Prague, 23 February 2005 (RFE/RL) -- Growing up was never easy. But rarely was the world so full of dangers for youngsters as today. In Central Asia, poverty combined with boredom leaves many youths open to temptations like alcoholism, drug taking or drug dealing, crime of all sorts, and political extremism.
With this in mind, the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) has been financing a $2.5 million program to involve youngsters in sports activities.
The coordinator in Kyrgyzstan of the Central Asia Sport and Health Education Program, Ulugbek Nurembetov, explained just how badly needed the project was.
"Currently -- especially in the rural areas of our [Central Asian] countries -- it is very necessary to engage kids, to interest them in positive activities, and set them apart from the drugs...., sport was really accepted as an alternative to drugs and alcohol, and made them dislike such things," Nurembetov said.
Over the past three years, the program has introduced sports and health lessons to over 22,000 school students, brought some 750 young people into team sports, mainly soccer and volleyball, and led to the creation of 150 district-level teams. Nurembetov said the youngsters have taken to the sports like fish to water.
"What we are aiming to do is bring the kids together through sport, to foster tolerance [across borders], and to get them to know their neighbors, and thus to prevent conflict in Central Asia."
"They have never had such an experience, such programs in their lives, and considering kids always like sports and games, it has made a great impression, and brought enthusiasm into their lives," Nurembetov said.
The program has centered on the heavily populated Ferghana Valley, which is shared by three of the five Central Asian countries: Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan. The valley is a simmering pot-pourri of ethnic divisions and religious, economic, and social tensions. The program also operates in southern Kazakhstan.
Originally, the sport idea was seen as a measure to foster conflict prevention in the volatile Ferghana region. Abt Associates, the American consultancy which was running a local health-improvement program, suggested sports as a good way to keep young people out of trouble. Abt today runs the combined sport and health program.
Project Director Sarah Crockett spoke to RFE/RL from the Uzbek part of the Ferghana.
"What we are aiming to do is bring the kids together through sport, to foster tolerance [across borders], and to get them to know their neighbors, and thus to prevent conflict in Central Asia," Crockett said.
One novel development which has sprung from the program is that it has introduced soccer for girls. Crockett acknowledged that this novelty had to be handled carefully.
"We have been very careful as to where we have implemented it, we were worried about introducing it to rural areas, but we found in general the rural areas are very excited just to have an opportunity for the girls, because in general the girls don't have anything to do [in recreation terms]," Crockett said.
The exception to this is Tajikistan, where the program operates in some especially conservative areas, and where the girls stick to volleyball or play soccer only when no males of the community are present.
Poverty is a real problem in some areas, and the program has handed out hundreds of balls and nets to the young sportsmen and women, as well as one pair of tennis shoes each. This has led to an increase in school attendance in some areas, because some of the children had no shoes at all to wear and didn't want to go to school barefoot.
The sport initiative finishes in May. Does this mean all the good work will be lost? No, said Director Crockett.
The idea of sustainability is built into the effort. There are international game days, when teams compete against players from neighbor countries. These will remain on the calendar and will encourage teams to stay together in order to compete.
There is also institution-building in the form of permanent bodies that will arrange sporting events. And schools across Central Asia are already beginning to organize their own teams, independent of the program.