Aga Khan group brings hope to Central Asia
Philanthropic Calgary businessmen support ‘visionary’ 50-year plan
Mon Apr 27 2015
The craggy, geologically young mountains below me are said to be the soul of Kyrgyzstan. They are the highest ranges in Central Asia, covering 93 per cent of the country. Those who attempt to tame its steep valleys cling precariously to terraced slopes. In its high meadows, nomadic cattle herders have worked this wild landscape for more than 2,000 years.
It’s early April as we fly from the Kyrgyzstan capital of Bishkek over the breathtaking ranges of the so-called Celestial Mountains. It has been a mild winter, allowing cattle to be moved early to the jailoo, or summer pastures, used by local herdsmen.
Occasionally we glimpse rural Kyrgyzstan’s “cities of the dead,” walled ancestral cemeteries with ornate, domed mausoleums and minarets, necropolises standing like ghost towns on the remote landscape.
Our helicopter descends into the Naryn Valley, where we get our first glimpse of the site of the campus of the unlikely University of Central Asia. My initial impression is that His Highness Prince Karim Aga Khan IV – or simply “HH” as some of his followers call him – has lost his senses.
Who in their right mind would build a high-altitude university in the poorest and most remote region of little known Kyrgyzstan, a campus complete with its own water reservoir, geothermal heating system, soccer field and interconnected buildings to protect students against the area’s harsh winters? At the campus construction site, fences have been erected to keep out the cattle that wander freely through town.
Two similar campuses are also under construction by the Aga Khan in Khorog, Tajikistan on the Afghanistan border and in Tekeli, Kazakhstan. Established by treaty between the three governments, the University of Central Asia is the world’s first internationally chartered university.
To Brian Felesky, the answer to the Aga Khan’s plan for the region is obvious.
“I think it’s absolutely visionary,” says the Calgary lawyer, who came with a group of Calgarians led by prominent oilman and philanthropist Jim Gray. The Calgary group – which includes Felesky and
businessmen Chris Robb and Sherali Saju – spent three weeks recently touring Aga Khan projects in India, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan.
Under the name Awali, from a Swahili word for “the beginning,” Gray, Felesky, Saju and Robb head a list of 125 donors, most from Calgary, who helped kick-start an Aga Khan teacher training institute in East Africa 10 years ago. Gray, who believes in education as the best way to combat the global ills of poverty, disease and radical fundamentalism, regularly returns with various group members to visit Aga Khan projects in the developing world. For this, his fifth such trip, Gray had to pull out maps for Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan. “For me, there was big black hole between Russia, China, India and Pakistan. I understood Afghanistan, but north of there it was blank. When we told our friends where we were going, they said, ‘You’re nuts. It’s dangerous. It’s primitive.’ Quite frankly, it’s just the opposite.”
Central Asia is comprised of what is informally known as the “stans,” five republics of the former Soviet Union – Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. Invaded, conquered and dominated by larger neighbouring powers throughout its existence – China to the east, Russia to the north, India and Pakistan to the south and the former Persian and Turkic empires to the west – the region has struggled since the collapse of the Soviet Union with economic upheavals, revolutions and ethnic conflicts.
Although corruption abounds, modern Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan have embraced western liberal traditions in an attempt to curb the growth of radical fundamentalism. The predominantly Muslim republics officially remain fiercely secular, a relic of Soviet influence and a nomadic past that thwarted the development of a religious establishment.
However, despite reports of forced beard-shavings of radicallooking men in Tajikistan, restrictions on Islamic dress, strict supervision of mosques and legislated secular education, an estimated 400 Kyrgs and Tajiks are believed to have joined ISIS fighters in Syria and Iraq. Earlier this month, militant fighters that reportedly included Arab, Uzbek, Tajik, Uyghur and Chechen radicals killed and wounded 30 members of the Afghan army in the Jurm district of northern Afghanistan, about six hours by mountain road from the University of Central Asia’s campus at Khorog, Tajikistan. Officials fear further radicalization in Central Asia if young Tajik and Kyrg migrant workers are forced to return home from Russia, where the collapse of oil prices and Western sanctions resulting from Russian involvement in Ukraine and Crimea have weakened the Russian economy. In Tajikistan, nearly one million men have migrated to Russia, sending home dwindling remittances that at one time equalled nearly half of the nation’s GDP.
Should they be forced to return, “the creation of one million jobs in Tajikistan will be impossible,” Shodikhon Jamshedov, the governor of Tajikistan’s Gorno-Badakhshan province, said at a meeting with the Calgary group. Jamshedov made a point of reminding the Calgarians that Canada supports sanctions against Russia, noting: “A weak Russia is very bad for this part of the world.”
The implication was clear – that the unintended consequences of Western sanctions against Russia could be unemployment and poverty in Central Asia that may give rise to radical extremism.
Against this complicated cauldron of economic instability, ethnic tensions and geostrategic importance, group members like Robb are convinced the work of the Aga Khan Development Network is vitally important.
“Every time we get inside the (Aga Khan) system, we come away with an impressive feeling of the quality of its work. This is amazing stuff,” Robb says.
During its three-week tour through India, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, the Calgary group visited Aga Khan schools where values like religious tolerance and gender equality are taught alongside math and science. They visited archeological sites being restored by the Aga Khan to United Nations World Heritage status, saw crowded Aga Khan hospitals undergoing expansions in major Indian cities, and walked a slum area of Delhi undergoing redevelopment led by Aga Khan health and education agencies in co-operation with other groups. In a determined, impressive effort to seed students for the University of Central Asia, the education arm of the Aga Khan Development Network has worked for the past year at upgrading education in the region through its network of schools. In Kyrgyzstan, a van that serves as a mobile digital library brings education to the remote jailoos.
Although the spiritual leader of the world’s Ismaili Muslims (a progressive Shia branch of Islam), the Aga Khan has a fundamental ethic to improve health, education and economic opportunities for people in some of the poorest regions of the world without respect to race, creed or gender.
“What impresses me is that he has a 50-year plan,” says Gray. “That is absolutely profound. I sincerely believe that, without education, there is no hope, and the Aga Khan is providing that hope. It is a wonderful example of what we need in this world. We will prevail.” Robert Remington is a former Herald editorial writer and columnist.
For more on this story, follow his blog at robertremington.wordpress. com/aga-khan/and go to calgaryherald. com to watch a related video.
© 2015 Postmedia Network Inc. All rights reserved.