Making a Safe Space for Returnees, One Step at a Time

July 28, 2023
Photo: UNDP Uzbekistan

Beshariq, Uzbekistan - As a school psychologist and social worker of Uzbekistan’s eastern city of Beshariq, Ms. Ziroat Dehqonova has faced a recurring issue over the last years: the children and families returning from conflict areas struggle to find their place back in society. She explains: ‘their most common challenge is the lack of social connections’.

In the school’s social help center, she works with children, women, parents and other makhalla (neighbourhood) residents to address their personal and professional struggles. Last May Ms. Dehqonova and 120 other social workers of Uzbekistan’s Ferghana Valley were trained in empathetic communication, non-offensive and non-discriminatory language, first-hand psychosocial support and in solutions to better involve returnees in community activities and to access employment opportunities.

The training was part of UNDP’s Prevention of Violent Extremism efforts in the region, which include reintegration and rehabilitation initiatives easing the return of the families of foreign terrorist fighters from Syria and Iraq to their country of origin. By sensitizing the local service providers on their issues, they are better able to help the returnees be part of the social fabric and take an active role in the local economy, preventing social divisions and strengthening the resilience of entire communities to violent extremist and other divisive narratives.

The trainings of social workers are part larger UNDP regional initiative covering the five Central Asian countries, a partnership between the European Union and the UN.

‘Mental health and psychosocial support is crucial to help them fit in the community. They need it right upon their return, but also in the following months’, Ms. Dehqonova added.  

From 2019 to 2021, Uzbekistan repatriated 531 of their citizens from Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan . UNDP’s project is carried out alongside governmental repatriation and reintegration initiatives. In Ms. Dehqonova’s neighborhood, a block of 74 community apartments was temporarily earmarked by the government for those in need, including repatriated citizens.

As it is in other countries of the regional initiative, UNDP’s work in Uzbekistan is carried out together with the local civil society – a crucial element which ensures that local perspectives (and in particular women’s perspectives) inform and guide the work on the ground.

Photo: UNDP Uzbekistan

In Uzbekistan, UNDP joined forces with a local NGO, the Ferghana regional branch of the Republican Center for Social Adaptation of Children, that has been helping the government in reintegration and rehabilitation work and has allowed the trainings to reflect the cultural specificities of the Ferghana Valley. Such partnerships contributed to the success of the project, which leverages mental health and psycho-social support approaches to allow social workers to better understand – and support – returning families.

‘Until recently, people did not share any of their problems with anyone’ recalls Ms. Gulnoza Tashmatova, a confident and compassionate local figure recently appointed as a community focal point on women’s issues by the district administration. After 10 years of work within her community, she reflects on the evolution of social dynamics in her neighborhood: ‘they now come to my office or call me to share their grievances. With the training, we now know how to better help them, it is a big step!’ 

More than 200 people live in Ms. Tashmatova’s neighborhood. She now sees herself as their confidant.

She concludes: ‘Dealing with returnees poses a lot of challenges. We have learnt to start with empathy, showing them that we are on their side. We can then start addressing their issues one by one.’

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