ASTANA – Kazakhstan’s $50 million scholarship programme for Afghan students is now almost five years old and, with 827 students having enrolled, nearing its final goal of educating 1,000 Afghan students in Kazakhstan’s educational institutions.
Since the programme began in 2010, when the first 158 students landed in Kazakhstan on Sept. 28, only four students have dropped out, Gulshara Tastemirova, senior coordinator working with Afghan students at Al-Farabi National University, told The Astana Times in a November interview. She considers the programme a great success so far.
In 2014, the first graduates – 15 from graduate programmes and 20 from bachelor’s or certificate programmes – returned to Afghanistan. “There was a big event [for their graduation] in the Ibn-e-Sina University in Kabul last August. Our graduates are proud of having earned their degrees from the universities of Kazakhstan. They spread a positive image of Kazakhstan in the media,” Tastemirova said.
Tastemirova says she keeps in touch with the scholarship students she works with. “I do keep in touch with them. They send e-mails and call. Sometimes they ask for advice,” she said. Students at post-secondary schools – the equivalent of American community colleges – often want to stay and do second degrees, she said, though the terms of the scholarship programme means the Kazakh government can’t finance them.
The scholarship students receive stipends in addition to accommodation and tuition. “The students don’t pay tuition and accommodation in dormitories. While in foundation, students receive 29,000 tenge a month (US$159.86), starting from the first year of school they get more. Those pursuing graduate studies receive 76,000 tenge (US$418.96) a month.” In September of 2014, the average monthly salary in the country was reported as 118,730 tenge.
“We receive twice the stipend of local students,” Ahmad Wali Ahmad Yar, a scholarship student who began his language studies in 2010, told The Astana Times in February. “For me, the first year I was Kazakhstan it was enough, but in the last five years things have become very expensive and because of my social activities I needed financial support from my family.”
Ahmad Yar works as a volunteer in the Ariana Social Centre, a nonprofit organisation working for social support and upliftment of the Afghan diaspora in Kazakhstan, he said. He also helps out as an interpreter for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugee’s office.
Ahmad Yar began his journey to Kazakhstan after finishing high school in Kabul, when he was among 20,000 students out of 100,000 who were granted the opportunity to go on to receive higher educations in government institutes and universities, he said. “I was among those who successfully passed the exam for higher education in one of the best state universities. Soon after entering university, we were informed about Kazakhstan scholarships by university officials.”
In 2010, he said, there were 3,000 candidates and 154 were given scholarships, mostly for medical studies, civil engineering, computer science, agriculture and journalism. “I was the only student in the field of international relations,” he said. Most Afghan students in Kazakhstan have chosen to study scientific majors, especially engineering and medicine. Law is also popular, Tastemirova said.
“From childhood, I was interested in politics and international relations: that is why I chose this particular speciality. It is challenging but very interesting for me,” said Ahmad Yar. “Since my schooldays, I’ve been thinking on how I can help in building a new Afghanistan, which will have good relations with its neighbours and will become the main bridge and transport hub between Central and South Asian countries.”
Before beginning their studies, Afghan students also get language training at Al-Farabi Kazakh National University in Almaty. “It was decided that they will study in the Kazakh language since it is a government scholarship,” Tastemirova said. With the help of another Afghan student, they have created a Kazakh-Russian-Pashtun conversation book, she noted.
“A student who studies in Kazakh will understand our people’s mentality better,” Tastemirova explained. “For example, he or she will learn Kazakh culture, traditions, et cetera.” Undergraduate scholarship students learn Russian and Kazakh, and from their second semester begin studies in the history of Kazakhstan, mathematics and other subjects depending on their majors, she said. Those who pursue a graduate degree study in Russian.
It can take some time to get up to speed on the new languages, Ahmad Yar admitted. “I mostly concentrated on Kazakh because it was the official language of Kazakhstan and we were studying in a government programme,” he said. “In June 2011, when I finished language preparation course … I was fluent in Kazakh but not in a university level. In the first year I faced slight language problems; then everything became normal in the second year.”
The scholarship students are ethnically diverse, but women are still not well represented among them. Their numbers have grown somewhat, however, Tastemirova said. “The number is growing every year. For example, in 2010 at the Al-Farabi Kazakh National University, 77 students were enrolled in foundation programme and all of them were males. In 2011 there was one woman, in 2012 one woman, in 2013 seven women and in 2014 nine women already. I raised this particular issue over my last visit to Afghanistan,” she said.
Among the scholarship students are ethnic Pashtuns, Tajiks, Uzbeks and Hazaras, as well as a few ethnic Turkmen and one or two ethnic Kazakhs from Afghanistan, Tastemirova said.
Ahmad Yar says he’s never faced discrimination as a foreigner in Kazakhstan. “In the first year of the preparation course, we were studying and living with students from different countries and backgrounds, but then in the first year of university, I was the only foreign student studying in the Kazakh group in my faculty,” he explained. “I was worried that I may face problems, but my group mates and the behaviour of our teachers were very friendly, and they became the reason for me to go ahead.”
He has enjoyed being able to tell curious classmates about his country, Ahmad Yar said. “Usually, students and friends were asking me about the situation in Afghanistan because most of them had very negative ideas about Afghanistan. I tried to show them the reality about Afghanistan through presentations, participation in conferences and publishing articles.” The scholarship student says he has participated in conferences held by the UN and USAID and the Assembly of the People of Kazakhstan, as well as other nongovernmental organisations and universities.
Ahmad Yar says he plans to continue his education and do a master’s degree in world economics, political science or international relations. “Afghanistan is rising. After four decades of war and instability, it needs educated and well-trained people to work and it is for us to prepare ourselves as the best educated alternative for the wider society, instead of the uneducated warlords who once again want to turn Afghanistan into their personal fiefdom,” he notes.
The student says he wants to contribute to Afghanistan through institutional reform, democratic principles and the elimination of bureaucracy, which he says will lead to stability and autonomy.
He can also envision returning to Kazakhstan and says he is grateful to the government and the people of the country for the scholarship. “During the last years of study, I have gotten significant knowledge about Kazakhstan and Central Asia. I am quite sure that I can contribute toward straightening relations between Afghanistan and Central Asia … I will never forget Kazakhstan, and it will remain as my second home in my heart,” Ahmad Yar said.
Kazakh officials have said that the possibility of extending the programme is being considered.