Azerbaijan: Karabakh Displaced Persons Grapple with Integration Dilemma

A student from Agdam School #1 pauses in front of the local schoolhouse, where the IDPs have lived for 17 years. (Photo: EurasiaNet)

With the help of American aid, a gleaming new school in central Azerbaijan stands ready to receive the children of internally displaced persons who fled the Agdam Region during the Nagorno-Karabakh war more than 17 years ago. And that’s created something of a dilemma for IDP parents, who, while wanting the best for their kids, are intent on inculcating a strong sense of identity with Agdam in their offspring.

The pupils who now study at what is called Agdam School # 1, located in the provincial town of Barda, have never set foot in their ‘native’ region. Agdam was overrun by Armenian forces in July 1993, suffering damage that left the provincial center by the same name uninhabitable. Before the war, the city had an estimated population of 150,000.

Barda is tantalizingly close to Agdam City, roughly 35 miles to the northeast. But with the Nagorno-Karabakh peace process stalled, prospects for the return of Azerbaijani Internally Displaced Persons in the near future range from uncertain to bleak. [For background see EurasiaNet’s archive].

Even so, many Agdam IDPs seem stubbornly resistant to the idea of moving on, and carving out a new existence in post-war Azerbaijan. They appear to cling to the hope that their past lives can somehow be restored.

And that’s where the new school comes in. For the past 17 years, the learning environment at Agdam School # 1, which accommodates 102 IDP students, has been what can generously be described as less than ideal. The school is located in a decaying three-story building that also serves as a shelter for IDP families. Makeshift apartments for 70 families, with portable ovens and sinks on every floor, are intermingled with classrooms. “It’s been such a challenge here,” said one teacher, “You’re trying to teach classes while someone is preparing dinner next door.” About 60 of the school’s students live in the same building. In addition, Barda School #2, a school for non-IDP youths, is also located in the same building.

The newly constructed school building, an American-funded project, features 13 furnished classrooms, administrative offices, a new heating system, and a new water supply system. It would offer relief from existing overcrowded conditions at Agdam School # 1, and would present more educational opportunities to the students.

But parents are reluctant to send their children to the new facility, in large part because they would be integrated into classrooms with children from non-IDP families. According to Agdam School #1’s principal, Chimnas Terimova, only four students are transferring to the new facility. The overwhelming preference for most IDP parents is for their children to keep on studying exclusively with other IDP children, taught by IDP teachers. For many, the school is one of the only tangible symbols of their lost homeland and they aren’t ready to give that up.

“When we’re together, Agdam lives,” said Terimova, the school principal.

The preferences demonstrated by the Agdam’s school’s parents seem to be shared by many of Azerbaijan’s 586,000 IDPs. Integration into mainstream Azerbaijani society, many IDPs seem to feel, is an unthinkable act.

The director of the Lachin region school district -- a region that, like Agdam, is now also occupied by Armenian forces – said keeping memories of Karabakh alive in IDP children is an important mission of IDP schools.

“Outsiders think when we die, the next generation will be different, that they won’t want to return like we do, but we make sure to teach them about their land” said Agayar Ismailov, who named his grandson “Lachin,” after his occupied home region.

The halls of IDP schools, such as those for the children of former Agdam and Lachin residents, are filled with photos of war heroes and maps of the lost territories. IDP schools are also a significant employer for former teachers in Karabakh. The Agdam school, for example, has 33 part-time teachers on its payroll.

The emphasis on returning home has many students looking to the past, not the future. When asked about their hopes for the next few years, a group of adolescent boys living in the old school building all answered, “to return to our land,” even though none said they could remember ever being there. “Without Agdam, there is no future,” added one boy.

Some non-governmental activists believe that resistance to integration is damaging for IDP children “The older generation doesn’t pay enough attention to the younger generation. They are more concerned with territorial integrity.” said Elmina Kazimzade, director of the Center for Innovations in Education, a Baku NGO that works with IDP education issues. While many IDPs now residing in large cities, including Sumgaiyt and Baku, tend to be more integrated within local communities and schools, IDPs in rural regions remain apart, Kazimzade said. [Editor’s Note: The Center for Innovations in Education receives funding from the Open Society Assistance Foundation – Azerbaijan, part of the Soros Foundations Network. EurasiaNet.org operates under the auspices of the Open Society Institute, which is also part of the foundation network].

There is statistical evidence that suggests IDP students are being shortchanged. In Barda, the students at Barda School #2 significantly outscored their IDP peers in Agdam School #1 in almost every subject matter, according to year-end grades posted by the Ministry of Education. While there are exceptions to this trend, experts say many IDP schools lack the tools to deal with their IDP students’ particular challenges.

“Many of these [IDP] children haven’t learned how to turn thoughts and feelings into words, so it’s very hard to know what is going on inside of them,” commented Nazim Ibadov, founder of the Buta Foundation, a Baku-based NGO that has proposed a mini-curriculum to the Ministry of Education for IDP students. The Ministry of Education could not be reached for comment. [Editor’s Note: The Buta Foundation receives funding from the Open Society Assistance Foundation – Azerbaijan, part of the Soros Foundations network. EurasiaNet.org operates under the auspices of the Open Society Institute, which is also part of the foundation network].

Given the hardened opinion of IDPs, the government has tentatively agreed to build new housing and a new school building for Agdam School #1 by 2012, said Terimova, the principal. Little doubt exists that almost none of the students of Agdam School #1 will have transferred to the new public school across the way by that time.

“These are people whose mindset is fundamentally tied to the land,” commented Ibadov, ”and that is a factor in their tie to the school -- good or bad.”

Azerbaijan: Karabakh Displaced Persons Grapple with Integration Dilemma

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