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Listening to Russia’s female migrants

How a new multilingual magazine in St Petersburg is giving a voice to female migrants from Central Asia.

Masthead of Gul, a new St. Petersburg-based magazine written by and for female migrants from Central Asia. Illustration by Sufi Nazar Guli, courtesy of Fergana News. Some rights reserved.
This article by Ekaterina Ivashchenko originally appeared in Russian at the Fergana.News information agency, a leading source of information on Central Asia. We are grateful for their permission to translate and republish it here.

The first issue of Gul was published in St Petersburg in mid-December 2016. The newspaper, whose name translates as “flower”, isn’t just for women from central Asia — it’s produced by them, too. All of the publication’s founders are current or former labour migrants from the region, who are well versed in the problems faced by central Asian women arriving in Russia to work. In their words, these women face double the discrimination, due to both gender and legal status. Their need for help is twice as great.

That’s where Gul comes in, offering female migrants from Central Asia assistance, solidarity — and the opportunity to voice their own concerns and their own stories. As the publication’s readers are mostly from Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, Gul is a multilingual newspaper — each issue features articles in Kyrgyz, Tajik, Uzbek as well as Russian. Below, the editors of Gul discuss their project and their own experiences as migrants.

Two times a stranger

Not only are the Gul team all women; they’re young women. Some of them aren’t yet 20. The initiator of the project, Petersburg resident Yulia Alimova, has been dealing with labour migration for several years.

“I was working for Observers of St Petersburg, a local NGO, when my colleagues decided to start free Russian-language lessons for the children of migrants. We soon found a place to hold them and began teaching in spring 2012, naming the course ‘Children of St Petersburg.’ From the very start they were intended for kids in kindergarten or those in the earlier school grades. We soon broadened the range of courses, and began classes for migrants up to the age of 20.

“Migrant women face double the discrimination, due to both gender and legal status. Their need for help is twice as great. That’s where Gul comes in”

All told, over 500 people engaged with the project — some of them studied with us for just two months, other stayed for two years. Most students are emigres from Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, but lately we’ve welcomed people from Afghanistan, Syria and Ukraine. Many children who come to us already have enough basic Russian for everyday life, but not enough to enrol in a Russian-language school. Our teachers have either worked as volunteers in other projects, or they’re students or recent graduates themselves,” says Yuliya.

Soon, the team realised that for their project to be sustainable, they’d have to attract migrant volunteers. The guys were lucky; Guli, a girl from Kyrgyzstan who spoke Kyrgyz, English, Russian and Uzbek, came on board. A relative of one of the students also joined them.

Turkmen woman in Khiva, Uzbekistan, 2007. CC-by-2.0: Yaluker / Flickr. Some rights reserved.

“We then decided to found a new project specifically about female labour migrants, who have to endure all the hardships of migration and then some — they are the targets of even worse discrimination. We decided to found a newspaper, though admittedly it sometimes looks more like an information pamphlet. All articles are translated into Kyrgyz, Russian, Tajik and Uzbek, and the team gets some small remuneration for writing, editing and translating the texts. The first issue had a print run of 1,000 and the second of 2,000. The third will have to depend on demand,” Yuliya explains.

The magazine is distributed free of charge at migrants’ workplaces or in the government offices where they queue to collect documents. In Yulia’s words, the editorial team are free to choose topics which they feel are closest to their audience, such as women’s health or access to local kindergartens and schools for their children. They also provide information about organisations which work with migrants. The first issue profiled Children of St Petersburg, with an invitation to Russian-language courses. A young woman from Kyrgyzstan who studies medicine in St. Petersburg prepared an article about health problems during pregnancy.

“We could have attracted more experienced journalists to our project, but we particularly wanted to work with migrant women who are directly affected by the subjects we cover,” notes Yuliya. Furthermore, in working with us they gain additional skills. We have bigger ambitions for Gul — it should become a fully-established publication, issued on a regular basis. We want to release the third edition on 8 March [international women’s day], to be distributed with postcards for women. On 1 June [children’s day], we’ll hand out paper dolls with Gul and organise a festival for the migrants’ children.”

Sufi’s story

One of Gul’s regular authors Sufi Nazar Guli recently returned to her hometown of Osh after several attempts to make things work out in Russia. 

“I was born in Isfana, graduated from university in Osh, and then studied on a two-year master’s programme in Japan” begins Guli. “After that, I returned home and got married. I thought that with an international education and language skills I could make a career for myself in Osh, but after the events of June 2010, life there changed completely. I couldn’t teach at the university, and my husband and his two brothers lost their business. They left for St Petersburg, where they tried to survive by doing any number of informal jobs.

