The work of Little Star in Chechnya, Autumn 2011

On 5th October, a feature article in the New York Times by Seth Mydans quoted the editor of Groznensky Rabochy, an independent weekly newspaper: “Unemployment stands at 85 percent… Chechnya subsists on huge subsidies from Moscow that are not publicly accounted for”. UNDP found 80% unemployment in 2008 and official local government statistics put it at 45% in 2011.

The article reports that Chechnya “has been brought to heel by Mr. Kadyrov’s strongman rule but its peaceful streets thrum with suppressed violence”. The article goes on to quote Taisa Isayeva, 40, a former journalist who now reports on human rights abuses: “No matter how much the city is remodeled, however, the trauma of the war continues to torment its residents. You are judging by all this beautiful architecture but not by the psychology of the people”.

Little Star’s psychologists are witnessing increased fear and anxiety in the republic as the government introduces and enforces ever more conservative and restrictive rules for the population. People feel defenceless in the face of impunity enjoyed by the government and security services. The mental health of Chechnya’s population continues to suffer, particularly as many people are already in a state of stress following 17 years of wars and instability. The children and young people who Little Star psychologists work with are also affected by these negative trends and their effects on their parents, teachers and relatives.

Little Star psychologists formed 22 groups of children and young people at the beginning of September at the eleven Little Star centres. They conducted psychosocial assistance workshops with these children until the end of October when new groups were formed. Any child needing to attend for more than the normal 6-8 week cycle is invited back into the next group. Around 400 children are assisted during each cycle, repeated six times during the year.

Since September the Little Star centres in Grozny have worked closely with social welfare officers working at each of the eleven schools to ensure that the most socially deprived children were given the opportunity to attend Little Star workshops. School directors and teachers maintain that these children have the most difficulties with their school work and are the most disruptive in lessons.

The lists of children attending Little Star points were largely made up of such socially deprived children during the September and October intakes at Little Star, as well as children with physical disabilities. The director of school No. 106 in Grozny was particularly happy about this, stating that “there is very little attention given to such children by any of the official state structures in Chechnya. I am very happy to see your care and attention to these children”.

In October Little Star psychologists Birlant Mudaeva and Rashan Shamkhalova conducted a one-day seminar with students of the Grozny Oil Institute. 32 students attended, from the faculty of Architecture. The themes of the seminar were “Increasing self-awareness, group cohesion and the development of imagination”.

Aishat Zubairaeva reports on her work with a boy at her centre in Michurina village: Sail-Selim is the only healthy child of physically handicapped parents. He is 13 years old, after school he works on a building site to help his parents financially. After work he does everything he can around the house (carries the water in, washes the floors, dishes, tidies the house etc.).

He is now in his third cycle at Little Star. When he first attended my Little Star point he was very shy about his domestic life. Now he is attending my Little Star group for the third time and is able to talk freely about how he helps his parents. All the other children listen to him respectfully. I have tried to develop his pride about working hard for the love of his parents and sisters, without thinking of himself.

Previously his class-mates went to play football without him but these days when he’s not working on the building site his friends help him with his house work. Together they finish it more quickly so they have time to go and play. I conducted sessions with Sail-Selim’s group on reducing aggression and stress. We worked with the book “Power of Goodness”, with the story “Christmas Morning” and others.

Aslan Alihajiev, Little Star psychologist working at School No.106 in Grozny, stated end of October “the children in the new groups are now attending the workshops joyfully and openly. It is still too early to talk about therapeutic achievements at this early stage in the cycle, but the children are enjoying themselves and all is going to plan – this means that something good will inevitably come out of it”.

Aslan has already encountered issues in his current groups such as nightmares, sleep walking and fear of doctors, which can hinder and sometimes prevent the children from receiving the necessary medical assistance. Aslan plans to work with the current group for at least one cycle and will soon begin a programme of individual counselling sessions.

Medina Khasanova works at School No. 54 in Grozny and has been using play- and art-therapy to assist the children in her two new groups to get to know each other and build trust and openness. In her groups there are children with low self esteem, hyper-activeness and children who are under-achievers at school. She has started addressing these issues both through the group sessions and individual counselling sessions.

