Western volunteers helping North Caucasians

It came as surprise when supposedly independent Ingush website http://www.ingushetiya.ru published a rather slanderous article about American exchange programs. It read as if it were written according to the cliches, that the Kremlin promotes about the “evil West”. http://www.ingushetiya.ru/news/14678.html (in Russian)

The American organisation, Chechnya Advocacy Network, was implicated in the article as a part of this big American conspiracy against Russia, Ingushetia and the world. It was so unjust and mean, that CAN decided to respond to the article. Even though at first I tried to dissuade them from doing so, I’m glad they wrote it. I’m sure it will make an interesting read for all those, who are interested in the region of North Caucasus. Below is the English version of it. Russian version can be found here. http://ingushetiya.ru/news/14832.html

When I saw the recent article “Будущее Ингушетии (часть 3): Что нам делать?”, about our organization and its efforts to bring more participants from the North Caucasus to international trainings and scholarships, I was disappointed to find it full of misrepresentations, distortions, irresponsible advice and outright factual errors. The author, Mr. Lars Evloev mistakenly and regrettably claims that we want to mislead students and potential applicants. His article aims at discrediting our volunteer organization and disheartening young people. For example, he argues that nothing they do can ever be important, that young Ingush students would be treated like African “Interstudents” (back in the USSR) and considered “fools” in the USA, and that a university education will only prevent them from attaining their goals. The article also contains blatantly false information about our finances. I wish Mr. Evloev, who knows my email address since he included it in the article, had contacted me for fact-checking before publication. My colleagues and I consider helping North Caucasus residents get access to international training opportunities one of our most important and successful endeavors. I therefore feel obliged to respond, in order to give readers in Ingushetia the facts about our work, which we do day after day for, we hope, their benefit (read point by point clarifications at http://www.chechnyaadvocacy.org/articleclarifications.html).

When we started our organization 4 years ago, we pledged that we would be guided by the needs and demands of people in the North Caucasus region instead of imposing our own ideas of what the region needs. So we listen to what people from the region tell us and then we try to help accordingly, as much as is in our (admittedly limited) power. Our very first contact in the region, a teacher at a local university, told us that she had many bright students who could not reach their potential at home and who should ideally be able to study abroad. We had no means to bring students to international universities on our own. But we knew that there were many existing, fully funded educational programs for which North Caucasus applicants would be eligible. We decided to help people in the region get access to them. We called this effort “Opportunities Initiative”.
It’s important to understand the context for our work: since 2000, more than 20,000 students from Russia study abroad each year, about 7,000 in the US, the rest in Europe, Turkey and CIS countries (Source: UNESCO Institute for Statistics, http://stats.uis.unesco.org , Education at a Glance 2005. OECD) and the interest in international degrees is only growing. Most of them study abroad by paying for commercial student exchange programs, on average $11,000 (http://eduabroad.ru/student/studyabroad_2007.php). In contrast, all the scholarship programs we advertise are fully paid for. While the children of Russia’s rich are streaming to American and European universities by the thousands, preparing to run Russia one day, Mr. Evloev tells his own Ingush people to sit at home and refuse even free opportunities to learn what they need in a globalizing world, or to leave their homeland permanently.

We had our first applicant three years ago and have since then helped around 40 applicants from all North Caucasus republics successfully compete for programs ranging from one week practical trainings to two or more years of university study. We have encountered obstacles, such as skepticism that such fully-funded programs could really exist, and a reluctance to participate in competitions with unknown outcomes (in a free competition there is never a guarantee that applicants will win, even if we help them). But the positive lessons have far outweighed the negative ones: every participant of every program has told us that their program was an exhilarating, life-changing experience that gave them new skills, a broader horizon and a sense of possibility. Programs and teachers report to us regularly how impressed they are with their participants from the North Caucasus. Even candidates who spent much of their youth in war and refugee camps have repeatedly beaten the competition from around the world and won prestigious scholarships due to their talent, motivation and hard work. On average, 70% of our applicants win the program they apply for, which is much higher than the acceptance rate of any of these programs. And with only one exception, all of them returned home, where they continue to help their communities in many different ways.