Having worked as a teacher at a private school, I saved up money for a plane ticket and joined my husband. We told our relatives that we wanted to get Russian citizenship for the whole family, since there was no chance of building a successful career nor finding good work at home. Life in St Petersburg was tough for me — I constantly felt belittled and was treated unpleasantly. I understand that many of those who go to Russia for work who are very poorly-educated, and so are not often accepted into Russian society. And I felt the same stereotype applied to me, too. After six months I couldn’t bear it any longer. I told my husband that I’d return to Osh and live without him, as I couldn’t ignore the local attitude to migrants.

A woman sells grains at a bazaar in Osh, southern Kyrgyzstan, 2009. CC-by-NC-ND-2.0: eatsworlds / Flickr. Some rights reserved.

With the coming of the economic crisis, my husband’s situation worsened. He’d work between 12 and 24 hours a day, seven days a week, for a miserly wage. We decided to go and find work in Tyumen, where my sister lived. I applied for a temporary residence permit, but we weren’t able to adapt to the Siberian winter — my child and I often fell ill. Moreover, my husband wasn’t given a salary for six months, so we again went our separate ways — he to Petersburg and I back to Osh. Russian citizenship no longer seemed the key to our problems, and I left my ambitions behind. I had become pregnant again, and wanted to return to my parents in Osh. After a long time in Russia, I suffered from culture shock in Kyrgyzstan. I also became terrified after hearing stories of fatalities in the local maternity ward.

My husband also didn’t see any prospects in returning home, particularly since Kyrgyzstan had just joined the Eurasian Economic Union and he redoubled his efforts to find a half-decent job. After the birth of my second child in Petersburg, I found a organisation where my knowledge and skills could be put to use. The main thing for me was that I could interact with people and wasn’t sitting at home all day. I understood that I had to help others in my situation. That’s how I found Yuliya and her Children of St Petersburg project, where there were not enough Russian language teachers for the children of migrants. I wrote them a letter, saying that I knew English, Russian and Uzbek, and started work as a volunteer teacher in their language courses. I arrived to the first lesson with my own children. Children of St. Petersburg is the only organisation which didn’t turn me away because of my marital status, and even allowed me to take my two-year old son to work. At the same time, I was even able to find a kindergarten for my older son.

Women from our part of the world aren’t used to sharing their experiences in public, so Gul allows them to learn that, as well as practical writing and organisational skills

After a while, we decided that the children and I had to return to Osh, which would allow my husband to save more money to buy our very own house. After years of wandering, I accepted my fate and just before new year, bought plane tickets and returned to Osh. Just then, I was offered paid work in St Petersburg, but it was already too late. I came to understand that it’s hard for central Asians to put down roots in Russia, and I wanted my children to grow up in their own country — even though they now know Russian better than Uzbek.

As concerns my work with Gul, Yuliya had wanted to do something for female migrants for some time. First we started a VK page [a popular Russian social network - ed.], and then decided to publish a newspaper. I write articles for the paper remotely, and translate other authors’ materials into Uzbek. Women from our part of the world are not used to sharing their experiences in public, so Gul is an opportunity to develop the habit, to discuss our position in society and what we feel is important.

My first article came out in the second edition of the paper. In it, I showed through the example of my own family that despite being scattered across different countries, longing for our loved ones should not lead to a disillusionment with life. My husband was supportive. He complains that he wasn’t able to achieve his career goal and become an expert in international relations, so always supports my aspiration to be a respected expert in my own country. He feels that a mother’s role is more important in a child’s upbringing than the father’s, so wants through my example to show our children the value of education, self-confidence and of never giving up” — concludes Guli.

A little piece of land

Another author from Gul is the 19 year-old Dilnoza Ashurova, a native of Penjikent, Tajikistan. Her father left to work in Russia when she was just three years old, returning after she turned six. He then left for Russia again, but this time took Dilnoza’s mother with him. She and her younger sister went to live with their grandmother. When Dilnoza was eight, her father passed away in Moscow, and there was nobody left to support the family. In 2007, Dilnoza’s mother and cousin left for St Petersburg, and Dilnoza joined her in 2012, studying in a Russian school for two years. The young girl couldn’t stay in St Petersburg, as she was told by her teachers that as she had no nationality, she wouldn’t receive a certificate. Dilnoza returned to Tajikistan, and finished school there instead.