Little Star trainings for psychology students in Grozny

In July and August, five of the Little Star psychologists conducted trainings and arranged internships for 37 students of practical psychology from the Chechen State University in Grozny. Three groups of students (4 young men and 33 young women) attended separate 10-day trainings at the Little Star offices in Grozny. The trainings covered the following themes:

The professional ethical code for psychologists and the basic ethical principles of a psychologists’ work, the Convention of the Rights of the Child, What rights do children in our Republic have? relaxation exercises, the themes of ‘trust’ and ’emotions’, activation games, psychological testing, story therapy and working with stories from the book Power of Goodness: Stories of Nonviolence and Reconciliation.

Lecturers and the Chair of the ‘Pedagogy and Psychology’ faculty at the university attended some of the sessions and expressed great thanks to Little Star and its supporters for continuing to provide this training for students to develop their knowledge of the more practical aspects of psychology. The students have been spending time working alongside the Little Star staff at the Little Star points in Grozny and the villages to gain practical experience since the beginning of the new school in early September.

Snapshots from a visit to Little Star in November 2010

In November, PBUK trustee Lucy Hannah visited our projects in Chechnya.  Here are some highlights from her visit.

Little Star picture 2

“When there’s no LS seminar I feel sad. This is the place where we play, paint, put pictures on the wall and laugh,” Markha, 10, from the school in the Michurina region.

Little Star pic 1

Magomed, 12, has been going to the LS point at School Number 106, for two months:  “You’re not allowed to fight here. You have to find other ways to talk to each other. I think now, before I fight with someone.”

The Little Star “points” are classrooms in schools specifically allocated for LS to carry out their sessions. They vary hugely from each other and are all given a distinctive feel by the particular psychologist who is based there. For example, in School Number 18, the LS psychologist, Rashan, has a small room which can hold about nine children. It’s cramped, but cosy and warm. A candle burns in the corner and there’s relaxing music in the background. The children sit in a circle, as they do in all the points. Alie, 14, has just started here, “ I wanted to find out something new about myself. I like the idea of a circle, it’s not like being in a classroom; it helps me to feel different.”

Little Star pic number 4

Also in Rashan’s group is Hutmat, 13, “I like what we discuss in the group. I like saying positive things to each other. It’s different from the rest of school.” Marta, 13, came to LS because friends told her about it, “it’s different from the other parts of my life. I feel safer here than at home or anywhere else.”

In addition to the groups, the psychologists hold events which children/young people can attend. They also run intensive ‘closed’ groups, as well as more ‘open’ drop-in groups depending on the needs of their particular school. Raising awareness of substance/alcohol abuse isn’t the main focus of their work but it’s often a theme they incorporate and the group are planning a lecture/event about it to target young people in Grozny.

Psychology students from the university attend the LS points in the summer. They take part in the training and offer their own schedules which they’ve designed for children. At other times of the year, they meet children at the LS points and work with them for a week or a month. “We’re doing the work of employment agencies,” says Aslan. “Many people are trained by LS then work around the country in the same field.”

The LS point in School Number 9 is much larger and more like a traditional classroom. The LS psychologist, Rustam, used to carry out his LS work in a disused building nearby, but the director of the school has now given him one of their new classrooms due to the demand for LS’s services.

Little Star picture number 5

Maga, 11, has been attending for two months, his friends told him about LS: “This is quite different from what I’ve been doing in school. Here, I relax and have fun.”

LS picture number 6

In Rustam’s group, where the children have been attending for two months, they’re acknowledging their fears and doing an exercise in “throwing them away”.

School Number 106 is in one of the poorest areas of Grozny which suffered heavy bombardment. It’s also close to the River Sunzha, which often floods the area. Here, destroyed houses haven’t been rebuilt. LS psychologist, Aslan, has been given a classroom and an office – a reward from the director of the school for his work with Little Star.

Little Star picture number 7

In School No 16, Madina works with 1st– 6th years in a smallish but cosy room. Her group of 6 year olds have an animated discussion about trust. Meanwhile, next to Grozny Zoo, in School Number 54, another LS psychologist, Medina discusses happiness as the day’s topic. The children discuss what happiness is, then draw their own idea of it. The LS point is detached from the main school so “we can make a noise!” says Marta, aged 10.  Medina has filled the room with pot plants and pictures. Teacher, Maret, is impressed: “look at these kids. They’ve had four lessons this morning, but as soon as they come in here, they’re energised.”Other recent topics Medina has explored, include: “my mood today” “who I am” what I am” “tolerance” “emotions” and “fears”.

