Participants of an American exchange program in Turkmenistan threatened with expulsion
The 14th Contest within the framework of FSA/FLEX (Freedom Support Act) program of the US Department of State begins in Turkmenistan this month.
This is a school exchange program whose Turkmen participants spend a year in the United States, living in American families and attending American schools. Five or six pupils from every velajat [region] win the contest every year and become participants of the program launched officially, with the Turkmen authorities' permission.
Teenagers can't wait for the contest. They study English, they develop leadership traits... Officials of the Turkmen Education Ministry in the meantime do what they can to torpedo the program. What information is available indicates that whatever teenagers of Turkmen-Turkish schools aspire for participation in the program are warned of the possibility of expulsion. In the city of Dashoguz, for example, the Regional Directorate of Education is using principals. These latter are ordered in no uncertain terms not to tell their charges when the FSA/FLEX contest begins. "We are supposed to make weekly reports to the Regional Directorate of Education that not a single pupil is involved," a principal from Dashoguz said.
What pupils somehow discover the date are "worked over". Lengthy "conversations" are supposed to convince them to abandon this foolish dream of going to the United States. No contest advertisements are permitted. Teaching staff is particularly suspicious when a pupil misses his or her classes on the day of the contest. Pupils' parents are put under pressure too.
It usually works, but not always. Facing a choice between continuation of studies in a prestigious Turkmen-Turkish school and a year in the United States, some teenagers frequently opt for the latter.
A teacher from the city of Turkmenabat says that it is different children who return from the United States. They are more confident and less inhibited. They are ever ready to defend themselves, and their education level is way ahead of other pupils'. Teenagers come home full of impressions and never hesitate to tell others what life abroad is like.
"State officials fear that children will see a different world, a world where people are free and can realize their potential," teacher by name of Shamyrat said.
Neither are the teenagers off the hook on their return from the United States. Their principals are ordered to make reports to the regional directorates of education on what the youngsters do in their spare time, where they intend to study now, and whether or not young men plan to serve in the army. Teachers and principals are ordered to discourage their former charges from visiting American Corners established by the US Embassy in all velajats (the centers where teenagers study English and where they are acquainted with principles of democracy).
"My former principal once called me and asked what I was doing these days," said a FSA/FLEX graduate. "I said I was studying for the American University in Central Asia (in Kyrgyzstan). He began giving me chapter and verse on how it would be better to serve in the army first and apply for a college in Turkmenistan afterwards. He also asked if I visited the American Corner. I said I did. The principal said it was wrong because that was a place where Turkmenistan was belittled, a place only attended by the Americans [Peace Corps volunteers - Ferghana.Ru] promoting American values..."