We are sad to see Mr. Evloev trying to create fear and doubts about an open and competitive process, but grateful for the chance to make these corrections and for the additional exposure his article has given our effort. We hope that this information and the clarifications below will encourage readers from Ingushetia to take a look at our collection of programs at http://www.chechnyaadvocacy.org/opportunities.htm, share the information with their friends, colleagues and family and maybe even take a leap of faith and apply for one of the programs. We would be thrilled to have more applicants from Ingushetia and are looking forward to hearing from them at can@chechnyaadvocacy.org.

For corrections and clarifications of the article about CAN, go to http://www.chechnyaadvocacy.org/articleclarifications.html:

• “которая финансируется Дж.Соросом”. The Chechnya Advocacy Network has never applied for or accepted any funding from the Open Society Institute (George Soros’s grant-making foundation) nor Mr. Soros himself, not for the Opportunities Initiative or any other project. This is not because we oppose or dislike OSI. But we believe in the importance of volunteerism, and the Opportunities Initiative is made possible entirely by unpaid volunteers. We must insist on accurate reporting about our work and our finances.
• “ваше окно в Америку”: The programs we promote are not only in the US, but also all of Europe. We would like to include similar programs taking place in Russia or elsewhere, but we still need to do more research to identify such programs.
• “в Джеймстаун Фонде попали в США посредством CAN”: No speaker at any Jamestown Foundation conference has come to the US with our help. One previous speaker at a Jamestown conference Mr. Evloev mentions, Valery Dzutsev, won his fellowship without our assistance.
• “А коли вы начали учебу, то посмотрите еще раз видео семинара в Джеймстаун Фонде и не повторяйте чужих ошибок.”: No student who comes here, with our help or without, is required to speak at Jamestown or any other conference or organization. If a scholarship recipient speaks there, it is entirely due to their own initiative. Jamestown (an organization we do not cooperate with) is not involved in any scholarship program – it doesn’t fund any, it doesn’t advertise/promote them, it doesn’t select students etc. We have never advised anyone to speak at Jamestown; if a student is interested in public presentations to US audiences, there are better, more mainstream and prestigious research institutions for them to speak at, preferably universities.
• “Если получиться так, что вам будет предложена помощь именно А.Дигаевой, то настоятельно рекомендую не указывать то, что вы ингуш.”: My friend and colleague Albina Digaeva has never discriminated against anyone. On the contrary, she is one of the authors of our policy of helping people from all over the North Caucasus equally. Mr. Evloev’s statement about Albina says more about his own prejudices than her alleged ones; it is offensive and a sad example of the problematic attitudes that plague the North Caucasus.
“г-жа А.Дигаева, сторонник сепаратизма, бежала в США в то время когда именно они, сепаратисты, правили в Чечне.”: None of our members and volunteers are “separatist” sympathizers or otherwise politically engaged in the North Caucasus. We denounce the spread of these rumors and speculation about people who donate a significant amount of their time to helping others.
• “Роль этих девушек состоит в том, чтобы помочь вам выбрать нужную программу и подготовить анкету в возможно лучшем виде. Те, кто не знают английского, могут не отчаиваться. Это не имеет никакого значения. Перевод вашей анкеты возьмет на себя ваш визави. Более того, если ваше знание английского приличное, то все равно лучше не упоминать об этом, иначе вам придется самим готовить все переводы.”: Besides Albina and myself there are many other volunteer “coaches” who help applicants from the North Caucasus prepare their applications. Our coaches don’t write entire applications for applicants or translate them if an applicant doesn’t know English. We always evaluate a candidate’s level of English first and if it’s insufficient, we advise the candidate against applying. It would be unethical to help applicants “cheat”, but also not in their and our interest, because they would only fail at a later stage of the selection process. Most programs conduct interviews with applicants or require official English tests before they select the winners, so “cheating” doesn’t work. Also, we want to show these programs that candidates from the North Caucasus make good students and should be selected again and again. We could not do that if we “pushed through” unqualified candidates. So what DO we do? First, we advise potential applicants on whether a program is “right” for them. If yes, we explain what the program is about, what is expected of a good candidate and how they can present their background, accomplishments, interests and goals in the best way. Applicants write the application themselves, often three or four times before the coach and applicant both feel that it is “perfect”. We answer candidates’ questions and accompany them through what is often a confusing process, all of this by email and phone. Of course, applicants can also apply without our help and even without telling us, if they prefer. It’s up to them.

