Winding down…

We have seen and taken in a lot in the past 4 days. We have been exposed to history, culture, and many more schools, rehabilitation hospitals, and sporting venues. The first thing I must mention is the hospitality of the Azerbaijani people. Everywhere we have gone they have been more then gracious hosts, always offering an abundance of food and tea as well as many local presents. It is amazing to see people doing work from their hearts and doing wonderful things with the little resources they have. As our time winds down we all have the strong feeling that we will continue to stay connected and work together even when we are continents apart. A group of people all sharing the same mission quickly becomes a community. There are lots of things that need to be changed in both of our countries and there are lots of strong people working towards that change.

Last Saturday we started our travel across the country. Our first stop was Sheki, a beautiful town which lies on the silk road. Unfortunately we were not able to do any site visits here, but our friend Aqil gave us a lovely tour of the city and its rich history. Khansarai is a palace built in the 18th century for the Sheki Khans. It has amazing amounts of stained glass, an artwork still preformed in the town today. It is also immaculately decorated on the inside with paintings that depict the thoughts and beliefs of the time period. It took 10 years for the master painter to finish all the details. We were not able to take pictures of the inside because the flash can have a negative affect on the artwork. Next we moved onto the Caravansarai which was a hotel and trading post for people traveling along the silk road. It has some really impressive architecture.

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The group in front of Khansarai!

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Khansarai’s front entrance.

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Stained glass in progress. There are no nails or glue used here but once it is all pieced together  it is really strong. The artist even knocked heavily on some of his finished pieces to show the strength!

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The front entrance of the Cravansarai.

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Hallways of the Caravansarai. I really got a sense of the deep history in both of these places and being on the silk road was a unique experience.

After our historical tour we traveled a couple hours west to the town of Mingachevir. Here we stayed at a hotel lying on the banks of the Kur river. This is where the rowing portion of the 2015 European games will take place. The hotel was part of a sports complex with a large pool and gym for athletes to train. That evening we had dinner at the home of Gulnaz Haliyeva. She is an English teacher who is an ITD alumnus from a teaching exchange program they held. It was great to have a delicious home made meal after eating only in restaurants for the past week. Gulnaz’s husband, 3 children, mother-in-law, and one of her students were also there. It was so much fun getting to know them all that we had dinner together the next 2 nights!

On Monday we visited a number of different venues with Vafa Abdullayeva who is a fine motor skills teacher in Mingachevir. She is a teacher at the Children and Family Support Center, an integrated school that works with children from kindergarten through middle and high school. The kids really put on a show for us, with traditional signing and dancing.

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Myself and 2 of the dancers after they put on their show. They thought it was hilarious that I wore their hat! I thought I pulled it off!!

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This young lady has CP. She doesn’t let that stop her from leading the group in their traditional dances though!

They have a very impressive inclusion model in this school. Kids work on educational skills in the lower levels and then vocational skills as they progress towards middle and high school. All the children are exposed to music, dance and physical education.

Next we moved onto the Children’s creativity center. This is an after school program that gives kids artistic opportunities. They have a puppet theater, dance classes, as well as pottery and painting. The center is a good place for children to go after school which finishes at 1 pm each day. Throughout our visit there has been a theme of competition, recreation doesn’t seem to be part of the culture. Even the disabled sports world is focused on going to the paralympics and winning medals. This theme was also evident in the after school program, where they emphasized sending the artwork into competitions and winning awards. Even given this cultural difference, it is an impressive opportunity for a population that doesn’t get many.

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Here’s an example of 1 of their watercolor paintings!

On Tuesday morning we traveled another hour west, to the city of Ganja. Here we visited Rovshan Novruzov, the regional director of the children’s fund. They offer 1 hour classes for children of all abilities. They serve over 100 children who come from as far as 35 miles away. They gave us a display of some of the athletic games they play.

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Tug of war can be tough in such a tight space!

Yesterday we traveled back to Baku and had our final site visits. We went to the Paralympic Sport Complex in Sumqayit about 10 miles outside of Baku. They have an impressive facility and we saw people training in archery, power lifting, shooting, and swimming.

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This was just her warm up set which she made look easy!

From there we moved onto the Sumqayit City Child Development Center. Dilare Gahramanova is a speech therapist there. They also have an OT and a Psychologist. We got to interact with a few of the children and one young lady recited a poem in English for us. We also got to talk to some of the parents and learned that a non medical approach is new to them. Most of the services offered in the past only included prescriptions or drugs, there was no behavioral, speech, or physical therapy. All of the parents stay around during their children’s sessions to learn what is being done. It is great to see these new techniques and ideas being put into place. Unfortunately the center has no grant money at the moment so they have had to switch spaces and are charging a fee for their services. In their perfect world it would be free and open to all! This center and their new approach is really inspirational.

Our time here in Azerbaijan has really flown by. We will catch our plane back to the states bright and early tomorrow morning. It has truly been an eyeopening experience that I will never forget. I have learned a lot from both my American and Azerbaijani friends. Hopefully, as planned, we can all stay connected and continue to share our thoughts and ideas. Lastly, I would be remiss not to give a big thanks to ITD and S4D for putting this whole trip together and giving me the opportunity. Julie, Mehman, Anar, and Eltaj did a wonderful job coordinating everything and making or time here productive and fun, thank you!!

-Nate

Our last visit!!!! A positive and productive facility that shall serve as a model for the rest of the country to inclusive education.

