How was that possible? Why should I accept this fate? And even worse, I had to silently swallow this unfairness for my family’s sake. That’s not how I wanted to live my life. I started to see that my community was ridden with high unemployment, unequal access to quality education between urban and rural, and suffocating lives as females.

I didn’t know where I wanted to be and how to get there, but I knew I did not want to be stuck in this place. And education was the only option. Following the Peace Corps workers’ suggestion, I applied and was selected to be a scholarship exchange student in America for a year. The exchange year allowed me to see home under a different light. The offer of a more comfortable life in America would be only for me and not for the people I grew up with. If everyone left in search of a better life, who would bring change to home? Then, I resolved to seek the best learning I could have and apply the knowledge I have gained to improve the lives of the most vulnerable in Kyrgyzstan. I deeply care about people’s well-being, specifically in rural areas. I want everyone to have free access to information and opportunities as well. Above all, I want my sisters and brother to grow up in healthy and fair societies and be able to pursue the life they wanted free from gender stereotypes, devastating social biases, and boredom.

I decided to pursue a study in Global Studies in an American college with the generous support of my American host family and friends. I focused every opportunity to research and write on the politics, economics, and history of Central Asia. I sought all possible working experiences right from the first year of university to gain as many practical skills as I could. In summer 2017, I strategically applied to be an intern at the United States Agency for International Development in the Kyrgyz Republic (USAID) in order to learn about the landscape of INGOs’ efforts in my country and build connections with important civic and non-profit organizations.

(My colleague and I are representing USAID Kyrgyzstan at the 4th of July event at the U.S. Embassy in Bishkek, Kyrgyz Republic)

There, thanks to the connections and resources USAID provided, I conducted a research on domestic violence and public health in Kyrgyzstan. It startled me that non-communicable diseases (NCDs) such as heart and lung diseases, cancer, and diabetes accounted for 80% of all deaths in Kyrgyzstan (World Health Organization in Kyrgyzstan), yet an overwhelming amount of fundings went toward infectious diseases. Not to mention that topics like maternal health, reproductive health, mental health, and substance abuse that create a toxic environment for the family, especially children, are almost always avoided in Kyrgyzstan.

I became convinced that community health was the key to drive other important changes for the development of Kyrgyzstan. As my heroine, a respected female rural village leader, once said: “If families are hurting due to lack of appropriate health services, then do not be surprised if they are not interested in democracy and infrastructure.”

Over the past years, I have interned with the American Councils for International Education in Washington D.C. and UNDP Global Programme on Nature for Development. I am pursuing a dual Master’s degree in Sustainable International Development as well as Global Health Policy and Management. It has always been my goal to go back to Kyrgyzstan with professional experiences obtained from the World Health Organization (WHO), and the United Nations Children's Fund is a United Nations (UNICEF), and other leading INGOs in education and social justice. Whatever work I will do, I hope to build a healthy Kyrgyzstan, where people not only are physically well but also engaging with respect in civil conversations that facilitate critical and open mindsets, creativity, and empathy.

My journey started in a small village on a farm in northern Kyrgyzstan, with seven sisters and a brother. I want to end my journey here/where it once started, where the future generations will be happy and resilient no matter what background they come from, no matter what hardships they face.

(Teaching boys and girls English in my village in Kyrgyzstan during summer 2019)