Shahnoz Jonmamadova

Shahnoz Jonmamadova – Tajikistan

Leading her generation in progressive change

Inhabited since the Bronze Age, Tajikistan has seen numerous empires come and go, ranging from that of Alexander the Great, the Kushan Empire, the Mongol, the Tibetan, Persian, and others, culminating in the Russian. Despite such a diverse history, most modern Tajiks practice the Sunni Islamic faith, and speak Tajik, considered a dialect of Persian. These unifying factors, however, didn’t prevent the civil war that followed the collapse of the USSR, beginning in 1992.

A UN peacekeeping initiative brokered a ceasefire between warring tribal factions in 1997, but the devastated country mourned the deaths of over 100,000 people with well over a million refugees and displaced citizens, including the family of Shahnoz Jonmamadova who had escaped to Ukraine and then to Kyrgyzstan. Shahnoz was five in 2000 when they returned to Khorog, on the border with Afghanistan. “My parents had nothing at that time,” Shahnoz says, “yet they started a new life.” Educated in economics, they valued schooling for their five children. “They did their best, and we were studying in the best schools in our city.”

Shahnoz attended the Aga Khan Lyceum where she was selected as a finalist for an exciting program that included a Soros scholarship. During the summer break of 2011, she traveled to Bishkek in Kyrgyzstan to participate in “Evergreenia” International, an educational summer camp for youth funded by the Soros Foundation.

Tajikistan wasn’t thriving, despite a decade without war, and the winter of 2012 proved harsh with well over half a million people suffering a food and livelihood crisis. In the mountains around Khorog, guerilla activity involved drugs and other smuggling, creating civil unrest. Despite the crises in her country, Shahnoz kept up her school work at the Lyceum, and that following spring, she won the Silver Medal in the International Basic Knowledge Contest. In late June, she traveled to Turkey for the finals. She returned in July ahead of government forces fighting the local guerillas after the murder of a general, intensifying the conflict. The area surrounding Khorog was briefly isolated, cutting off citizens from food supplies and mobile connection. Considering all her parents had gone through and remembering July of 2012, Shahnoz says, “I can surely say that I don’t want my little brother, nephew, and nieces to experience the same feelings. I believe that if we don’t take actions and create a peaceful world our next generation will have no future.”

That fall, Shahnoz was seventeen when she joined the Civil Society club and volunteered for a year at American Corner, its Khorog center being one of seven throughout Tajikistan and 850 worldwide. They are jointly sponsored by US Embassies and various institutions within the host country, providing open access to book collections, films, current periodicals, the Internet, speakers, workshops, and meetings, similar to a public library. Content tends to convey American culture and the values of Western democracy.

Upon graduation from the Lyceum, Shahnoz won a US-Central Asian Education Foundation (US-CAEF) Scholarship to study at KIMEP University, an outgrowth of the Central Asian-American Enterprise Fund to promote a robust open-market private business sector in Central Asia. They offer scholarships to institutions that teach western business know-how and instill an entrepreneurial spirit within a context of democracy. In August of 2013, Shahnoz began her studies in auditing and accounting at KIMEP University in Almaty, Kazakhstan. KIMEP has adopted an American-style format and offers an acclaimed business program.

In her sophomore year beginning in 2014, Shahnoz joined the Open Hearts organization, which consists of volunteer tutors for orphan children. That fall she and several friends started an ecological organization, Be Green, Be Amazing. “I found joy and excitement in the project,” she says. The group designed eco-bags and raised the eco-awareness of specific environmental issues, transferring knowledge from the university to the students’ communities. Publicizing through posters and social media, they held training activities on changing habits, a Free Market where people exchanged used goods, recycling weeks, and open-air movies. By the time she graduated, the organization had started cooperating with other universities.

Shahnoz won a US-CAEF Enterprise Internship Program in May of 2015 and began an internship as an assistant manager with DiningSmart, working full time for a month in the summer, still in Almaty. In December of that year, she returned home and served as an assistant finance officer for Mountain Societies Development Support Program over the winter break. During her senior year, she also worked as a teaching assistant and assistant to the chief accountant of KIMEP.

In the Transformational Leadership Program in May of 2016, organized by the E2 Educational Service (based in Seattle, Washington) to support business education in Central Asia, Shahnoz learned that there are more ways to win than by backing your own project. US business executives taught leadership skills and groups were tasked with creating a startup business idea. “Definitely, each of us had lots of ideas,” Shahnoz says, but with fifteen minutes until presentation, her group still hadn’t agreed on theirs. She asked everyone to vote for the idea they liked most, excluding their own. A networking coffee shop concept won, and their presentation advanced them to the next level. They went on to become finalists, eligible for internships with prominent businesses.

Shahnoz participated in the KIMEP International Research Conference and the KIMEP Case Club where students process cases that mirror the challenges faced by actual auditors. She entered the EY Accounting Firm’s Case Competition in April, 2017, the prize leading to an offer from the EY Kazakhstan Company, a branch of one of the world’s big four auditing firms. Her team won, and that same month, also won the “Smart and Taxy” Case Competition by Price Waterhouse Coopers. In June she graduated cum laude from KIMEP.

Again the US CAEF offered international internships, this time through a Capstone competition, and again Shahnoz became a finalist. She moved to Washington D.C. (after HSI) for a four-month internship with 1776 Venture Capital Organization where she will draft documents for auditing functions, research and analyze revenue, assets, taxes and a great deal more.

“I am planning to give the benefits of my training back to my home country,” Shahnoz says. She has seen corruption spread throughout Tajikistan’s government, regional conflict increase, high unemployment rates and unstable borders that nurture terrorists and smugglers, religion’s detrimental influence in politics, and educational opportunities for girls decrease. These problems have led to poor infrastructure and public services, which discourage international investments.

“I will start to resolve conflict in my community by mentoring younger people,” she says. Fortunately, Shahnoz has encountered many organizations that provide grants for community development projects, such as SOROS Foundation, the United Nations, and others. She hopes to organize summits for students from Central Asian countries and create training programs that encourage leaders and build peace. “It is our responsibility to make our country a better place to live and to restore it sustainably.”

Thinking of the future of the family and of Tajikistan, her father sometimes says to Shahnoz, “You are our only hope.” She will never forget how her parents did their best for her. “It is now my turn to do my best for them.”