Have you ever heard of Almaty, Astana, Karaganda or Tashkent? Frankly, we had never heard of these far-away cities either, until we landed on a vast green hillside, cut by rushing rivers off snow-capped Alp-like mountains. It was the great city of Almaty, in southern Kazakhstan, Central Asia. Tom and I went there searching for new partners and new students for our programs. We also visited our existing partners and participated in educational fairs, organized by WYSTC.
Astounded by the spectacular sights surrounding us, we were equally surprised by the laughing, friendly multi-ethnic people we found there. Originally, there were Parthians, Kazakhs, Tajiks, Uzbeks, Turkmen, Mongols, Afghans, Persians, Chinese, Uyghur and others. Over the last century, Stalin deported or moved politically inconvenient populations from various parts of the USSR to this “Godforsaken” region of the earth. So we encountered Volga Germans, Crimean Tatars, European Russians, Jews, Koreans, Romanians, Ukrainians, Armenians, Turks and even Chechens. At that time, they were forbidden to speak their own languages so they all learned to use Russian as their Esperanto. Of course, they began to intermarry and today you have a country with hundreds of ethnic mixtures and combinations. Over the many centuries, these people have traded their goods along the famous Silk Road, sharing their styles, food, stories, languages, clothes, religions, and spices from everywhere, enriching all their lives. During the Soviet times, we did not hear a great deal about these exotic lands but today, under still-delicate democracies, they are revealing themselves to us. It was a source of enormous pride for them to discover how much we appreciated their culture and their way of life.
When we read Marco Polo in our history classes, we may have read about the great Uzbek cities of Bukhara and Samarkand, our next stop. At one time in their histories, they were the centers of civilization; vast trading towns, connected by caravans, crossed by millions of nomads and persons from both the east and the west. Some days, Tom and I would just have to pinch ourselves. Were we really standing here in this unknown and remote part of the world? We delighted in the food, the spices, the camelhair purses, the crochet weavings of gorgeous flowers, fruits, grapes, trees, pomegranates, and yes, the woven silk made from their silk worms which they feed by harvesting thousands of mulberry trees, lining the Silk Road even today. We swooned at their mosques, their exquisite tile work, and their beautiful breathtaking squares.
All the while, we were grateful that these young Central Asian students are finally getting permission to visit the USA. They will work here for a few months, travel a bit, go back home, and apply all that they have absorbed into their own lives. Most of the young people who speak English have been on one of our programs. We could see the excitement in their voices and their eyes when they spoke about their experiences, about what they learned, and, dare I say it, about discovering the secret to America’s promise: the idea that they can achieve anything in life if they work hard and keep overcoming obstacles.
Those with whom we will be working as partners are inspired and inspiring. They have all been to the USA at least once and the few that have not, are anticipating coming soon. Tom and I welcome them and we know that our businesses, our host families, and the people of America will enjoy them and embrace them as they embraced us.