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Saying ‘Welcome Home’ to Returnees in Uzbekistan

As a school psychologist and social worker of Uzbekistan’s eastern city of Beshariq, Ziroat Dehqonova has faced a recurring issue over the last years. The children and families returning from conflict areas such as Iraq and Syria struggle to find their place in society. “Their most common challenge is the lack of social connections,” she says.

In the school’s social help centre, she works with children, women, parents and other makhalla (neighbourhood) residents to address their personal and professional struggles. In May Ms Dehqonova and 120 other social workers of Uzbekistan’s Ferghana Valley were trained in empathetic communication, non-offensive and non-discriminatory language and psychosocial support. The aim is to better involve returnees in community activities and help them find work. 

The training was part of UNDP’s Prevention of Violent Extremism efforts, which include reintegration and rehabilitation initiatives easing the return of the families of foreign fighters from Syria and Iraq to their home countries. By training 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 extremism and other divisive narratives.

The trainings are part of a larger UNDP 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 says.  

From 2019 to 2021, Uzbekistan repatriated 531 of its citizens from Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan. In Ms Dehqonova’s neighbourhood, a block of 74 community apartments was temporarily earmarked by the government for those in need.

Woman dressed in black stands by a white board.
Gulnoza Tashmatova was recently appointed a community focal point on women’s issues to ease the transition of returning families.Photo: UNDP Uzbekistan

As with other countries in the initiative, UNDP’s work in Uzbekistan is carried out with the local civil society. It’s a crucial element which ensures that local perspectives, in particular women’s, inform and guide the work.

In Uzbekistan, UNDP joined forces with the Ferghana regional branch of the Republican Center for Social Adaptation of Children, which 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 psychosocial support to allow social workers to better understand and support returning families.

“Until recently, people did not share any of their problems with anyone,” recalls 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 neighbourhood. “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 returnees live in Ms Tashmatova’s neighbourhood. She now sees herself as their confidant.

“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.”

Source: undp