I was excited and she was proud to receive our Bridge Street School T-shirt!!  Her Speech Therapist remembered the "What's up Mr. Murdock" when she visited our school
I was excited and she was proud to receive our Bridge Street School T-shirt!! Her Speech Therapist remembered the “What’s up Mr. Murdock” when she visited our school

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She recited a poem in English.  She came to this facility without being able to walk or talk at the age of 4.  Amazing results.  Amazing people!!  Very proud of the people who work at this faicility
She recited a poem in English. She came to this facility without being able to walk or talk at the age of 4. Amazing results. Amazing people!! Very proud of the people who work at this faicility

Oh the Places We’ve Gone

It is hard to believe that we have been in Azerbaijan for one week already. The kindness and hospitality that we have been shown by the ITD Alumni from Azerbaijan as well as so many others has been wonderful. Azerbaijan is a beautiful country filled with so many gracious people. We also have a great group of people from the US in our delegation. This trip and all of the adventures along the way has enabled us to get to know one another quite well in a short period of time. I am so thankful to be sharing this experience with such an incredible group of people with so much knowledge to share.

Nate and Craig have done a great job of documenting our day to day trips and experiences so instead of recapping what we have done each day, I thought that I would share some of my thoughts on the experience thus far. I think the thing that has struck me the most so far is the high level of dedication to serving the children, adults and families in need that we have seen displayed by so many of the professionals that we have met this past week.  While we certainly have greater strides to make in regard to serving individuals of all abilities in the United States, we already have a great deal of services to offer children and adults in the realms of education, recreation, vocational training and sport. If a child with an intellectual disability wants to play basketball, it is likely that there is a Special Olympics team that they could become involved with. If an adult with Cerebral Palsy wants to learn vocational skills, they will most likely be able to find a day program to fit their needs at least to some extent. Seeing the high level of need here in Azerbaijan has made me recognize how fortunate we are to have the services that we do in the United States.

Many of the ITD alumni as well as other professionals and volunteers that we have visited over the course of our trip thus far are doing absolutely amazing work to serve individuals with disabilities often with very little space and resources. Nazaket, an ITD alumni said something very poignant that has really stuck with me, when discussing the small work space for her organization she said ‘small office, big work’. I beleive that this simple phrase speaks to many of the organizations that we have seen. There are many dedicated individuals that are doing very ‘big work’ to serve those in need with very limited space and financial resources. They are  using what they have to make the greatest impact that they can. The second site that we visited a community learning center for children and young adults of all abilities where alumni Sabuhi works, was an excellent example of a group of dedicated individuals doing the best they can to serve those in need. When the organization receives a grant, the staff can be paid, when it does not, they work on a purely volunteer basis. The director of the facility, Sabuhi’s mother, actually sold their family home to be able to buy the center outright to keep it running. She recognized the need in their community and has done whatever it takes to be able to continue to provide services with passion and heart.

The example above is just one of the many powerful stories that we have heard since arriving to Azerbaijan. I have been overwhelmed by the level of dedication to serve people in need by the ITD alumni and those that they collaborate with. While we are halfway across the world, we have learned that many of the struggles that people with disabilities and those that provide services to them are no different. I am looking forward to the experiences that this next week will bring. Today we have the opportunity to explore the city of Sheki and to visit the sports arena where we will see a youth soccer program. We are then off to Mingechevir tonight for a few days.

Best wishes to all,

Christie

“Lira,” Young Talents Society, Khachmaz

Yesterday we traveled about 2 hours north west to the city of Khachmaz. Here we met our friends Elvin and La La. They volunteer with an NGO that does music and sports with economically challenged youth which has been around since 1999. After her trip to the U.S., last October, La La has decided that she wants to make children with disabilities her only focus! Her and Elvin have started a computer skills program for children with disabilities. The peace core came to Khachmaz in 2011 and taught english to children in their non-profit. They also donated 4 computers. At the moment they have 7 children living with CP, epilepsy, downs syndrome and other disabilities in their computer program. Kids learn Microsoft Word, Excel, and internet skills. They would like to reach more children but they are having trouble fighting the stigma and convincing families that these children should be a part of the community. A woman from the local government who is in charge of NGO’s joined our tour as well. Each day we continue to improve our understanding about their educational and non-profit systems.

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This is an advertisement for the computer program, essentially stating that everyone, regardless of their ability deserves the same opportunities. I couldn’t agree more and it is was phenomenal to see this message being put out there!

After we visited Elvin and La La’s computer lab we took a tour of a rug museum. They took us through the ancient art and all the work that goes into the process. They used to die the wool on their own using fruits and vegetables such as red onions and pomegranates to produce a red thread. They now have technology that can do this for them but most of the rug weaving is still done in homes, not mass producing factories.

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The next stop was a Rehabilitation center for young children. It is one of the only centers in the region and works with 400 or more children a year. Here Elvin run’s a chess club for the kids who visit the center. It is a wonderful place that is really doing a lot with the little resources it has. They hope to renovate it very soon. There was a wonderful teacher who was animatedly teaching the kids the names of different vegetables. I had them teach me some and was so proud to finally be learning some of the Azerbaijani language only to find out later it was Russian! The director of the program has made this field her life long mission and does an exceptional job advocating for the children and their needs.

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After the rehabilitation center the whole group had a lovely lunch. There seemed to be an endless number of kabobs and salads! Next we moved onto the American Center which provides english lessons to children in the town. Elvin learned his english there and is really close with the director of the program. We got the inside scoop and learned he had to be reprimanded in class quite a bit! It was wonderful to visit Khachmaz and get some insight into the city and the work that Elvin and La La are doing there.

Today we left the Caspian Palace in Baku and traveled about 6 hours north west to the town of Sheki. Here we will meet Gualandam for dinner and learn about her programs. Tomorrow we will tour some museums in the town and then go visit the athletic complex. Here we will see some more bocce and possibly some soccer!

-Nate