Asel Tolonova – Kyrgyzstan
Communicating to promote cooperation
A lovely young bridesmaid in a long emerald green skirt stood on a terrace overlooking the woods at a resort called Jannat. It was a joyful occasion for Asel Tolonova, who explains that jannat means paradise. Asel loves the beauty of her country, but she will tell you that its recent history has proven hellacious for many of its people.
“Growing up in the south of Kyrgyzstan,” she says of her native state of Osh, “I got used to witnessing conflicts between two ethnic groups, the Kyrgyz and Uzbek.” Formerly part of the collapsed USSR, Kyrgyzstan gained its independence in 1991. Post-Soviet countries faced large-scale problems related to borders, water, and land, however. Previously, “all the ethnic groups had been living together and sharing the resources with each other,” Asel explains, but the sudden collapse left territorial borders in dispute.
Ethnic groups made hard choices: some losing their homes and trying to find someplace new, some staying and facing persecution and bloody skirmishes that boiled over into political crises known as “Oshevents,” one in 1990 and again in 2010.
Despite what adults saw as hostile neighborhoods, Asel “grew up in a multinational society with Kurd, Turk, Russian, Uzbek, Tatar, and Azerbaijani children.” Her earliest memories involve childhood friends who didn’t speak Russian, the common language in Kyrgyzstan. “We were able to understand each other without words,” she says because the children didn’t notice any differences between their ethnicities.
Asel tells us that, “In June 2010, I was one of the teenagers and children who felt a fear of losing loved ones.” She lost many without understanding why. Asel was staying in a “hot spot” of violence in Osh. “I was a witness to all events in the city,” she says. Overnight, her house became a shelter for her Uzbek and Turk neighbors, sharing meals, water, “and everything we had.” The civilians clearly didn’t want to fight each other, and Asel now blames politicians.
Children and school students were stressed, fearful, and confused. The NGOs and local aide personnel failed to address their psychological traumas. “In my opinion,” Asel says, “this is a big omission, and my community needs specialists in the sphere of conflict resolution, psychological support, and mediation.”
The silver lining was that “being a member of multinational society and living side by side with them affected me deeply and helped me be who I am today,” Asel says. “Understanding, empathy, compassion, and love of freedom are the qualities I have learned from my friends in childhood.” She has gained experience in terms of inter-ethnic conflict, communicating with different nationalities, and tolerance. Soon after the deadly “Oshevents” of 2010, Asel volunteered for UNICEF through “Youth of Osh” for over two years. Though a few issues have been resolved, major inter-ethnic issues still remain, but Asel has concluded that ethnic clashes will continue until a younger generation takes civic control.
She found that her years at Aga Khan High School in Osh also helped her understand diplomacy. “Hindi language classes played an especially important role as I helped my Indian teachers to express themselves in Russian.”
After graduation, she enrolled in the Diplomatic Academy of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Kyrgyz, relocating to Bishkek and majoring in international relations and diplomacy. She received commendation for her participation in charity fundraisings and the social life of the campus. Asel thanks her Hindi classes for her selection as the only intern in the Embassy of India in Bishkek at the time. There, she contributed by organizing a conference, round table, and an exhibition. Further duties included organizing meetings, writing diplomatic notes, preparing reports, and translating written sources and oral translation. She “practiced and learned a lot about diplomacy and bilateral relations,” she says.
The following summer, Asel was thrilled to participate in a Persian language and literature course held in Tehran and Isfahan in Iran, where she received a certificate of completion through the Saadi Foundation at Shahid Beheshti University. The yearly course draws Persian language students from all over the world to learn more about the culture, history, language, and literature of Iran. “We visited national libraries and learned more about ancient historical records of Central Asian countries,” an experience that would later lead to her first place award in the interuniversity Olympiad of the Persian language, held through the cultural representative office of the Embassy of the Islamic Republic of Iran in Bishkek.
Clearly gifted in acquiring languages, Asel also took Turkish language courses and received a certificate of successful completion from the education consultancy of the Turkish Embassy in Bishkek. She’d been studying English over the years, and received certification from the internationally accredited TOEFL preparation course. Able to speak Kyrgyz, Russian, Persian, Turkish, and English, Asel worked for a media agency, translating the news during the summer of 2016.
Upon finalizing her education, Asel dreams of starting an NGO and assembling a team of experts and young people who will work with students at schools and universities in leadership training, bringing together young people from local ethic groups who are at risk for delinquency and ISIS recruitment. They would exchange views, receive guidance, and feel supported. “This would be the best way of ultimately creating international cooperation to promote a more peaceful world.”