SWM 2015: Kyrgyzstan - Life as a migrant in Bishkek – a Tatar women tells her story
Embargo: 2 July 2015 00.01 (GMT+1)
Case study by Alisher Khamidov
On a cold morning in late February, Alya wakes up early as usual to prepare a simple breakfast of porridge for her and her 2-year-old boy, Shurik. Then she takes Shurik to her friend for baby-sitting before heading to work. Originally from Osh, a large city in south Kyrgyzstan, she is now a street vendor selling cheap Chinese shoes in Bishkek, the capital, which has a reputation as a more liberal and ethnically diverse place. An ethnic Tatar by origin, 30-year-old Alya has a full day ahead: she must visit several state-run hospitals where some of the doctors and patients are her customers. She will then have to spend the rest of the afternoon selling shoes at her stand, located in a small bazaar in one of Bishkek's suburbs.
‘I really love my job, but it does not provide a steady source of income,’ she says. ‘I wish I had obtained a good quality education that would allow me to have a steady job to support my family.’ Alya has finished secondary school, but her family could not afford to put her through college after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Unfortunately, her business has not been doing well. ‘When the business is very slow, I go around neighbourhoods and try to sell shoes on the street to passers-by. This strategy works sometimes, but at times it leads to problems with police.’
Many Tatar, Russian and Uyghur women work as street vendors because they lack connections to the formal business or the public sector, which are mostly dominated by ethnic Kyrgyz men. Like the majority of Bishkek's street vendors, Alya operates her business without the formal licence for street vendors issued by Bishkek’s authorities. ‘Police officers usually turn a blind eye to me and other street vendors – they know that we are not a threat to society and that we are poor folks who are trying to make ends meet.’ She earns about US $200 a month.
‘I meet a lot of different people, and they always complain and ask for help. There are so many unhappy people, especially women, out there,’ Alya says of the people she meets on her rounds. ‘Someone’s in big debt, another’s person’s husband left her, a third suffers from domestic abuse.’
Alya says she gets tired of listening to such sad stories, because they remind her of her own. At the age of 18 she married Sunil, an Indian medical student at Osh State University, and soon had a daughter who became the centre of their lives. But three years into the marriage, her husband left the country and he stopped communicating with her. In the wake of his departure, on top of her depression, Alya had to endure the cultural pressure that comes along with being a single parent from the Tatar minority deserted by a foreign husband. Kyrgyz and Uzbek society in Osh frown upon divorcées, widows, single mothers and women who marry foreign men: the common assumption is that a single woman, living on her own, would lead an immoral life.
With no steady income, Alya was forced to move in with her mother in a small conservative town near Osh populated mainly by ethnic Uzbeks. ‘It was one of the toughest periods of my life,’ Alya says. ‘My family members were often treated like outcasts.’ Ethnic prejudice was a major hurdle as ethnic Tatars, who make up a small minority in the town, have long suffered discrimination by local government and residents. So when an opportunity arose to move to Bishkek and work for a company that operated a casino, Alya gladly accepted the offer. However, her life only got harder in Bishkek. She had to work long hours at the casino while regularly fending off foreign customers who wanted sexual services from her. When a customer attempted to rape her in a drunken stupor, ‘I knew that I had enough. I quit that job.’
But Alya refused to return to her mother's town. ‘I didn’t want to be treated like an outcast any more,’ she says. Instead, she began to work as a street vendor selling shoes. Alya, now has two dreams: to give her children a good education, and to move to Russia to escape the stigma that she previously experienced in her mother’s town. But she acknowledges the chances of realising these goals are slim.
‘I struggle to make ends meet. The only solution for me is to leave for Russia and work there because the pay is better there.’
But though this is not an unusual route in Kyrgyzstan – as many as 500,000 Kyrgyz citizens are already working in Russia as labour migrants – Alya recognizes that it is not the ultimate solution to her troubles. Some of her Russian-speaking friends who have moved there in recent years had to struggle for years until they managed to find stable jobs and housing. Besides, they also confronted deep racial prejudice and increasing hostility among Russian citizens towards Central Asians, reflected in a rise in the levels of hate crime. Like many other minority members in the region, Alya is caught in a limbo between a home country that discriminates against her and a new life in a country where her welcome is uncertain at best.
This article appears in MRG’s annual flagship report State of the World’s Minorities and Indigenous Peoples 2015. View the full report.
Photo: Market vendor in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan
Credit: Martin Talbot