by Randy Vernon, Country Leader, Uzbekistan
You may recall that Samarkand was on the travel bucket list of George Bailey, hero of the film It’s a Wonderful Life. And with good reason. For thousands of years Samarkand has been a cultural, political, and key commercial center on the Silk Road, home to scholars, scientists, emperors, theologians, artisans, and people from all walks of life. In 1992 it also became home to REI staff and volunteers, working primarily in education.
Uzbekistan was a former Soviet republic, and after attaining independence in 1991 its first president was still imbued with many Soviet attitudes and perspectives. NGOs (non-government organizations, roughly equivalent to non-profits) were initially allowed in, then kicked out a few years later. (REI was not expelled from the country but chose to leave voluntarily at that time in 2008.)
Now, with a new president, there is a fresh wind blowing, bringing new liberties and a desire to become a more important player on the world stage. Ron and Jeanine Wiley, longtime REI staff in Central Asia, were invited to move from Kazakhstan to Uzbekistan to help open the new Samarkand International University of Technology (SIUT), at the request of the rector, who has been a friend to REI for many years. Ron and Jeanine agreed, and we were off, chapter two of our work in a wonderful country.
Wonderful, yes, but complex. In a country about the size of California, with roughly 35 million inhabitants, there are over 100 different languages spoken by nearly as many ethnicities. Russian, Uzbek, and Tajik are the primary languages in Samarkand. Islam is followed by 93% of the population, but 4% of Uzbeks observe the Orthodox church traditions, while the final 3% self-identify as Catholics—and there are, of course, other minority religions.
As the world’s current lingua franca, the English language is taking on an increased importance. One consequence is that all classes at SIUT are taught in English. This emphasis on English, and the creation of SIUT, has opened doors of opportunity for REI staff and volunteers. When Randy and Jill Vernon “aged out” of opportunities to continue to serve in Vietnam, where they had worked with REI for several years, Ron invited them to come to Samarkand, to teach English at SIUT and to lead our growing team. They accepted the invitation and arrived in Samarkand in early February 2023 to take on this new role.
Teaching English at the university gives opportunity to initiate relationships with fellow staff and students, which can be further developed outside of class during school activities or personal times. As with all REI service, our desire is to relate to our new friends holistically, seeking to build them up on every level, professionally and personally.
Others have also responded to the opportunity. Three young men will be joining the team at SIUT in August, 2023. Zabdiyel Tan and Titus Dallmann, first-timers, will begin their two-year Apprentice program, while Seth Vidrio, who has already served with REI in Indonesia for two years, will come as Staff-in-Training. We also have a young couple, Brad and Rachel Fitzgerald, who have committed to the team. Brad should be finishing up his Ph.D. in electrical engineering in December. They hope to join us after Brad receives his degree and they complete REI’s pre-field training and overseas prep.
Other opportunities beckon. We hope to explore possibilities for medical training within the next few months. Since SIUT also has a business school, business professionals should soon have the opportunity to share their expertise at the university, something that REI has done for many years in Vietnam and elsewhere. We have also been asked to provide teachers at the K-12 level, which will provide support for the children of the international staff serving at the university.
In short, the door is swinging wide open for REI in Uzbekistan. We are delighted to once more serve in this country, seeking, as always, to build people to build their nation.