• “С одной стороны, потому что вам надо попасть в сеть, стать своим.[…] “Я определенно не советую и с огромным сожалением узнал бы, что еще кто-то пополнил ряды этих сетей.”: Nobody has to become “ours” to apply for a program. The “network” in our name refers only to our own members and volunteers in the US, not to participants in scholarships or anyone else in the North Caucasus. In order to get our advice, applicants don’t have to do anything in return or even stay in touch with us. We simply offer a free service.

• “Просто мой совет участвовать в новых образовательных программах относиться в первую очередь к тем, кто хочет эмигрировать в США. Для них это отличная и практически единственная возможность получить визу в США. Разумеется, до вылета вы должны подготовить все необходимые документы, которые убедят иммиграционную полицию или в крайнем случае американский суд в вашем праве остаться в США”: The author’s advice here is evidently based on ignorance of the reality of exchange programs and the US immigration system, as well as a severe distortion of our goals. The purpose of the short- and long-term educational programs we promote is to educate individuals so they can use their new skills to help their communities back home. They are an “investment” in the development of these communities, and this investment would be lost if the student didn’t return. If we suspect that an applicant is only interested in emigration, we will not help them with their scholarship application. Also, the idea that winning a scholarship is the “only chance to get a visa” is absurd. US scholarships are very competitive, with usually less than 10% of applicants being selected; even winning a scholarship is no guarantee of receiving a visa (every year some scholarship recipients are denied US visas for various reasons). Applying for a regular tourist visa directly at the embassy is much easier than preparing a scholarship application, and much more likely to be successful. Part of our work is helping refugees in the US and Europe, so we know these asylum and immigration systems pretty well – unlike, apparently, the author. The notion that one can simply get a visa through a scholarship, step off the plane and start a new life in the US is plain wrong. If a student doesn’t study or once he/she has graduated, his/her visa will be cancelled/expire and the student has to go home. Exchange student visas cannot be extended or changed into another visa type after graduation, either. The only way to stay here is to apply for political asylum (see below).

• “Вы же действительно имеете все шансы, так как живете в Ингушетии, в которой каждый день взрывается по несколько бомб и которая откровенно терроризируется отнюдь не сепаратистами, а самым что ни на есть промосковским режимом.”: “Living in Ingushetia” is not a grounds for receiving asylum, even if the situation there is currently very difficult! Asylum is only granted to those who have suffered individual persecution, which they have to prove to US authorities. This is never easy and even with good evidence there is no guarantee that asylum will be granted, as the US asylum system is becoming more restrictive all the time.

• ” И поверьте, что оставшись в США, устроившись на работу, забрав туда своих родителей и других родственников, вы сделаете гораздо больше для демократии в Ингушетии, чем вернувшись, чтобы пополнить ряды американских НГО. Так вот обязательно оставайтесь в Америке!”: From our work with refugees and asylum-seekers in the US we know only too well that “finding work and bringing your relatives” is difficult and takes a long time. Applying for asylum may take years and there is no guarantee for a positive outcome. Once someone has received asylum, he/she may only bring their spouse and children and that process can again take years. To bring parents or other relatives here, he/she would have to become a US citizen – another 5 years – so they can even put their relatives on a waitlist. I have witnessed many educated and qualified refugees from the North Caucasus struggle in this country and live much less comfortably and securely than at home, so I can tell you that rebuilding a normal life in the US is hard. It is therefore uninformed and irresponsible to lure young people from the North Caucasus to come to the US for an “easy life”.