“My mother is a trained gynaecologist, but now works as a saleswoman in a bakery in St Petersburg”

After receiving my certificate and passport in summer 2016, I returned to my mother and enrolled in the St Petersburg State Technical University, in the faculty of economics and management. I wanted to become a doctor, but I can’t study for the required nine years. My mother is paying for my education, but I help her out too. My mum is a trained gynaecologist, but now works as a saleswoman in a bakery. After work, I join her for a few hours and make a bit of money. She doesn’t plan on remaining in Russia forever, while I’d like to stay here. Once my little sister finishes school, we’ll also bring her over here. Our dream is to save up money for our own house in Tajikistan — and gradually, that’s what we’re doing. My mother’s already bought some land” — says Dilnoza.

Dilnoza lives with her mother in a two-bedroom flat, where they share one of the rooms with another three migrant women. The other room is occupied by an Uzbek family, a husband and wife. Everyone pays 4,000 roubles each.

The Dzhurayev family from Tajikistan in their flat in suburban Moscow, which they rent with other labour migrants from Central Asia. (c) Ilya Pitalev / RIA Novosti. All rights reserved.

Dilnoza found out about Children of St Petersburg from her mother. While working at the bakery kiosk, she was handed a flyer about the organisation. Dilnoza got in touch with Yuliya, telling her that she was 19 years old and already knew Russian well. Yuliya asked her to let them know of any migrants’ children who didn’t speak the language. 

“That’s how we got to know each other and started talking on social media” says Dilnoza. “Yuliya told me her idea about a newspaper for migrant women, which interested me. We thought up a name and a few topics to begin with, and attended classes on layouts and formatting for publications. At first, my mother was quite cautious about the project, so Yuliya even showed up at our home to tell her about it in person and reassure her. In my first article, I looked at places in the city where migrants can go to relax on their days off. In the second, I wrote about holidays in February and March. All of us distribute the newspaper in person so see at first hand how much interest there is in our project. We’d like to take it even further.” 

The art of the possible

Gulasal Bakhtierova from the Uzbek city of Urgench is also 19 years old. Her parents have worked in Petersburg for ten years. Her mother is a qualified teacher but works as a chef. Her father, a qualified lawyer, is now a sales manager. Five years ago, Gulasal joined her parents, taking her younger sister. However, she wasn’t accepted by the school due to her lack of Russian language skills. Gulasal spent an entire year with her at home, and then returned to Uzbekistan to live with their grandmother, where her sister enrolled in a local Russian-language school. One and a half years ago, the girls returned to their parents in St Petersburg. Gulasal began studies at the college of pharmacy, and her younger sister was finally accepted into high school. 

“At the moment, I’m getting vocational training. Afterwards, I plan to continue my studies at the medical academy. My parents pay 95,000 roubles a year (£1,307) for my education, some 7,000 more than Russian citizens. I enrolled immediately — if there are no problems with documents or registration in Russia, then it’s not difficult. I’m hardly the only migrant studying in our group: there are another five from various Central Asian countries. I always wanted to become a journalist, but my parents insisted on medicine, which they felt had greater prospects” — says Gulasal. 

Nevertheless, Gulasal’s dream lives on, and she writes texts for Gul with great enthusiasm. Her parents are not against their daughter’s involvement, as she gets a small fee for her articles. 

“At first I worked for Children of St Petersburg and taught the kids Russian. That’s how I found out about the newspaper and wanted to play a part in it, writing and translating articles into Uzbek. My first article was about a woman from Tajikistan whose child had been able to learn Russian with us, so was accepted into a local school. In my second piece I told readers how to apply for a place for their children in local schools. I noticed that often migrant parents don’t even try, believing that their children will be rejected in any case. Through our family’s example, I explained that it is possible and not as daunting as it may at first seem 

Have I encountered discrimination? Rarely. Or rather, I try not to pay attention to it. Well-brought up people don’t treat us badly. Teachers at college even make a special effort to help us. As for newspapers, we distributed the first edition at the market. When Russians hand out Gul, migrants are more sceptical about the project — but when we do, they show more interest. Once, I was handing out the newspaper and a young Uzbek woman noticed an article about pregnancy. She was incredulous — ‘what on earth are you giving me this for?’ I was embarrassed, but that’s exactly why we do what we do — so that migrant women overcome their shyness and learn to discuss these issues more openly.”

Digital versions of Gul magazine can be downloaded from the newspaper’s VK page.

Translated from Russian by Maxim Edwards.


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