About the Author: Anne Benjaminson serves as a Cultural Affairs Officer at the U.S. Embassy in Dushanbe, Tajikistan.
In the warm spring air, it was almost possible to forget the winter Tajikistan had just suffered through. The sun was shining and grass was poking through the dirt. The trees around us, however, were all stumps. They had all been cut down for firewood in desperation for warmth and cash during Tajikistan's coldest winter in more than 40 years.
An Embassy delegation of Ambassador Tracey Jacobson, USAID Deputy Program Officer Steve Kelley, Interpreter Khurshed Mayusupov and I were in Kirov, a small town about two hours south of Dushanbe. The town couldn't have been more than 2,000 people, but at least 50 families have children with disabilities. Many were caused by poor prenatal nutrition or exposure to toxic chemicals in nearby cotton fields, where most of the town's residents toil every fall.
We were in Kirov to visit an aid distribution funded by the U.S. Government and implemented by Save the Children, an international NGO active in Tajikistan. The United States provided nearly $1 million in emergency humanitarian aid, in addition to more than $1 million in humanitarian daily rations, to help Tajikistanis survive the extreme temperatures and widespread power cuts that left many people in the dark, with limited food supplies. Our humanitarian assistance this winter was in addition to an $8.5 million annual Food for Peace program, which is scheduled to end this year due to lack of funding. There are no official statistics, but the media reported that newborn babies were dying of exposure -- in maternity wards. Many schools were closed, and those that remained open were without power or heat.
One by one, families streamed past us into the local health center, where they received a cash payment of 200 somoni, about $60. For many of these families, the cash amount was the equivalent of about three months' wages. Families will use the money to buy food and seeds for this year's planting season. One woman was overcome by tears. Families also received blankets and candles for the tough times that undoubtably lie ahead. The poorest country in the former Soviet Union, Tajikistan has tremendous hydropower potential, but has been unable to provide power year-round, particularly in rural areas.
After leaving the health center, we visited the home of a family who had received aid. As we entered the yard, one of the younger children approached us and shook everyone's hand, starting with the Ambassador. His smile was enormous, and he happily followed us around, chatting the whole time. Like one of his older brothers, he has two club feet. The five children in the family share three pairs of shoes between them, so they can't all go to school at once. The father is trying to get agricultural work, but in February transportation costs took up all of his earnings. Parents, children and a grandfather share a single room. While they have a large plot of land, there is no well on or near the property, making small-scale agriculture impossible.
I am constantly amazed at the hospitality and friendless of Tajikistanis who have so little. It's impossible to have a conversation with anyone without being offered tea and invited to their home. After the disintegration of the Soviet Union and five-year civil war, Tajikistanis have fallen behind many developing countries in living standards, health care and education. Humanitarian aid is as essential to the population's survival as the one million Tajikistanis working in Russia. Seeing women my age alone with several children, living hand-to-mouth, reminded me that it could have easily been me carrying water from a well half a mile away every day, feeding my baby tea for lack of anything else. As far away as places like Tajikistan are, the human value of compassion -- and helping because you can -- is universal.