Dushanbe, 11 August 2005 (RFE/RL) -- Like most serious students, Firuz Arimzoda keeps a grueling schedule.
The teenager -- who speaks Tajik, Russian, and Turkish, and is now studying English -- admits it's not always easy to settle in for two hours of homework after a full day at school.
"Sometimes, when I have to study my languages, I feel tired, like I don't want to do it, like I don't like it," he says. "But once I tell myself that I have to do it, then I want to."
That self-discipline has already allowed Firuz to skip two grades at the Tajik-Turkish College, a respected school in the capital Dushanbe. In September, he will begin ninth grade.
Firuz's mother says she wants her children to get the best education possible, start rewarding careers -- and work in Tajikistan, rather than living abroad.
Like his older brother, who also skipped two grades at school and is now attending university in St. Petersburg, Firuz has big plans for his future education. He just has trouble choosing -- he names Moscow State University, the Moscow State Institute of Foreign Relations, Oxford, and Cambridge all as possible options.
"I'd like to study at a Tajik university," says Firuz, a short, intense boy who twirls a finger through his hair when he is deep in thought. "But I don't think I can get the education I want there."
Firuz is a conspicuous presence among his older classmates. He may be smaller, but he is also one of the best students in his class. Even his hobbies, things like blogs, programming, and surfing the Internet -- anything, seemingly, having to do with computers -- show a serious side.
His mother, Rano, is proud of her sons' accomplishments. But far from indulging her children, she says her job as a mother is to push them to succeed.
"I have one aim and one wish for my children. I want to see my children get the best education possible, and become specialists in whatever profession they choose," she says. "Then I want to see them work in their own country -- Tajikistan. I always tell their teachers to be honest about their grades, not to inflate them. Because their education is the most important thing."
Firuz's parents both graduated with economics degrees, and went on to become university lecturers. But life has changed in post-Soviet Tajikistan. Their once-prestigious jobs now pay almost nothing -- just $15 a month, at a time when even minimal monthly living expenses are close to $60.
"Tajik children should focus only on their studies, because our country needs to progress more quickly."
Firuz's father has kept his university job, saying he can't do anything except teach. But Rano left her job and became a street vendor, selling Chinese and Turkish imported goods at Dushanbe's central market.
She works long hours, and her life as a vendor seems light years away from her former teaching career. But she earns the money needed for her sons' schooling. Post-Soviet Tajikistan is no longer a place where children can get a good education for free.
There were times she worked three jobs, and she still travels frequently to countries like China, South Korea, and Turkey to buy goods to sell at Dushanbe's markets. But Rano says if parents have a conscience, "they will sacrifice themselves."
"I wanted to give my children everything that they deserve, because they are no less talented than other children," she says. "If you give birth to a child, you have to do everything you can to help him stand on his own feet, to get a good education -- because he is your future protector."
Tajikistan has some of the highest school-dropout rates in the former Soviet Union. According to the UN's children's agency, UNICEF, 18 percent of Tajik children between the ages of 5 and 14 are working. Many of them are homeless, and some are addicted to drugs.
Firuz says he knows many children his age who don't go to school. That's why he hopes someday to put his education to work to ensure that all Tajik children have the chance to go to school.
Tajikistan has some of the highest school-dropout rates in the former Soviet Union. UNICEF says 18 percent of Tajik children between the ages of five and 14 are forced to work to help support their families.
Probably the best way to achieve this, he suggests, is to be elected president of Tajikistan. "If I become president, this is what I will do: I will do everything I can to give the children of Tajikistan everything they need," Firuz says. "Their lives should be focused on education -- not providing money for their families. They should focus only on their studies, because our country needs to progress more quickly."
In the meantime, there is still time to relax. But even this involves discipline. Firuz spends an hour each day practicing tae kwon do and aikido.
Exercise, he says, gives his brain "a chance to relax."
According to research by the Asian Development Bank and UNICEF, there are now more than 70,000 school-age children in Kyrgyzstan working to earn money for their families instead of attending school. RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service correspondent Jannat Toktosunova went to the Osh Bazaar in Bishkek to meet some of these children:Also see:
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