• ” Я вообще-то не рекомендую в принципе участвовать в программе, которую вы выиграли. То есть, как только вы прошли контроль в аэропорту, лучше сразу идти навстречу новой жизни. Так как участие в программе никакого практического значения для дальнейшей жизни в США не будет иметь. Оно не даст вам ни востребованной профессии, ни знаний.”: It is even more ignorant to suggest that a degree from a US university does not help with building a life here. In reality, US employers don’t value degrees from Russian universities much, so American educational credentials are essential to finding a good job here. Everyone in Ingushetia has heard about foreign doctors, scientists and professors who end up working as nannies and taxi drivers in the US. That’s not a myth; I meet such people all the time. A degree from a US university gives an immigrant a chance to resume their career at a high level. So if a student from the North Caucasus cannot return home for some reason, we would definitely advise him/ her to at least finish their degree (as we actually did in one case).

• “Отдавайте отчет кто вы есть: на самом деле вы интерстудент, (помните, студентов из отсталых африканских стран в наших вузах?), и на вас смотрят как на придурка и представителя слаборазвитого народа.”: This statement reflects ignorance of the reality of international students in the US. These programs are nothing like the “interstudent” programs of the Soviet era. The degree programs that international students on scholarships attend are exactly the same as those for American students; they sit in the same classroom, pass the same exams, have to perform at the same level. International students are accepted even by famous, elite universities like Harvard or Columbia, according to their own tough criteria of academic ability, experience, and interests. Most importantly, US universities want to attract students from all over the world, because they value their contribution and believe it enriches the learning experience for everyone. Readers can take a look at the website of any American university to see that the percentage of international students on campus is always proudly advertised.

• ” а не посредством закрытой почтовой рассылки как сейчас.” We make it very clear at http://www.chechnyaadvocacy.org/opportunities.htm and in our regular email updates (which always asks recipients to “передать информацию о программах интересующимся сотрудникам, друзьям или родственникам.”) that we want to reach as many people as possible and that EVERYONE is welcome to apply for these programs and ask us for advice. I also try to add every North Caucasus email address I can find to our email list (we have several hundred addresses; including editor@ingushetiya.ru). This list of contacts is neither exclusive nor secret – anyone can ask to receive regular emails from me, circulate them, publish them etc. Our friends have previously posted program information on regional websites; some local journalists have also written special articles about programs for local websites, so we can reach more people. However, it is difficult for us to regularly post information directly on local websites since the description is almost always in English and translation into Russian costs too much time and/or money. http://www.ingushetiya.ru is more than welcome to publish every single update from us; in fact, I hoped they would do so when I added the editor’s email address to our list.

• “Кроме того, я не вижу как можно подкорректировать программы, чтобы нормальным людям было сложнее добиться своих целей.”: It’s true, the program descriptions and application processes often sound daunting. That’s why we help interested candidates understand them better and navigate the application process, to show them that it is really not that difficult. Also, we simply collect, advertise and explain existing programs – we don’t run them, we didn’t design them, we don’t fund them, we don’t select the winners, and therefore we cannot make them easier for people from the North Caucasus. If we had the means to create our own educational program, we would try to make it more specific for the North Caucasus context, but right now that’s just a dream. Some of these programs are perhaps not meant for “нормальныe people”, in the sense of пассивныe or “contented”. International scholarship programs look for people who have “extraordinary” motivation, discipline, courage, desire to learn and above all, commitment to serve their communities. What applicants do not need are high-paying jobs, families with influence, or even the highest grades or a diploma from the best universities in Russia. On the contrary, many programs want to recruit candidates from disadvantaged areas that need more help. But they should have enthusiasm, seriousness of purpose, a record of achievement in their field and an open mind!

Almut Rochowanski


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