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.
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.
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.
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.