This week I'm helping to recruit students for a particular program funded by the U.S. State Department. It's a program to help underprivileged and disadvantaged high school aged kids learn English for free. In Tajikistan, it's particularly for kids who are orphans, whose father died in the civil war, whose father went to Russia to work and doesn't send money, or who have two parents but they have low paying jobs and many children and can't afford additional English classes. The place that is running this particular program is already a university and runs this U.S. funded program an additional program. The kids (ages 14-16) were given extremely difficult texts to read such as "Do Muslims Really Want Democracy" and "How the Neutron Bomb Will Save the World" and had to be prepared to come in and discuss and argue about during the interview process. The project coordinator assigned these texts and expects the students to be able to come in and speak about them in ENGLISH which is absolutely absurd! I don't even think "I" could carry on a discussion about the neutron bomb. I don't know a freaking thing about the neutron bomb and it's absolutely assanine to expect 14 year olds to come in and debate and ARGUE this topic in ENGLISH! That's totally NOT what the program is about. It's assumed that kids who come from low income families can't afford English lessons and this program is for students who know basic English and can carry on a BASIC conversation and talk about what they do in their free time or their best friend...not how the neutron bomb is a humane and civilized way to kill people. Come on! The project coordinator didn't want to consider the students who couldn't debate and argue about these texts. I argued with her and told that this program is EXACTLY for these kids who don't have high English skills and I'm going to make sure that they get into this program. The coordinator said they are not a language program and I told her that's EXACTLY what the U.S. gives them money for...to be an English language learning program! I told her that if they don't change their program then they will lose their funding and it will go to an NGO that will use it the way it's supposed to be used.
The program is extremely competitive and over 300 students applied but we can only accept 24 at each location. PRIORITY is given to the disadvantaged kids not to the ones with the BEST debate and English skills. I'm fighting for the poor little orphan boy whose mother and father both died and he is living with his uncle and grandmother. His suit was 3 sizes too big and he couldn't talk about the text he read AT ALL! When I asked him what he did in his free time and to tell me about his friends he loosened up. He couldn't communicate all that well, but he was trying and the fact that he filled out the application, wrote an essay, and showed up to the interview says that he wants to be in the program. Then there was another kid I interviewed who was from Afghanistan. His family has been living in Tajikistan for one year. He said his father was a doctor in Afghanistan and was working for foreigners. The Taliban said that an Afghan caught working with foreigners would be killed, so his family fled to Tajikistan. His father had to take a lesser paying job in Tajikistan and they can't afford English lessons. It's kids like these who need to be given priority over kids whose fathers are generals in the military or work in international organizations. I have the power to remind them that this program is for the disadvantaged kids and to make sure that the U.S. money is going to run these programs the way they should be run. It's an advantage for these kids to be disadvantaged! The problem is that many coordinators forget the goals of the program and accept kids with the best English skills. It's not for the ones who are the BEST...it's for the NEEDIEST! Learning English is one of their only chances at having a better life here; it will open so many different doors for them. I'm just glad that I have the opportunity to give these kids a chance that they otherwise wouldn't have had.
**** The thoughts, views, and opinions expressed in this blog are solely that of the author and not of the United States Department of State nor the English Language Fellow Program.****