The LS team believe that if the teachers can see the positive results of the process they’re more likely to make time to work alongside the psychologists, reciprocally. Russian language teacher, Zina, from School Number 106, says, “after attending LS, the children study better, they become more interested in the learning process, they’re more polite, and friendly to each other.”

Little star pic number 10

Taharik, a teacher in School Number 16, says “I knew children who’d stopped smiling, but after LS sessions they’d become more open to living again. When Madina isn’t there, they go looking for her.” She agrees that children are more engaged with the learning process after being at LS. “Sometimes a child won’t obey the rest of the class, you can see there’s something going on; they won’t get involved, but it takes a LS psychologist to identify the problem.”

Petimat, another teacher in School Number 16, says, “the children have many problems – we have a huge number of orphans and those from broken families. I’ve had children who just cower in the corridor when they arrive. In the first year, aged 6 and a half, there are 150 children, but LS can’t cover them all and even if they could, we’d have to find a way of fitting it round the curriculum. We can take the children out of music class, for example, but nothing else. We end up referring the most problematic ones – the ones who’re crying in class all the time.”

The psychologists say, it’s simpler to liaise with the teachers because you’re in school and you’re both working with the children, but it’s harder to contact the parents; they only tend to come if there’s a serious issue.

Little Star pic number 9

Here in Michurina, LS psychologist, Aishat, works with every class in the school and the director also gets involved because the school is so small: “LS helps to discover creative talents in an informal environment. I don’t have much space available here, but I want to give it to LS,” he says.

The psychologists always try to attend parent’s meetings at the school as this is the only way to really get to see them. Aslan explains, “Often, the parents don’t care enough to get information from their child and it’s obvious they’re neglecting them. We have to make up for that. I always attend parent’s meetings. This job is about building relationships with directors, teachers, children, and of course parents.”

A message from the Chair

Hello, and welcome back to the website if you’ve not been here for a while.  I’ve had a tinker with the website and hopefully it should now be easier to access and receive regular news reports of what we are doing – particularly if you use RSS feeds (if not then find out more on how to use them here).  Please let us know what you think!

Saturday 16th May saw Trustees gather for our Annual General Meeting to review our work over the past year and to look forward to another year of providing essential support to people living in Chechnya and the surrounding region.  Rachel Gillies, who has been a Trustee since 2005 was elected as Chair for the forthcoming year, and we are happy to say that another year’s report and accounts have been compiled by our auditors and approved by the Board.

We would like to welcome another addition to our Board of Trustees.  Alice Lagnado has worked extensively as a journalist in both Russia and Chechnya, including working as The Times’ Moscow correspondent.  She is currently the Assistant Editor of ‘One in Seven’ magazine, the publication of RNID.  It’s great to have her on board and all of the Trustees and staff are looking forward to tapping into her skills and experience!

This coming year, and in particular the next few months are looking incredibly exciting.  We’re thrilled to be welcoming Daimohk back to the UK for their first tour since 2006.  Their tour includes performances at the prestigious International Eisteddfod in Llangollen – a real indication of how much artistic respect Daimohk have gained in their own right.  We are still in the process of confirming dates, but we will be posting them up as soon as we have them available.

We also hope to be welcoming our incredibly hard-working Little Star psychosocial workers to the UK once they have gained Visas.   Please see our previous post on our hopes for their visit.  We will be working to develop a Little Star website to enable both English and Russian speakers to follow their work.  More information on that once it is up and running.

You may also have read in a previous post our hope to take some of the skills and expertise of Little Star workers to assist with much needed Psychosocial work in Gaza.  We are presently seeking seed-funding for this venture.

And finally, on the subject of funding, we’re happy to report that we have had a successful year of fundraising.  However, with money being diverted away from the Caucasus to other regions, with so many funding organisations suffering due to the recession and of course the fact that people in the Caucasus are not immune from the economic crisis, it is imperative that we receive funding to continue in our work.  Please consider making a donation to PBUK to support us in our peacebuilding efforts.

Best wishes,

Rachel Gillies (Chair)

Season’s Greetings!

Peacebuilding UK would like to wish everyone a happy holiday – whatever festivals you’re celebrating! Thank you so much for all your support during 2007, we look forward to 2008 with hope and optimism for all our brothers and sisters in Chechnya and the surrounding region.

In peace and friendship,

Staff and Trustees of Peacebuilding UK