HFH Kyrgyzstan and partners help mentally disabled get the help they need—in a safe, decent home -- Habitat for Humanity Int'l 1

HFH Kyrgyzstan and partners help mentally disabled get the help they need—in a safe, decent home

By Theresa Waldrop


Jumabubu Kenjekaraeva (from right) sits with her daughter, Akylay, and sons Rinat and Izat in their home, which was renovated as part of a Habitat for Humanity Kyrgyzstan project that helps mentally disabled people and their families.


Jumabubu Kenjekaraeva’s husband left her and their three children about eight years ago, when the youngest child, Akylay, was only 1 year old. The father couldn’t handle the stress of having a little one, as well as a special-needs child.

Jumabubu coped as well as she could, raising Akylay and her brothers—Izat, now 22 and an epileptic with intellectual disabilities, and Rinat, now 27—on her own. But her salary from Bishkek Water, a state-run company in the capital of Kyrgyzstan, didn’t go far. Certainly not far enough to make much-needed repairs to their two-room house.

The roof began leaking about 11 years ago. By the time the family applied for help from Habitat for Humanity Kyrgyzstan, the roof was concave. Whenever it rained, water poured into Izat’s room. The floor was ruined, and mold was spreading.

Now Jumabubu and her family have a warm, dry and safe place to live. They are among the first to be helped by Habitat for Humanity Kyrgyzstan and its partners in a project that aims not only to keep the mentally disabled at home and out of dehumanizing institutions, but also to provide medical services and therapy.

The project began in 2007, after the Open Society Institute approached Habitat with the idea of renovating houses while also giving the families social and psychological support, said Aibek Mukambetov, public health program director of the Soros Foundation Kyrgyzstan, which supports OSI’s projects in the country. While OSI helps with funding, the local NGO Family and Society provides in-home care, therapy and even job training.

Jumabubu’s story is a common one in Kyrgyzstan, an impoverished, mountainous country in Central Asia.

“Single mothers make up a huge part of our clients,” said Lilia Panteleeva, a psychiatrist and the director of Family and Society.

Often, fathers simply cannot cope with the stress of raising a special-needs child and the stigma and social isolation of raising a mentally disabled one, she said.
Of the 20 families served in the first two phases of the pilot project, 11 were headed by single mothers, according to Indira Aseyin, Habitat for Humanity Kyrgyzstan’s program development manager.

Under Soviet rule, the mentally ill typically were shunted off to institutions, where living conditions are “often in clear violation of basic human rights,” according to the Open Society Institute. It’s a practice that is still widespread in eastern and central Europe and in the former Soviet Union region. Only three or four of these institutions exist in Kyrgyzstan, and so, patients not only live in deplorable conditions, they may also be far away from family.

Mental illness is a stigma in many places in the world, but the decades-long practice of sequestering the mentally ill in Kyrgyzstan has resulted in misinformation and ignorance so widespread that “some people think you can get this disease just from talking to mentally ill people,” Mukambetov said.

The project designers aim to help rectify that by keeping patients in their communities. In some cases, improvements in living conditions alone can help reduce the social isolation these families face.

“After the renovations, families started inviting others over to their house,” Panteleeva said. “That reduces the stigma.”

The third phase of the pilot project began last year and will run until 2012 in Bishkek and the surrounding district, serving 45 more families. The goal is to expand it beyond that, and to convince the government that it is a model worth supporting financially.

Last year, Family and Society and the Soros Foundation monitored the government’s spending. They found that a lot of money goes not for treatment and social support but for infrastructure of the big mental institutions, Panteleeva said.

“Now we can show the government that we don’t need to add more money,” she said. “We just need to transfer it” from spending on the institutions to spending it on local solutions.

Habitat Kyrgyzstan did not design its programs specifically to target women; neither was it the focus of the strategy to work with women or women-headed households. However, when Habitat Kyrgyzstan introduced microfinance projects, more and more loan applications came from women. In fact, 300 of the 780 applications in fiscal year 2009 were made by women. In many cases, these women have husbands who work—sometimes as far away as Russia or Kazakhstan—and send money home but leave the day-to-day responsibilities to them. These women bear the responsibility for improving the situation at home, while also being actively involved in monitoring and assisting with work in communal areas of the condominiums.

And so, although Habitat Kyrgyzstan does not intentionally focus on women’s issues, its programs and partnerships provide life-changing support to the women of Kyrgyzstan who are raising families, creating communities and building better futures for themselves and their families.

Theresa Waldrop is a writer-editor in Program Communications at Habitat for Humanity International, based in Atlanta.