Invisible in broad daylight

On a sunny day in March, Zamira Sagynalieva, a social worker for our partner Arysh, is on her way through the Ak-Zhar settlement in the outskirts of Bishkek, the capital of Kyrgyzstan. The purpose of her trip sounds like something from a fantasy novel; she is going to uncover invisible people.

©Sarah Louise Kriesz
Social Worker Zamira Sagynalieva talking to yet another inhabitant in Ak-Zhar.

However, Ak-Zhar is not exactly what you would call a fantastic place. The bumpy roads are made of compressed gravel and pebbles and there are no streetlights. It does not matter in the bright sunlight, but at night, it must be pitch-black. 
The houses here mostly have the same sand coloured walls and varying degrees of makeshift solutions.
Most of the people living in Ak-Zhar are internal migrants, coming to Bishkek in order to find jobs and to create better lives for themselves and their children. However, many of them are not registered correctly as citizens, which means that they do not have access to schools or healthcare, and they cannot get a working permit. Therefore, they are invisible for the public system. Ak-Zhar is not just populated by invisible people – it is also illegal. This has a huge effect on the living conditions here. For example, Ak-Zhar only got electricity and running water last year and it has no schools, hospitals and kindergartens for its 12–13.000 inhabitants.
©Sarah Louise Kriesz
Children playing with a toy train on an unfinished house in Ak-Zhar.

Despite its big population, Ak-Zhar do not come across as a lively place. Compared to the buzzing life of the city centre of Bishkek with its thousands of cars and honking horns, it is quiet here. Instead of busy pedestrians talking in their cell phones and minding their own business, you here see groups of children on different ages playing in heaps of sand or running around fighting with sticks. As long as they have their friend, the children do not seem to mind the poor surroundings.

From door to door

Neither does Zamira. She walks naturally from door to door, concerned not with the state of the different houses she visits, but with the people living here. She speaks with a clear, confident voice when she explains where she is from, and asks if they have the different forms of documentation: passports, birth certificates, marriage certificates...
On her walk from door to door, she encounters people with all kinds of different stories.  One woman lives with her grandchildren because her own daughter has migrated to Russia in order to find a job. Her daughter and son-in-law did not have the time to get at marriage certificate and therefore they could not get at birth certificate for their daughter. Because of this, she cannot go to school. Another woman shows us her birth certificate, but it is old, almost unreadable, and handwritten, even though it should be typed. Because of the poor state of her document, she has not been able to obtain a birth certificate for her child. A third woman explains that her brother does not have a passport, and in order to get the right documents for one, he would need to go to the Alay region, which is very far away from Bishkek. His relatives have moved away from Alay too, so they cannot help him obtaining the documents.  

©Sarah Louise
Zamira referring a woman to legal councelling and help to retrieve their missing documentation.

Zamira listens to them all and tells them all to go to the legal clinic Adilet, another of DanChurchAids partners. Adilet then gives them free legal advice and helps them recreate the documents they have lost or never had. People speak openly and eagerly about their problems. They want to get their documentation, but they do not know how to get it.
As we continue down the gravel road, Zamira explains that there is a clear pattern in who have their documents and who do not:  “Most of the people who don’t have their documents come from the South, particularly from Batken, Issyk-Kul and Naryn regions. The live a more traditional life there, so their marriages are religious, not official. It doesn’t occur to them that they need to take care of bureaucracy too.”

A big task ahead

Zamira has been working in the settlements for the last 10 years. During this time, she has seen clear improvements. In other settlements where Arysh has been working for 15 years, people know about the programme. They know that they need documentation, and they know where to get it.
But Arysh has only been working in Ak-Zhar for three years, and since new people keep on arriving, it takes a long time for the knowledge to spread. Today’s trip is coming to an end. Zamira go out like this every day with her colleagues, one street at a time. And she will keep on doing so for the upcoming two years, as Arysh continues its work on the issue. But with the constant influx of new people, they have an ambitious task ahead of them.
“This would be way easier if the government would legalize the remaining illegal settlements. In the legal settlements, everyone is registered in the State Registration System. But because the Ak-Zhar  settlement is illegal, we have to do walk from door-to-door ourselves to identify people without documents.” Zamira explains. On our way back to the city centre, we drop off Zamira outside her house. Just like many of the employees at Arysh, she actually lives in a settlement herself, although hers is legal.
Coming from the same environment as the people they are trying to help is one of the things that makes the staff from Arysh so successful in their work.  Today Zamira encountered 7 people without documents and 12 people with documents. A few people were not home. Since Arysh began to conduct door-to-door surveys, it has helped 220 people without documents scattered across 15 new settlements.