Putting down roots so that they may spread their wings
Part Two: The Karakol Projects
The driving force behind the six-day hike we did in the Northern Himalayas, along part of the Silk Road, was to raise funds for the Roots & Wings projects in Karakol. We are thrilled to have raised over $51,000. Once again, a huge thanks to everyone who donated. I’m completed floored by the overwhelming support and generosity!
Karakol is a small city on the Eastern side of Kyrgyzstan, about 150 km from the Chinese border. It rests on the tip of the beautiful Issyk Kul lake, ringed by mountains that look like watercolour paintings. The buildings have an aged Soviet air about them, and the streets are filled with cars, donkeys, horses and cows all jostling for space.
Roisin’s father, Hugh Coulter, worked in Karakol on and off for ten years. While he was there, he fell in love with the Kyrgyz people and the city, and he began contributing to the local orphanage. From there, he put together micro credit loans to help out the small business owners in the city, to help revitalize the local economy. When the Soviet Union collapsed, all of the factories in Kygryzstan were closed and it fell into economic decline. They are still struggling. It is estimated that one third of the population lives in extreme poverty.
Roisin and her mother, Jean Coulter have joined forces with an NGO in the United States, Roots & Wings, and together they have been continuing Hugh’s work in Karakol. They have progressed from micro credit projects into investing in small businesses that have a strong social impact in the city. The reasons for this are, with micro credit projects, the entrepreneur must begin repaying the loan straight away. Investment, on the other hand, allows the entrepreneur to grow his or her business without having to worry about repayments. Roots & Wings only makes money if the business does, and that money is reinvested in the business, or one of the other projects.
Before we began our hike, we spent a day touring some of the projects that our donations will go towards. At each place, we were treated to Kyrgyz hospitality: they laid out a huge spread of home-made bread, jams, cakes, fruit, cheese, and endless tea and coffee. We met some incredible, generous and hard-working people. I’m so excited to see how their businesses will progress.
Kinderland — Preschool for children aged 3-7. Early childcare education is crucial to breaking the cycle of poverty. During the Soviet era, both men and women worked and school was free, from preschool all the way to University. Now, there are very few preschools, and only 15% of the children attend. The state does run a few free preschools, but they have up to 70 kids per class. Kinderland is a private school, with instruction in Russian and English. Roots & Wings is sponsoring children to attend preschool here. One of the little boys R&W is sponsoring came with his parents and little brother while we had tea and snacks with the director, Miri. The boys played in the other room, mimicking the eagle hunters with plastic birds and a pretend horse. Their father thanked Jean profusely, saying it has made all the difference in their family. R&W will also sponsor the younger boy, and their child who has special needs.
Medical Diagnostic Centre — The woman who built this medical centre from the ground up, Asel, is a remarkable person. We were all so impressed with her. She’s 35, has a PhD in obstetrics and immunology, and two young children. While she spoke, her eyes shone with a passion I’ve never seen before; if someone could bottle that, we’d change the world.
Before Asel created her medical centre in 2009, people had to travel to Bishkek (about 400 km) to get even simple blood tests. The state hospitals are over crowded and sometimes the ‘doctors’ there have only purchased a degree, not gone to medical school. There are many misdiagnoses and mistreatments, and as a result, many people have had chronic problems or died unnecessarily.
Asel has created a diagnostic centre for blood testing, DNA testing, ultrasound and gynaecology. She’s rented two apartments and converted them into a lab. She has big ambitions for where she wants to take her practice: Internationally recognized standards accreditation (if she does, it will be the only one in Kyrgyzstan), a larger facility with more doctors, more consultation services, more services in surrounding villages, a rehabilitation centre for cardiac patients (cardiac problems are the major cause of illness here).
Asel was at the press conference after our hike finished and she said our visit has given her more motivation, and she now feels like she has a solid support system behind her so she can achieve her goals — I can’t wait to see what amazing things she will do next.
Leather Glove Production — During Soviet times, Kyrgyzstan’s role was to cultivate animals and meat. Now, they are missing the first level of production for doing anything with animal products: the animals are sold to Bishkek, where the leather is produced and then sold back to Karakol at inflated costs. The main industry in Karakol now is gold mining and the miners need good quality gloves. This project would see the local people getting leather directly from farmers without the middle step. Currently, they are getting leather from Bishkek and hand making gloves, in home, for the miners.
Milk and Cheese Production — Another in-home project. When we arrived, there were two women and one man sitting around a table braiding long strings of cheese, like noodles. Once braided, the cheese goes to be wood-smoked in a shack in the back yard. They also produce yoghurt, cream (the best cream I’ve ever tasted), other types of cheese, and mushrooms. It is very popular in the community; people come to the house to buy directly from the milk man. Everything is hand done and the machinery is outdated.
These are just a few of the local businesses that Roots and Wings is investing in (others include bee keeping and felt handicrafts), to support local entrepreneurs, and create more employment, so that Karakol’s economy may flourish.
Like Hugh Coulter used to say, a little goes a long way.